Since breaking onto the stage with Black Star, the duo he formed with Mos Def in the late ‘90s, Talib Kweli Greene’s career has floated somewhere between superstar popularity and indie artist with impeccable street cred. It’s a tension the Brooklyn-raised rapper acknowledges. “My place in this business was an inspiration for this album,” he insists regarding his latest release, Prisoner of Conscious, due May 7th and featuring appearances by Busta Rhymes, Nelly and Kendrick Lamar. “But I’m more about creating an industry around myself than I am worried about where my place is in this industry.”
That independent spirit led to the formation of Javotti Media. Prisoner was originally going to be released on Blacksmith Records, the label launched by his former manager, Corey Smyth. “It became apparent I needed to exert complete control over the way my project was run,” he claims. “The only person you can depend on sometimes is yourself, so I made the decision toward the end of recording to do it on my own label.”
Although he isn’t actively seeking artists, two other performers are associated with Javotti. Houston’s Corey Mo teamed up with Kweli on joints like “Getting to the Money,” while R&B singer Res piqued his attention with tracks sent via Myspace. Together, Kweli and Res formed Idle Warship.
The arrangement resembles a mentorship more than a traditional label deal. “I’ve developed a knowledge of the landscape that is invaluable for artists,” insists Kweli. “So when I have an artist that’s talented and works hard, I’m inclined to help them out.” This year, Kweli brought both Res and Mo on tour. Incidentally, touring is something Kweli declares key to his success, logging between 200 and 250 shows a year. “I’ve approached touring just like a rock band would,” he reveals, encouraging new rappers to do the same.
“Part of the problem with hip-hop is that people don’t know how to perform,” he continues. “A record might work in the club, but it doesn’t mean that artist can deliver outside of a night club scenario. You have artists getting paid to Milli Vanilli over their record. It cripples the hip-hop artist from being able to perform live. And the tragedy is the only way anyone is investing money in a hip-hop record is if they’re making a record about a night club experience.”
The value behind certain tours has also changed, he explains, pointing to the Rock the Bells and Paid Dues tours as examples. “I’ve been doing Rock the Bells for years, because my records have always come out through the major label system. But the indie artists are now the ones who people are excited about. These guys are performing on Paid Dues. Now that I’m not on a major, I’m on Paid Dues. Normally, that would sound like a step backwards, but Paid Dues is really the stage I want to perform on, because it’s where all the artists that people are excited about are performing.”
And it isn’t just touring that has shifted. The very nature of communal affiliation has transformed. “When I started, there was a community,” he reminisces. “You had to go to Washington Square Park, you’d kick your little raps. Now, those communities exist but they exist online. Find out who is making the type of music you like,” he suggests, “and bounce ideas off each other. No one does this alone.”
By Andy Kauffman