A far cry from the image-driven gangster rappers of the late 1990s, emcee Talib Kweli strives to “reconcile left-wing idealism with the anything-goes attitude of hip hop,” according to critic Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times. He seems “determined to move hip hop past materialism,” noted Jon Pareles in the New York Times. An emcee “with a social conscience, a liquid flow, and an unending gift of wordplay,” Kweli was “one of the most astute and prominent voices in the hip-hop underground,” remarked Ken Capobianco in the Boston Globe. After releasing Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star with successful emcee Mos Def in 1998 and Reflection Eternal with deejay Hi-Tek in 2000, however, Kweli was ready to break out of the underground. His full-length solo debut, Quality, released in 2002, was hailed as one of the most important hip-hop releases of the year, effectively bringing him into the hip-hop limelight.
Born Talib Kweli (“student of truth” in Arabic) Greene in Brooklyn, New York, Kweli was the first of two sons born to a literate family—his father is a sociology professor and his mother is an English language professor. He began writing poetry, short stories, and plays in elementary school. Despite his obvious talents in reading and writing, however, Kweli aspired to a future in sports—he set his sights set on becoming a baseball player.
He started writing hip-hop rhymes in junior high school to connect with the “in crowd.” “I wasn’t really one of the cool kids,” Kweli said in his official website biography. “Hip hop became a way for me to write and be cool; it gave me a language to speak to my peers.” In high school Kweli befriended a boy named Dante Smith, who would later be known as the emcee Mos Def. The two hung out together in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, where the hottest emcees from New York City’s five boroughs gathered to battle in verse. Kweli later studied experimental theater at New York University.
Kweli met Tony Cottrell, known as deejay Hi-Tek, on a 1994 trip to Cincinnati. Hi-Tek was producing a local hip-hop group called Mood at the time, and asked Kweli to lend his talents to the group’s 1997 album Doom. Later that year, Kweli and Hi-Tek recorded a single called “Fortified Live,” which they released on the Rawkus record label, calling themselves Reflection Eternal. The single was featured on the first volume of the Soundbombing compilation series, which propelled it to underground-hit status. Kweli’s work was also included on the popular Lyricist Lounge compilation series. He later appeared on Hi-Tek’s solo album, Hi-Teknology, with the songs “Get Back—Part 2” and ’Theme From Hi-Tek.”
Hot on the heels of “Fortified Live,” Kweli regrouped with old school chum Mos Def to record their full-length 1998 release, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Born Talib Kweli Greene c. 1973 in Brooklyn, NY. Education: Studied experimental theater at New York University.
Began composing rhymes as a teen; met Dante Smith, a.k.a. Mos Def; released “Fortified Live” with deejay Hi-Tek on Rawkus Records, 1997; released Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, 1998; appeared on the Hip-Hop for Respect EP, 1999; toured with the Roots, De La Soul, Common, Pharoahe Monch, Biz Markie, Erykah Badu, and Dilated Peoples, among others, 2000–; released full-length album Reflection Eternal with deejay Hi-Tek, 2000; featured on the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Riot!, 2002; released solo debut, Quality, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Rawkus Records, 676 Broadway, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10012. Website—Talib Kweli Official Website: http://www.talibkweli.com.
on Rawkus. The album was lauded by critics and fans alike and set a new standard for serious, socially conscious hip-hop. “The premise was conscious, righteous underground hip hop…,” Rob Sheffield wrote in his Rolling Stone review, “and hearing was believing.”
Def and Kweli also own an Afrocentric bookstore in Brooklyn. When Brooklyn’s oldest black-owned bookstore, Nkiru Books, fell on hard times, the two took it over and expanded it into the Nkiru Center for Education and Culture, a nonprofit literacy and cultural awareness center. Neither artist is involved with the foundation’s day-to-day operations; although Kweli worked at the store for five years in his youth, his mother now runs things for them. “We come from the same place and we’re into the same things,” Kweli said of his friendship with Mos Def at the Onion online. “We appreciate the same sort of things. We’re like brother.”
