Since making a name through partnerships with Cincinnati DJ Hi-Tek and fellow rapper Mos Def in Black Star, Talib Kweli has gone on to release a critically acclaimed solo album, Quality, and hit the road with traveling fests and his own headlining tour.
When POLLSTAR caught up with him, he was in Cincinnati working on some new material with Hi-Tek, with whom he hasn't collaborated since their Reflection Eternal team-up. The new songs may or may not end up on a new album, Kweli said.
"The way stuff is right now with music, we're so used to artists having to be commodities and be products," he said. "I'm just an artist; I'm just making some music. If it comes out fly then I'll put it out."
Kweli speaks a great deal about the artistry of performing hip-hop, which makes his involvement with corporate-sponsored touring festivals that are primarily concerned with selling soft drinks seem somehow odd.
"As much as I see what this industry is, I'm not a bitter artist; I just know what it is," he said. "I'm not going to be fooled into thinking I'm getting involved with something romantic. ... I get something out of it, too. I use it to the best of my ability."
So far, Kweli has played dates with the Vans Warped Tour and the past two years of the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour. The first year of Sprite, he was on the second stage, which meant he was playing in a parking lot at the same time higher profile acts were on the main stage.
"That started as an idea in an office, but how it actually pans out, it ends up becoming really disrespectful to the artists who have to perform on that stage," Kweli said. "I didn't feel like I belonged on that second stage last year. I felt like I worked too hard to be on that stage.
"I understand the dilemma; there wasn't really a place for me on the main stage. They had Nappy Roots and N.E.R.D. and Jay-Z and 311, these are all artists who have a greater sales history than me. But the reason I was on the tour in the first place wasn't because I had a hit record out, but I'm known to give good shows. They didn't want to lose me ... so we worked it out.
"After Nappy Roots went on, after N.E.R.D. went on, they made an announcement from the main stage that I was performing, and they made sure I didn't go on while another one of the bigger groups was performing. It worked out. It won't always work out I guess."
And sometimes it doesn't work out at all. Kweli mentioned a corporate-sponsored tour a few years back that featured Black Star, Biz Markie, and Black Eyed Peas that he had to bow out of.
"I did a tour, this is the dumbest shit I ever did in my life, called the 'IYDKYDG Tour,' which some idiot at Coca-Cola came up with a couple years ago. It stands for 'If You Don't Know, You Don't Go,' and they were throwing these secret concerts where if you brought in a Coke can, you'd get in for free," he said.
November 3, 2003
The problem was that no one knew, so the organizers had to stand outside clubs and beg people to come.
"We were doing these small clubs and there was like 20 people in them. This was one of the most disrespectful, embarrassing things I've ever had to do in my career. ... I drink Coke and Sprite and Minute Maid and all that shit, but I don't feel like I should be the spokesperson for it.
"Even though we were getting paid to perform in front of nobody, it wasn't worth it for me to perform in front of nobody. I felt like there were better things I could be doing with my time."
After the release of Quality in 2002, he was able to head up his own tour, in which he wasn't limited by the expectations of corporate organizers. Kweli concerts are a little abnormal; he describes them more as a traveling party with old records, dancing and, yes, him rapping.
However, he said, the timing may not have been right for his first headlining tour, which featured Blackalicious supporting.
"I think I was ready as an artist, but I don't think the audience was ready for me to headline a tour," he said. "When I got out to the West Coast and places like Denver, certain shows that [Blackalicious] didn't show up at, I got promoters telling me they got people returning tickets because Blackalicious wasn't showing.
"That was news to me because I thought I was bringing everybody and it turns out both of us were. In certain markets, I needed them, and I didn't know that I needed them."
Since then, he's had a higher profile slot on the Liquid Mix main stage and played select dates on the Warped Tour, which undoubtedly won him some new fans.
His agent, Creative Artists Agency's Paola Palazzo, said Kweli has a strong and growing buzz on college campuses, where he'll be doing some one-offs this fall. And, she said, he has a couple of dates with jam-funk band Galactic lined up.
"He was confirmed to do the Bonnaroo NE show, which of course got canceled, but the fact that he can do the Warped Tour, a Bonnaroo, Galactic, Audiotistic here in L.A., just shows that he connects with so many different levels," Palazzo said. "For me, being an agent, I'm really excited to have an artist that can cross over like that."
A new album and tour are expected in 2004, and Palazzo said Kweli hopefully will be on the next Spitkicker outing.