A decade is a long time when considering basically anything imaginable but for most Hip-Hop heads, it was time well spent absorbing the lone album that was bestowed on them by the classic MC/producer tandem of Reflection Eternal. Sporting a rapid-fire, metaphorically inclined wordsmith from Brooklyn by the name of Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, an extremely diverse soundman out of Cincinnati, the pair garnered critical acclaim from a multitude of fan niches with their seminal classic Train Of Thought, in late 2000. Afterwards, various solo projects threatened to strain the glory that once was, but today, united they stand in the wake of their new album Revolutions Per Minute.
In their extensive Smoking Session, the dynamic duo talk about hiatuses and getback, Twitter and reality. TSS and Reflection Eternal. It’s still a Rawkus thang.
TSS: Last time around, Reflection Eternal offered a more lyricial alternative to Hip-Hop entering its 2nd phase of extreme commercialism. What is RE giving the game in 2010?
Talib Kweli: I feel like the lyrics and beats are still there. The first time out, we were trying to prove we could come with a full-length album and stand on our own two. Now it’s about making songs that stand the test of time and songs people can relate to–whether you grew up listening to Hip-Hop or not. Just good pieces of music.
TSS: When did the album actually come in fruition? Like the album title, theme and whatnot?
Talib Kweli: Probably about a year ago. We came with the title through the recording process. We liked the duality of it; world events and representing something musical and something audible.
TSS: The production on the album ranges from subtle, to dark and moody to soulful. Did you know exactly how you wanted RPM to sound, even a year ago, Hi-Tek?
Hi-Tek: Actually, RPM is sonically Kweli’s idea. I just tried to build what he was trying to hear at the same time, keep it a Hi-Tek sound. But a lot of the beats on there, I really wasn’t feeling off top. I mean–I made ‘em! They were my initial creation but they may have been sitting in a crate until Kweli came along like “yo, I’m fuckin’ with that!” So by him dropping vocals on them allowed to me see what he was trying to do with them and made me like it.
TSS: O.K. Revolutions Per Minute is actually coming out, most importantly! Was it a battle won just for the record to come out in the first place?
Hi-Tek: Hell yeah! All day. It’s a blessing to be able to get to this point and have it come out.
Talib Kweli: I’m very excited and happy that it’s coming out finally. I always knew that another Reflection Eternal album I always felt was going to happen, so for us to finally get it out there, it’s a great thing.
TSS: The album has a great mixture of food for thought and also music for your enjoyment but let me ask this: Do y’all think people are listening to music for all the wrong reasons nowadays and/or do you think a lot of the album’s contents will miss the general public?
Talib Kweli: Nah, I think people listen to music for the same reason they’ve always have. To take their mind off things and to find a language that speaks to what they can’t express themselves. On the contrary, I think the reason you have artists who can do well in a nightclub or get on the radio but then turn around and not sell any records or you can’t even remember their names is because people don’t have any relationships with that type of music. It’s just in the background–it makes sense for those environments. It makes sense for the radio playlist, it makes sense for the club–but it doesn’t make sense for people’s lives.
And I think that’s what we have to offer opposed to all that. I think the ones who have to offer that in general–regardless of genre are the ones who go on to have real careers that last years opposed to I remember “whats-his-name” who made “that one song.”
Hi-Tek: I can’t speak for everybody. I just do my part in making good music and hopefully the people who like our brand, go out and support it. It’s not that political to me–it never has been. I just try to make good music.
The whole music industry is torn between what sells and what’s actually good. That leaves labels to have different types of music based on just business. Different types of artists, different sounds–just all over the place. A lot of labels used to build their rep on what type of sound that they would bring in but now, labels are just whatever the “numbers” are. Warner Bros. is good and they see we have a lot of respect for the game. And I’m a fan of music my fans wouldn’t normally associate me with. That don’t mean I have to make that kind of music. I just do what I do. But if we all made the same type of music, what kind of world would it be? We all should do what we do best, at the end of the day.
TSS: Part of the reason for the lengthy hiatus was you weren’t able to tour and be in the lab, Hi-Tek. Has technology altered that reality?
Hi-Tek: I mean sort of but at the same time, that kind of wasn’t true (Laughs). I had to argue with Kweli about that. I know he say that a lot but I just like to be accommodated when I’m on tour and that’s where the managers comes in. When you have good management, and they know you have work to do at the same time as your performances and shows, they’ll make sure you have the right tools to make your music. And that wasn’t happening at a time when I needed that. All the moves I made were right moves, though. I don’t take anything I did back.
TSS: Of course, when dealing with a Kweli project, there’s going to be food for thought. “Ballad Of The Black Gold” for example…you say that was from an experience from Nigeria?
Talib Kweli: Yeah, I filmed the “Hostile Gospel” video in Nigeria but the oil situation is so relevant in our lives at this point so I wanted to speak on it. But the most direct contact I had with oil having an effect on society–besides of course from living in America, which you know, affects society in a great many ways, is to go to the Nigeria. And that was from a ground zero level. I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Iraq but to see how the quest for oil…and the raping of the resources just decimates that area of the world is just sad and it’s something I saw first hand.
