Killer promotions, seductive advertising and the promise of spots on every crap radio station nationwide must be quite tempting to any underground hip-hop star who receives the offer. Talib Kweli is a prime example of a musician who thus far has resisted the carrots dangling in front of him, keeping a safe distance from charges of "sellout" while still racking up sales figures.
Scaling his way through the underground Brooklyn hip-hop scene, Kweli's energetic tracks and fancy friends like Kanye West, Mos Def and Norah Jones have earned him not only bragging rights but success in his genre. Now owner of his own Blacksmith label, Kweli refuses to sign his soul over to major brands. Does this classify him as an "alternative" artist? He'd like to think not.
"What you hear on the radio is not hip-hop -- that's the alternative," he says. "What I do is still very much rooted in hip-hop."
Back to Minneapolis for the third time this year, Kweli returns for the sophomore installment of Hip Hop Live!, a fusion of lyrical MCs and the 10-piece Rhythm Roots All-Stars band. The All-Stars have backgrounds in jazz, rock and Latin, meaning the music of each MC will receive a unique twist. Mississippi rapper, model and actor David Banner will precede Kweli, along with North Carolina's Little Brother.
Kweli says he's looking forward to playing with a live band and giving his songs new layers and texture. As he's gained experience over the years, Kweli says, he's been looking for opportunities to be backed by a live ensemble. "Hip-hop's roots are made up of the MC and the DJ, but in order to grow as a musician, you need to be willing to try something different."
For Hip Hop Live!, Kweli says his set is likely to include some freestyle moments, as well as classics like "Get By" and "Hot Thing." As for new songs, Kweli says he has a couple lined up, but he'll be counting mostly on the All-Stars to mix things up. "When you play a show, a lot of people only get really into the songs they know," he says. "But with the band, songs really come to life, meaning even if they've never heard a song, they're still going to appreciate it."
Kweli's sixth album "Eardrum" was released in 2007, his first on Blacksmith. Sometimes strictly political and sometimes straight-up party, Kweli's lyrics bounce with motives and morals. Contrary to mainstream hip-hop culture, his songs salute women, identify with hungry folks on city streets and pay tribute to his two children.
While strong currents of inspiration for the black community can be heard in Kweli's music, he makes a point to say his songs are not meant to resonate with a specific race. "While [black self-love and self-worth] may be the theme for my entire body of work, I'm not speaking to just one person," he says. "That's why music is right. Everyone can relate to it."