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February 16, 2017
Talib Kweli is arguably the most prolific lyricist to grace the hip hop stage, not only because he is a talented writer, but because his background is as unique and complex as his lyrics. On February 15, 2017, he sat and discussed his life with 9th Wonder, who is a producer and legend in his own right. The interview took place at Duke University’s Forum for Scholars & Publics in a room fitting about 40 people. The mood was relaxed as people took their place on the floor, against the walls, and filled every seat. It felt like we were peeking into a chat with two great friends who hadn’t caught up with each other in a long time. We were just happy to be sitting in the room to witness history as Mr. Kweli recounted memories from his early days.
“Hip Hop raised me to the same degree as my parents did. I’m the son of Brenda and Perry Greene, but I’m a child of NYC.” Mr. Kweli described how he originally got involved in hip hop by being an avid reader and poet. Surely his upbringing as the son of a college professor living in Park Slope gave him the strong educational background to attend NYU and room with Grammy-nominated John Forté. In addition to his educational background, he recalled listening to a diverse range of music, from David Bowie to Grand Master Flash and Cool and the Gang. As a teenager, Mr. Kweli attended a boarding school and interned with Puff Daddy at Bad Boy Records. His early experiences with hip hop mixed with a middle class lifestyle exposed him to a deeper understanding of the utility of using music to deliver a message and connect to diverse audiences.
While chatting, 9th Wonder asked, “Let’s talk about the racial component. You’re as black as they come. When you were with Rawkus and you started to do tours — Russel Simmons talks about this in Hip Hop Evolution — there is this white space, a hole in the market [filled with] ‘alternative’ White kids. Your album is called Black Star and you’re going out on the road and it’s White kids…”
Mr. Kweli responded, “Let’s talk about this from a purely economic point of view. White kids are the ones with the money. So whether you’re going to see Gucci Mane or going to see Drake or going to see Black Star, it’s going to be a mostly White audience. There’s been a shift. I went to boarding school so I was around White kids before hip hop was a thing… before the Internet. Those kids that I related to were into the hard core scene. They were into Bad Religion and Dinosaur Junior and Operation Ivy. These were hard core rock bands that had message music. That was the connection.”
His desire to deliver a message in his music extended beyond just race. Talib Kweli reflected onthe making of “Brown Skin Lady” as well. 9th Wonder pointed out the distinct contrast of the song to other hip hop songs that are misogynistic. Instead, Mr. Kweli explained that “Brown Skin Lady” came out of deliberate conversations with his friends about loving hip hop, and wanting to see videos with darker women in the music videos. “It was a big thing back then watching videos and being like, dang you can’t get no darker skinned ladies in the videos? It was us watching Rap City and Yo MTV Raps” and being frustrated about the denigration of dark-skinned Black women. “My mother had dark skin. Aunts who had dark skin, grandmother who had dark skin. I didn’t feel like they were represented.”