The Secret History Of Talib Kweli’s “Quality”

Source: Pigeons & Planes

“Get By” — Prod. by Kanye West

“Rawkus wasn’t planning on dropping “Get By”. After “Waiting For the DJ” the promotion for my album was over. I pushed and pushed for them to at least drop “Get By,” and DJ Enuff picked up on it and was very supportive, as was Big Vaughn in The Bay. Snoop Dogg had a radio show and he was supportive. And when Rawkus saw big DJ’s liking it, that’s when they spent money to make it a single.

Kanye had that beat saved for Mariah Carey for a like a month. I was hitting him every day like, ‘Gimme that beat. Gimme that beat.’ I heard it on a beat tape and called him and he said, ‘Naw, I’m giving that to Mariah Carey.’ And I said no, that’s my song. I know God is real because I saw that song in my head when I heard the beat.

Everything was done in the studio. I remember working with Kanye again on Beautiful Struggle and “I Try” was so different. He had blown up a lot more by then. He wasn’t in the studio for that. But for “Get By” I wrote the verses out and laid them and Kanye sang the hook almost freestyle the first time he heard my verses and he said we should get the Boys Choir Of Harlem. But they were too expensive. We ended up getting them later on “Two Words”. So we got my friend Kendra Ross, who came in with two friends from her church and we tried to create a choir. But Kanye said this is the hook, it should sound like a choir. It was a beautifully written by him.

The video was shot all over New York City. We went to the Slave theater in Brooklyn and Nkiru Books. The barber shop Levels on Fulton Street. We shot Kanye on 125th St. My grandmother’s in the video, my aunts, my kids. It was just a texture of how New York City raised me.

I think “Get By” as a song has eclipsed that album. It deserves its own chapter in my career. The response for Quality was pretty good, but the response to “Get By” was phenomenal and one of the reasons we’re even on the phone now talking about Quality. I think I’ve gotten away with doing a show and not doing “Get By” maybe three or four times in my career, but I do 200 shows a year. That’s a great feeling when I’m so dope on stage that I ain’t even got to do “Get By”. That’s very rare. I’m blessed for it. That record draws the line in the sand between me and a lot of other working-class artists that are as talented as me and work just as hard as me, but they can’t get the shows I get, and it’s because of that song. It’s also because I’m dope on stage and I’ve worked for it but that song doesn’t hurt.”

“Where Do We Go” & “Stand to the Side” — Prod. by J Dilla

J Dilla would not send out beat tapes. I had to fly to Detroit and I got picked up in a cocaine white limousine by Frank ‘N Dank. They had Hennessy with them and had fur coats on. They were like, ‘We were instructed by Dilla to show you The D before coming to the studio.’ I had been to Detroit several times touring, but I had never hung out with their crew. I knew Dilla but we didn’t share a friendship [then]. I just knew that I needed him on my album. So I drove around with Frank ‘N Dank smoking and drinking for hours. On the song “Pause,” they go, ‘Penthouse Suite on the top of mom’s crib,’ I went to that dusty ass attic they called the Penthouse and hung out there. By the evening, we went to Dilla’s house and it was a new apartment he had gotten. Karriem Riggins was there and they were in the basement making beats. There was a couch and a TV, that’s it. I guess he had just moved in. What I remember was the Grammys were on and The Roots were winning for “You Got Me”. And Erykah [Badu] was nominated and Common was nominated. My whole crew was nominated, and they all had Dilla beats on their album, but Dilla was in Detroit working on beats for the Talib Kweli album. The TV was on in the background while his beats were winning Grammys. He could care less about the accolades, let’s make something new. That’s what I remember about that.

He gave me a couple of beat tapes that night and one of them was labeled “R&B” beats. The two beats I picked were from that beat tape. Dilla always said I liked his R&B beats but that was not my goal. I liked the dusty boom bap Dilla shit just like everybody else. But my mentality was [somewhere else] for Quality.”

