The legendary Talib Kweli sat down to give The Revivalist some straight talk on the dynamics behind his myriad of projects. From DJ’s to live bands, and from hip-hop to jazz Talib walks us through what it takes to be in his band and why a group without a DJ can’t be playing hip-hop…with a few notable exceptions. Talib lays loose into why he loves to play with a live band and what it takes to be a go-to musician for Idle Warship.
Why do you choose to use a band instead of a DJ and what is your reasoning behind that choice?
Well, first off, I have a couple of different situations. I have Black Star with Mos Def, and then I have Idle Warship with Res. For Black Star, it’s just a DJ. For my solo music, it’s a DJ that’s surrounded and enhanced by the band. You’re not doing hip-hop music if there isn’t a DJ with the exception of a few groups. With Idle Warship, it’s straight-ahead live music. The reason is that each project has a different sound and a different energy. Black Star is really about the relationship between me and Mos Def on the mics. So it’s really the two emcees, one DJ aesthetic. My solo music is hip-hop through and through. You get certain sounds and a certain energy that you just don’t get from a band. But I like when the music goes different places that hip-hop, frankly just doesn’t go, with the one DJ setup. I really enjoy the camaraderie and the sense of community onstage when you have a band and you have more people onstage. Idle Warship gives me a chance to take it all the way there. Right now, for me, that’s the most liberating thing I have going on.
Can you elaborate more on live bands playing hip-hop and the different aspects of that?
People aren’t going to clubs to see live bands perform as much as they are going to hear one DJ spin the records. Hip-hop comes out of the fact that people didn’t have access to live instruments and access to live bands. The actual machines that you are playing the music out of, become the instruments. That’s really the definition of hip-hop. So without that instrument, you’re not technically doing hip-hop. I give The Roots a pass on that because Black Thought I think is the best emcee in the world; the best working emcee in the world, definitely. And Questlove’s knowledge of music surpasses the fact that they don’t have a DJ. He knows so much about music, that’s the exception to the rule. You know, without that DJ there is a certain energy, a certain type of sound that comes from hip-hop production. There’s a lot of hip-hop beats that you like, that move your soul that are out of tune. So it’s something you can’t get no matter which cats I work with. We’ll try to play some of the beats that Hi-Tek made, that Ski Beatz made, that The Alchemist made, that The RZA made, and they’re out of tune, so the musicians have to find a way to play out of tune or play it differently. The audience that comes to a hip-hop show, they crave that. That right there, that small space that needs to be figured out. That’s what they come for; that quality of sound.
I try to educate my audiences and take them on journeys. My shows aren’t just my album played. It’s hard with hip-hop, not impossible, but hard to translate from a live band.
What were you looking for in the musicians you picked to play with?
My only prerequisite is somebody who is ready and willing to learn, and work. Who loves it. In the end they have to love the music, that’s the most important thing for me. Most of the cats I end up working with are from jazz backgrounds, the cats who play in churches early morning, or cats who play in R&B bands. There is a lot of R&B talent in New York City that requires a band. I look for recommendations. Res from Idle Warship put me in touch with a few musicians. I went on recommendation. Ray Angry put together the initial Idle Warship line-up.
Can you talk about the musicians you picked and why their styles complements your style?
There’s a pool of musicians that I pull from depending on who is available. Definitely at the heart of it is Daru Jones from Detroit. I first saw him play with Black Milk. Ray Angry suggested I use Daru. Ray Angry started with Idle Warship four years ago. He suggested Daru, and Brian Cockerham, and a bunch of other cats. Ray was working with the Roots and with other bands, so he brought in some musicians. Daru recommended Yuki [Hirano]. Then Chris Morgan was on guitar. Ray is a hell of a keyboard player, he’s incredible. Yuki is one of my favorite musicians ever. It’s a joy to watch him play. Same with Daru. I realized that I would have to realign with Daru because I really liked the chemistry between Daru and Black Milk. But he was also working with Black Milk and I didn’t want to ruin that for him. So Ray Angry jumped in and filled in recommendations for when Daru was gone.
Daru recommended Louis Cato for when Brian couldn’t do a gig. Then we found out that there is nothing Louis can’t play. He’s an all around guy. Louis became a part of the team after that. He’s a real good go-to guy. The interesting thing is, he can play every single instrument well, but he can play drums better than all of that. He can sing, too. It just doesn’t stop. What’s crazy is, when I first started going on the road with him–I listen to a wide array of music–and he don’t know most of it. I’m talking about Prince, A Tribe Called Quest, things I would just assume a musician would know–he don’t know it. He’s younger than I am, he came up in the church. And it’s crazy to me that he plays this well without being influenced by all this other great music. It really just comes out of him.
Louis introduced me to Corey Bernhard. Corey is incredible as well. He went on the road with us to Europe. I love his playing style. I feel blessed having all these options and knowing all of these people.
How do you interact with the band on stage in terms of improvising and arranging the songs?
With the band I become an instrument within the ensemble. It’s more fun for me, to ebb and flow with it. The music is alive instead of just static on tape. That’s fun for me. The greatest thing about it is that if you make a mistake with the band, especially with talented cats, there really is no such thing as a mistake. It’s just something different, not a mistake anymore. With a DJ, you can tell sometimes. With a band, only other musicians would recognize a mistake with a band. I love being able to improvise with the band, and watch them take solos. That’s important in music. It’s important for everyone on stage to show their own thing. Hip-hop is jazz, just a more gritty, urban form of it. To me it unifies the camp that makes up my legacy.
Meet the Musicians:
Interview by Meghan Stabile and Kyla Marshell