In the balkanized landscape of contemporary hip-hop, there may not be anyone who moves as easily among the genre's different levels and camps as Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli.
Kweli first emerged with 1998's Black Star, his now cult-classic collaboration with fellow MC Mos Def. Amidst roughly a dozen solo albums and mixtapes since, Kweli has collaborated with everyone from megastar Kanye West ("Get Em High") to underground agitators the Coup ("My Favorite Mutiny"). Along with Chicago-based colleague Common, Kweli has become a symbol of "conscious" rap among commercial hip-hop artists, famously blessed as such by Jay-Z on "Moment of Clarity": "If skills sold/Truth be told/I'd probably be/Lyrically/Talib Kweli."
Kweli will be in Memphis this weekend as a featured guest at the third Grammy GPS: A Road Map for Today's Music Biz, an annual event sponsored by the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy, which will be held at the Stax Music Academy and Museum of American Soul Music on Saturday, September 29th.
"To be honest with you, I'm interested in meeting people with the Grammy organization and learning more about it. So, for me, it's a mutual thing," Kweli says of his appearance. "I can impart some wisdom and advice and speak on my experience as an artist. But I'm also looking for a mutual exchange of information."
Kweli will be interviewed by K-97 DJ Big Sue at 1 p.m. and participate on a "State of the Industry" panel at 2:30 p.m. with other guests, including Sub Pop Records co-founder Jonathan Poneman, who will deliver the event's keynote presentation at 11:30 a.m. Kweli's discussion is partly on the theme of "social consciousness" in hip-hop, a topic he seems conflicted about.
"Most people don't listen to music to receive information or to hear about how messed up the world is," he says. "I tell my fans all the time, you think you're my fan because you like my content. You're my fan because I'm good at what I do. If I wasn't, you wouldn't care."
Kweli acknowledges that the hip-hop market has changed since the days when boundary-pushing artists such as Public Enemy and De La Soul could debut as mainstream stars, but he blames the industry — the media, the record labels, radio, television — more than the artists themselves for that evolution. "Any business that's a capitalist business, you want to sell the most and make it easier," Kweli says. "The industry has to work more to define and sell something like Public Enemy."
To Kweli, who mentions a recent collaboration with Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane, the differences between rap artists of different regions and styles is overstated:
"Boots [Riley] from the Coup and Kanye West have more similarities than differences. They're both young black men who grew up loving hip-hop and speak for their [different] communities. Some rappers grew up around the trap [slang for drug-dealing areas]. I grew up in a politically motivated neighborhood in Brooklyn. I'm able to look behind the curtain and see the similarities. The job of an artist is to be honest with themselves and to entertain. Too often the social responsibility is placed on the shoulders of artists."
Kweli has a new mixtape, Attack the Block, with DJ Z-Trip. You can access it via talibkweli.tumblr.com. A new proper solo album, Prisoner of Consciousness, is on the horizon.
Grammy GPS will also present panels on producing and engineering and promoting artists from small markets. The event runs from 10:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. It's free for Recording Academy members and $35 for the general public. The conference will be followed by a closing reception at 5:30 at the Stax Museum that will feature performances by the Bo-Keys with Al Kapone, roots-rock duo Deering & Down, and four young Memphis rappers — Dutchess, Lvkah Lvciano, Russ P., and Preauxx. DJ Charlie White will keep things moving throughout.
For more information on Grammy GPS, see grammygps.com or contact the Memphis chapter at 525-1340.
Memphis Means Music
October is "Memphis Means Music" month. So declares the Memphis Music Foundation, which promotes the annual initiative, bringing together many organizations, genres, and parts of town in a month-long celebration of the city's music past, present, and future. Check out memphismeansmusic.com for a calendar of events. And check back to this space next week for more information on upcoming "Memphis Means Music" events.