Kweli was heavily involved in a musical project to protest the 1999 shooting death of Haitian immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers. He and 40 other emcees, including Mos Def, Kool G. Rap, De La Soul, Common, and Dead Prez, put together the Hip-Hop for Respect EP, which targeted the issue of police brutality. Kweli also was featured on the 2002 AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Riot!, which features the songs of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who died of the disease.
Kweli spent most of the year 2000 on the road, touring with a number of hot hip-hop acts. He appeared on the Okayplayer Tour, which was headlined by the Roots; and the Spitkicker Tour, which was headlined by the De La Soul and featured Common, Pharoahe Monch, and Biz Markie. On stage, Kweli is “rarely anything less than entertaining, whether… laying out the virtues of feminism or promising to ’make the squares dance,’” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in a New York Times review. He also toured with Erykah Badu and Dilated Peoples, who “just couldn’t match the sheer energy and lyrical mastery of opener Talib Kweli,” according to Joshua Klein in a 2000 Chicago Tribune concert review.
In that same year Kweli and deejay Hi-Tek rejoined forces to release their first full-length album together, which they called Reflection Eternal. They took the name from the book Monument Eternal, written by Alice Coltrane, widow of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. “I read it when I was like 15 and liked what she had to say,” Kweli said in an interview with Rashaun Hall in Billboard. “We became ’Reflection Eternal’ because we’re a reflection of our ancestors. We’re also a reflection of what’s going on now.” Kweli produced all 20 tracks on the album, which features diverse cameos from former South African President Nelson Mandela and young hip-hop artist Xhibit, among others. Billboard’s Michael Paoletta called the release a “sonic masterpiece” that “shows how encompassing and intelligent hip hop can be.”
After making his name with Hi-Tek in Reflection Eternal and Mos Def in Black Star, Kweli stepped out on his own to release Quality, his full-length solo debut, in 2002. The hip-hop community cringed when it was announced that Kweli would be working with a commercially popular group of producers, including Kanye West, Jay Dee, Megahertz, deejay Quik, Ayatollah, and deejay Scratch, instead of reteaming with Hi-Tek. Though he was going it alone, Kweli remained true to the skills and politics for which he had become known. “I wanna write the songs that right the wrong,” Kweli raps on the song “Stand to the Side.” On “Joy,” Kweli and Mos Def give praise to their children. Emcees Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought appear on “Guerilla Monsoon.” Despite limited radio play of the album’s first single, “Waitin’ for the Deejay,” Chicago Tribune music critic Joshua Klein declared Quality “one of the strongest, smartest, and most exciting hip-hop releases of the year.”
(With Mos Def) Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Rawkus, 1998.
(With Hi-Tek) Reflection Eternal, Priority, 2000.
Quality, MCA, 2002.
Billboard, September 30, 2000, p. 28; October 14, 2000, p.29; October 28, 2000, p. 26; May 26, 2001, p. 25.
Boston Globe, December 13, 2002, p. E14.
Chicago Tribune, May 10, 2000, p. 5.2; November 21, 2002, 27; November 24, 2002, p. 7.4.
New York Times, September 8, 2002, p. 2.75; November 25, 2002, p. 8.
Rolling Stone, October 29, 1998, p. 77; December 24, 1998-January 7,1999, p. 159; October 26, 2000, p. 112; January 23, 2003, p. 64.
Village Voice, November 3, 1998, p. 128; January 15-21, 2003, p. 130.
“Talib Kweli,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 20, 2003).
“Talib Kweli,” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ixtra/hiphop/talibkweli.shtml (February 20, 2003).
“Talib Kweli,” Onion A.V. Club, http://www.theonionavclub.com/avclub3640/avfeature_3640.html (February 20, 2003).
“Talib Kweli,” PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/k/kwelitalib-quality.shtml (February 20, 2003).
“Talib Kweli,” RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/talibkweli (February 20, 2003).
Talib Kweli Official Website, http://www.talibkweli.com (February 20, 2003).
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