TSS: And what inspires more energetic numbers like “Midnight Hour?”
Talib Kweli: “Midnight Hour” is inspired from, I think, me and Hi-Tek’s collective musical influences. Like when I’m not listening to rap records–I mean I grew up on Motown and those type of sounds and that was a record Hi-Tek initially made for Estelle. But I felt because of the type of Hip-Hop that we do is so musical, that record still works [for] the Reflection album.
TSS: How does the interaction between you two work? Surely you don’t pick every beat that Tek throws at you, Kweli. And surely you don’t flip over every verse that Kweli spits, Tek.
Talib Kweli: Right. Well, you know, I like to write to beats that are already crafted even though, I will accept and acknowledge that sometimes the best stuff comes from creating it right on the spot together. And Hi-Tek is the opposite. He likes to come up with stuff on the spot together. That’s more comfortable for him. What’s more comfortable for me, is the other way. But we do both and the results vary.
Hi-Tek: Like he said, we do both. At the end of the day, you try to have patience. If you’re in the studio, there’s a lot of patience going on. Either that or get a lot of producers to help you out. Because one producer man... I have to tip my hat to myself. A lot of cats didn’t even make it. One producer just can’t just make a whole album and have it not be monotonous. I feel like I’m the most versatile producer in the game as a result. I try to stay updated with the equipment but at the same time, you don’t want to change your sound too much.
TSS: Do you still find resistance from fans/critics when you try to be a human being a make more accessible music? Like “Midnight Hour” for example?
Talib Kweli: Oh definitely! But one thing about the people who go out of their way to criticize something like that, it may be a genuine feeling or they may be just trying to keep me in a box. But the people who do feel like that often don’t realize that if it wasn’t for these other records, they wouldn’t even know I had something out. Because these other records that are more accessible, are what get it to the point where I can continue to keep making records. We never make anything like hoping to get on the radio with that sole purpose in mind. We make them because they feel good. And once we turn in the project, we decide which ones work the best.
The “Midnight Hour” is not a joint that is necessarily carrying on the trends of the radio right now. No one is really doing Motown type songs right now. Amy Winehouse and Sean Jones had some Motown influenced stuff and few years ago. But it’s not like we’re making a ringtone-type record. We made a record that pays tribute to the tradition.
TSS: I peeped your tweet the other day (ranting about close-minded people). After all this time, do you feel fans are still trying to box you in? What was that stemming from?
Hi-Tek: Oh, I’m a little sensitive to what people think of my music and I don’t expect everybody to like what I’ve done. But I am offended at people who don’t understand how this game go and how the world thinks. Close-minded people think one way–they’re one track-minded. And they never become anybody because they don’t respect other people and they don’t respect the way the world works.
I can’t come in this game and try to change the game. I have to play the game. How do you think [Dr.] Dre has stayed relevant for all these years? I’ve been listening to Dre’s music since I was seven-years-old. I’ve been a FAN of Dre’s music since I was seven-years-old. And the only way he was able to stay alive was to reinvent himself. Listening to what the youth was saying; paying attention to what’s going on in the game. Me being a producer out of Cincinnati, I was able to go to New York and smash on a lot of New York producers because they were close-minded to just New York style. And music in general was headed to another direction. Same way to what Kanye did. He was under the Roc-A-Fella umbrella but he didn’t use that torch. He added his own thing to it and respected the game before anything else. His goal was to have longevity in this game. And that’s my thing; I’ve always been that type of person. I like crafty artists who think ahead and make sacrifices.
One of my favorite sayings is “You have to fall back to get back sometimes.” Sometimes you have to take a break. You can’t force your life and ideas on people. If you have ten people voting against you and you’re the only in the circle being stubborn, then something’s wrong.
TSS: Would you say they’re looking too hard at Train Of Thought and Black Star with those being their last memories?
Hi-Tek: Yep! Yep! They’re looking at Train Of Thought, they’re looking at Hi-Teknology 1. You gotta think, when Train Of Thought came out, those kids were like in high school and junior high back then. So it’s up to me to let them know who I am now that they’re adults and I’m still in the game–trying to sell them music. And not even just sell it to them, make them like it as well. I can’t just say “Yo, I’m Hi-Tek and this is my legacy and YOU SHOULD by my records.” That ain’t how it goes. People don’t buy legacies. They may do their homework and see that person has a good track record but if you ain’t making it hot, then it’s not worth buying just cuz…
TSS: Everybody seems to want your opinion on bullshit like the Illuminati, Kweli…
Talib Kweli: (Laughs!!!)
TSS: We at The Smoking Section would rather hear your take on what’s happening in Arizona.
Talib Kweli: It’s interesting that you mentioned that because we discussed possibly cancelling the shows but the more I thought about it, the more I figured it was more important for me to actually go and use the show to create more awareness. I don’t necessarily see how me cancelling a Talib Kweli/Hi-Tek show sends the message that I want it to send but we do have to acknowledge what’s going on. Because while that’s not apartheid right now, it’s a very slippery slope.
TSS: It was funny how you asked Senator John McCain where his papers were.
Talib Kweli: (Laughs) Yeah, I just tried to get enough people to retweet so he’d be forced to respond.