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Prisoner of Conscious: An Interview with Talib Kweli

Prisoner of Conscious: An Interview with Talib Kweli

“I think that I’m definitely a fan of focus, and the more people stay focused the better world we have.”

Rapper Talib Kweli has been in the hip-hop game for over 15 years now. Staying fresh for that long means reinventing oneself over and over again, something Kweli has not been afraid to do. From his beginnings with Mos Def as Black Star to his work with Hi-Tek and his intensely personal, yet socially aware solo albums, Kweli has managed to transform himself into one of the most influential rappers around.  The 36 year-old will make a stop—with a full band—at the Town Ballroom next Thursday (May 31) in support of his upcoming album Prisoner of Conscious, which features his latest single “Distractions.” Prisoner of Conscious picks up where his last record, 2011’s Gutter Rainbows left off, but in an interview this week the rapper explained that Conscious was a much more in-depth project, one that he was working on even while in the process of making Gutter Rainbows. Buffalo rapper Chae Hawk—inked up with a Black Star tattoo, and with his own highly anticipated record, Dance Party For The Heavy Hearted, coming out this summer—will open the show next Thursday. —cory perla

Artvoice: Your current tour is the Prisoner of Conscious tour. What can you tell me about your upcoming album Prisoner of Conscious?

Talib Kweli: I was working on Prisoner of Conscious at the same time I was creating Gutter Rainbows . The songs on Gutter Rainbows kind of felt like they were timely and ready to be heard now, but also seemed outdated while I still worked to put Prisoner of Conscious together. Gutter Rainbows was essentially a prelude.

AV: The title of the record really interests me; I feel like it could be interpreted in a couple of different ways.

TK: It’s spelled like conscious as in consciousness, like what goes on in your head and how you interpret it, but all good titles should be open to interpretation. People are going to take different things out of it. You might intend it to be taken in a certain way, but people are going to take it whichever way their experience tells them to.

AV: I just watched your new video for “Distractions” and I read the message that you wrote to go along with the video and I found it really intriguing. You talk about how TV and Twitter and little things act as distractions. Do you think distraction is a negative thing or can it be a source of inspiration?

TK: I think for the most part distractions are negative and this comes from someone who participates in plenty of distractions. I think that I’m definitely a fan of focus, and the more people stay focused the better world we have.

AV: You talk about the Arab Spring revolution and Occupy Wall Street in the description of “Distractions.” Were these worldwide revolutions inspiration for the new record?

TK: I was watching a lot of TV while the Arab Spring revolution was happening. I wrote that song sort of under the influence of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring line in ”Distractions” was probably the first line that I wrote. A lot of my songs come from me thinking of a lyric and then building the song around that lyric. “Distractions” was built around a lyric about that revolution. It wasn’t my intention to write something so socially conscious when I wrote that song but I liked the beat and I wanted to write something that was just hard hitting.

AV: Gutter Rainbows seemed intensely personal. From what I can tell from what I’ve read about Prisoner of Conscious and from listening to “Distractions” is that Prisoner of Consious seems to be more outwardly focused. Does it feel that way to you?

TK: I think it feels like that because of “Distractions.” Once you get the album I think it’s going to feel more personal. I don’t think writing socially conscious lyrics is anything I really try to do. I definitely tried to do that way earlier in my career, but now that I’ve built a career on top of that it’s much less of a focus and now I like to focus on making music that makes people smile, making music that makes people happy. It’s just in my DNA to talk about what is going on in the world, I almost can’t help that.

AV: As always, there are rumors that you might be reuniting with Mos Def for another Black Star album. Is that something you’re interested in?

TK: We have come together over the last year or so and done a few songs and it just feels good. It feels natural, it feels organic. But when you start to put together an album you have to deal with contracts and everything and then that’s when it starts to feel forced. I’m certainly interested in another Black Star album, but Yasiin and I at this point—especially when it comes to creating songs and making music—are different. So right now it’s more of what it started as, which is us getting together and doing songs on stage. 

AV: You do a lot of collaborative work. In your opinion, how important is collaboration in hip hop?

TK: I think it’s at an all time high. At this point it’s really more about the collaboration, it’s closer to how jazz used to be, where people used to come in and sit in on sessions and you just kind of add what you’ve brought to the session. Look at any of the most popular artists on the radio like Drake or Lil Wayne, or Rick Ross, they’re all about collaboration on their tracks. 

AV: You’re known for having a really unique flow and delivery. How did you develop that? Are you conscious of this flow or is it something that just happens naturally?

TK: I’d say my flow has evolved but I think it’s based on me just being a writer. Before I did music for a living I was writing in a notebook and I had to find beats to match the rhymes. I think my flow stems from that. Having it sound one way in my head and then having to fit it to the beat, I feel like I’ve gotten better at that over the years. Now-a-days I’m more influenced by performing on stage night after night after night. When I write a song I keep thinking how it’s going to sound performed and I write to feed that.

Check out the video for “Distractions” below and don’t miss Talib Kweli when he performs live at the Town Ballroom on Thursday, May 31.