Let’s Get Unconscious
Byline: Kylee Swenson
One half of hip-hop duo Black Star (with rapper and actor Mos Def), Talib Kweli is a little tired of being pegged as a “conscious rapper.” It’s true that he’s keen to social and intellectual issues. Four years ago, he and Mos Def bought a Brooklyn bookstore, Nkiru Books, and turned it into a nonprofit organization promoting literacy. But his second solo album, Quality (Rawkus, 2002), is not all message and no music. Kweli carefully picked tracks from producers including Ayatollah, Jay Dee, DJ Quik, DJ Scratch and Megahertz. Then, he brought in guest stars Mos Def, Common, Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, Bilal and Res.
Of the tracks that Ayatollah gave him, Kweli picked two that resonated most. “When I did the track ‘The Proud,'” says Ayatollah, “I wasn’t even thinking about Talib in that equation. I was just in my crib, I threw on a Marvin Gaye record, and I just liked the feel that the record gave off. If I’m in a thoughtful mood, I’ll do a deep, thoughtful track. If I’m in an angry mood, I do them rough, rugged tracks. If I want to party, I do a party vibe. But the zone I was in when I did those joints was like a more personal vibe. I brought out a more sensitive side of Kweli to say something about September 11th on ‘The Proud’ and about his children on ‘Joy.'”
Most prized in Ayatollah’s studio are his Gemini UMX-7 mixer, Technics SL-1200s, Akai MPC60 sampler (his first MPC60 was borrowed from the legendary Marley Marl) and a Roland MC-303 Groovebox. His hidden weapon is his scratching skills. “A lot of people don’t know it, but I can do all those crazy tweaks and rubs and crabs and flares,” he says. “I go on a tangent of making up my own scratches.”
But with Kweli, what Ayatollah found was most important was creating music that would support but not hide behind Kweli’s message. “With Quality, I didn’t just pick tracks I like to listen to, but tracks that I sound good on and I’ll be able to flow on,” says Kweli. Fortunately, Ayatollah’s music matched Kweli’s lyrical style. “The music brings the lyrics out a little bit more so that it doesn’t lose the listener,” says Ayatollah. “But at the same time, it’s not too complex. It just complements his lyrics correctly. It’s like a lyrical marriage with the beat.”
Kweli’s lyrics are far beyond the flossin’ ‘n’ ballin’ mentality. His recommended reading for inspiration includes Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. But Kweli isn’t trying to make political spoken-word music either. “I don’t want the message to supersede the musicality,” he says. “I want you to feel the music first. The message is secondary. I think that hip-hop is so out of balance now that if someone says anything that has any sort of social relevance, all of a sudden, he’s super-message-positive MC. That’s a struggle that I fight with. My music in the past has put the message above the musicality, and I’m trying to get far away from that. I’ve proven that I have something to say and that I’m relevant. Now, it’s not about what I can say, but more about how I can make you feel.”
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