“When I first started off, I never thought of this as a career — I just wanted to rhyme.”
If one hip-hop album crystallized the schism between underground authenticity and mainstream monotony, it was Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star (Rawkus). In addition to unprecedented intellectual miracles like “Definition” and “Respiration,” the release packed cuts such as “Hater Players” that pegged the sentiments of rap purists. For those of us who followed the subterranean gospel of Mos and Kweli, interest in Jay-Z and comparable materialistic contemporary nonsense faded quicker than Ja Rule.
Save for featuring Justin Timberlake on his last release, Kweli never compromised his craft to rise above the underground, and yet he became one of hip-hop’s elite few bling-free mainstream rappers. Even while evolving as an artist and an entrepreneur, he’s remained the same Brooklyn cat who reaches “past the star status that you’re grabbing at,” and whose “battle raps blast your ass back to your natural habitats.” I caught Kweli by phone from Miami — where he’s on tour with his live back-up band, the Rhythm Roots All Stars — to see how it feels to be (what often seems like) the lone black star shining in an abyss of mediocrity.
There’s been a lot of talk that the success of your most recent disc, last year’s Eardrum, which debuted at #2 on Billboard’s album chart, was the long-awaited proof that sincere hip-hop can sell. Is that how you saw it?
That’s definitely my view, but, to be more of a realist, my success comes gradually with every album. I consistently move up on the charts, and I consistently sell more units. Not to take anything away from myself, but because the industry is tanking so fast, it makes my success look a lot bigger than it is. It exposes the myth that a lot of these other artists are so far away in numbers from guys like me.
You’re more than just an artist at this point, since you own Blacksmith Music. How has your role changed?
I’m still in the studio and on tour too much to have any office other than my laptop and my cellphone, but the difference is that this is a career for me now. When I first started off, I never thought of this as a career — I just wanted to rhyme. I just wanted people to think that I was nice.
When you, Mos Def, and Hi-Tek put out the Black Star album in 1998, did you realize the impact that it would have in pushing the looming rift between the underground and the mainstream?
When I put out those albums, there was nothing that represented me in mainstream hip-hop. I was still buying vinyl, going to the clubs, and listening to college radio. We had the right timing in that a lot of other people felt the same way, and Rawkus was able to make everything look a lot bigger than it was. It doesn’t work like that anymore.