The Production

“Back then it was still the studio era. The producers used to go around to the studios and peek their heads in the doors and be like, ‘What you working on? Can I play you something?’ The people who did that were Ezee El-P, DJ Scratch, Megahertz, and Just Blaze. Hip-hop was in a very strong era because Megahertz was on my album but he did a couple of big records for Diddy, “Bad Boys For Life.” He was managed by a guy named Blitz who was a friend of Busta Rhymes. He also used to manage Rah Digga. It was just a Brooklyn thing. Scratch is a Brooklyn guy who had big records [with LL Cool J and Q-Tip]. These guys just found me.

DJ Scratch: “I made the beat for “Shock Body” 20 years ago. It was a beat I had in the stash. Something different from what was going on during the James Brown sample era. So no one really understood the beat back then but Busta [Rhymes].

I had/have a great relationship with Kweli and all of the artists and staff at his label. Me being an O.G. in the game, everyone had love and respect for me. I wasn’t with him when he recorded the track because I was on tour. But I never doubted his ability to do his thing on that beat. I remember it taking a little over an hour to make the beat because I wanted the drums to go in the same pattern as the horns. So it took longer than my usual time to make a beat. I was making my beats on the Akai MPC-3000 at the time. “Shock Body” is a song I’m proud of. I love it the same as when we made it 15 years ago. It’s his superhero theme & I’m honored to be a part of his classic album.”

Photo Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer

“Put It In The Air” — Prod. by DJ Quik

Talib Kweli: “When “The Blast” dropped, DJ Quik called me on my phone and said this is my favorite song. That’s how I met Quik. He’s so far removed from anything that I did. He’s a Blood, he’s got a perm. I didn’t understand the legacy and impact of Quik the day he called me. So we stayed in touch. I’ve done four songs with Quik, two of them came out on his projects later, one I put on a mixtape. “Put It In The Air” is the defining Kweli/Quik song.

I went to his studio in L.A. and watched him make that beat from scratch. I saw him pull out a bag full of African instruments. There are a lot of bells and whistles on that track that I watched him lay down organically. It’s not computer.

Quik taught me the most about recording vocals than I’d ever learned up to that point in my life. Hi-Tek was very ‘I’m not feeling that, do it again.’ Which I appreciate now, but back then I used to get pissed off at. Quik would produce the vocals like, he would gas me up, be jumping around in the studio like, ‘Oh my god, that verse was incredible. If you could just keep that same energy and drop it again…’ and I knocked those verses out in four or five takes. And I wasn’t doing that back then. I was doing 20 different takes for every verse. So I learned how to gain confidence in myself and approach laying verses more efficiently and scientifically. He’s one of the greatest I ever worked with.”

“Talk To You”

“I was listening to a lot of Eddie Kendricks when I was recording that album. He’s one of my favorite artists. I go through phases where I’ll listen to Curtis Mayfield or Nina Simone. At this time it was Eddie Kendricks. Back then if you were a hip-hop head you would walk around with a tape in your pocket full of shit that people would sample. ‘This is my Roy Ayers tape,’ and you go over a girl’s house and you light some incense and try to impress her with how much you know about these old ballads. And Eddie Kendricks’ “Can I” was one of those records. That record was just indelible. I knew I wanted to do something with it, so I just challenged myself to basically do it over. I’m not gonna sample it, I’m just gonna do this song over. And what I can add is a spoken word piece. I was also flexing my muscles because this was my third album and I had a budget to pay for a sample now. I worked a lot with Hi-Tek on the Reflection Eternal album in Electric Lady and I got cool with James [Poyser], Pino Palladino and Questlove. And I came to Questlove with the idea of recreating it. I went to the best guys working. Those are the guys that created Voodoo. I was a little wary of having Bilal on my album twice but he came in and just blessed it. He did the lows and then came back two hours later to do the highs. I remember asking him why he came back and he said ‘I didn’t finish.’”

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