The Secret History Of Talib Kweli’s “Quality”
Source: Rawkus Records
Talib Kweli walks us through the creation of his debut solo album, Quality on what marks the project’s 15 year anniversary.
In 2002, Talib Kweli Greene had something to prove. After releasing two very successful and critically celebrated projects with the artist formerly known as Mos Def, 1998’s Black Star, and 2000’s Train Of Thought with DJ Hi-Tek, the Brooklyn MC found himself needing to plan a solo mission like Harrison Ford.
“I had two albums that people said were classic but in my mind I was a brand new artist,” says Talib. “I wanted to challenge myself and the audience that I could do a project where I was steering the ship and it be as good as if I had Mos Def or Hi-Tek, who were two of the best possible partners you could ask for making hip-hop music.”
If Talib had his way we may not have gotten a solo project from him. But circumstances beyond his control forced him to adapt.
“The brass tax of it is I love collaboration. The follow up to a Black Star album would have been another Black Star album. I would have been happy to do that. [But] Mos Def was acting and his headspace was more into becoming a solo artist. If Hi-Tek wanted to do another Reflection Eternal album, I would have been happy to do that. But me and Hi-Tek had a fissure where my bread and butter was coming from touring. I was doing the Okayplayer tour and the Spitkicker Tour. But his bread and butter was coming from producing beats. He was working with Dr. Dre, Snoop, etc. and he was developing relationships where it became more conducive for him to stay at home in the studio and work on beats. I understand that now as an adult 15 years later, but back then it was tough for both of us. He didn’t want to go on the road, but I was living on the road.
I realized that Hi-Tek is staying home, Mos Def is acting, I needed to have my own. [Recording Quality] was more of a practical thing than this desire to go solo. I would have been happy going back into those group situations.”
With the good will of two successful group projects under his belt, his label Rawkus forged on with a solo Kweli album. But as Talib Kweli shares with @Okayplayer in this latest Secret History, going solo doesn’t mean going it alone.
The Title: Quality
“We could have named it [Kwelity] and that was discussed, but to me that was too simple and too easy. I liked the idea that my name Kweli already phonetically sounded like ‘quality.’ I didn’t feel the need to drive the point home by spelling it like that. But I think it was good thing that people wanted to see it spelled that way.”
The Album Cover Art:
“What I remember is that album cover was shot in Tom’s Diner on Washington Ave. in Brooklyn. I believe it was the same diner from the famous song [by Suzanne Vega]. At that point in my life I must have been going to that diner every day. The artwork inside was everyone in my life who was responsible for helping me make that album. The only one who was in the photo shoot who wasn’t on the album is Hi-Tek. And the reason he was in the artwork, was we had just started hanging out again. So I said come to this photoshoot because you’re part of my journey.
David Bowie and Iman had an apartment on Broadway they used to rent out. We rented it out and had a big dinner there. Andrew Dosunmu, a Nigerian guy, he’s a film director now but he was a photographer back then. He took the photos. I’m not a fan of the graphic design of the album. It was real plain. I remember not being that happy with it, but we had to put something out. And back then I was wearing a lot of throwback clothes. I had on a Philadelphia 76ers hat, we took the logo off for the final product. I had on a big ass, Philadelphia jacket. An oversized Mitchell & Ness. Aesthetically I don’t feel like the album cover matches where I was at musically, but we had to have something for the cover.”
Dave Chappelle & Michael Rappaport Sketches
“Dave was just freestyling. That was complete freestyle. I think maybe those were jokes that were floating in his head. Michael Rappaport is on there playing a character. The stories he’s talking about are things that I actually heard Russell Simmons say. I had gone to a meeting that Russell Simmons was having and he had mistaken me for Jinx The Juvenile’s manager. So he brought me into this meeting with Jinx thinking I was his manager, and he said all this wild shit that was NOT for me. So Rappaport was saying things based on things I told him I heard Russell Simmons say.”
First Singles: “Good To You” & “Waiting For The DJ”
“The first single was “Good To You”. The album was done and every song was done except for “Waiting For the DJ” and “Get By”. So imagine that album without those two songs, that’s the album I handed in.
I was so impressed with what Kanye [West] was doing I felt that “Good To You” was a huge hit record [but] Rawkus disagreed with me. I don’t think they saw the vision with Kanye. I remember the conversation was, ‘It’s a good mix show record, but that’s about it.’ I bitched and moaned and threw a fit in the office until they put it out. But they put it out just to appease me, which is what I learned later. They pressed up some vinyl and we did a photoshoot. They put it out but they didn’t support it at all, because they didn’t care about it. They were working with Dahoud [Darien] the guy who produced “Waiting For The DJ”. Brian Brater from Rawkus was very, very impressed with this guy’s production. And this was the era when they had Kool G. Rap working with Jagged Edge. Their whole thing was ‘We need a record that’s going to work on the radio.’ So something with a singing hook, they were all for it.
They had the beat and it had a sample of Bilal singing, because the producer had worked with him before. So [at first] I reluctantly recorded that song at Rawkus’s request. But when I recorded it I kinda liked it. I said if we can get Bilal really on it, I’ll rock with it. So we got Bilal and they lost their mind saying this is great. I thought it was a good song, but I didn’t think it was a better song than “Good To You”.
After that is when I recorded “Get By”. And when I recorded “Get By,” I said THIS is the song. This is a single. Again, they said, ‘Eh, this is good, but it’s a mix show record.’ They were really all about “Waiting For the DJ”. So we dropped “Waiting For The DJ.” I’m about 10 years away from blowing everybody’s spots up, so I’m not gonna say the names yet. But there was a DJ in L.A. who had a lot of power on the radio and back then you needed certain guys. You needed Funk Flex in N.Y., you needed Khaled in Miami, etc. And Rawkus was heavily focused on the L.A. market, and this guy was saying that Bilal looked too “gay” in the video. You have to remember this was when DJs were on the air saying “pause” and “no homo” all the time. This is that era. Hip-hop is a lot more tolerant these days, but back then, especially with the DJs, it was a very testosterone driven culture. And if you watch that video Bilal was very free. He wasn’t caring and people thought it was weird. And I remember being on a conference call with a bunch of DJs and they were all saying that and I remember thinking we have a lot more work to do in this industry. That was one example of pushback I got with the record.
I just performed “Waiting For The DJ” at The Blue Note and it’s still a fan favorite. As I relearned the words I’m like man, this song is such an accurate picture of where my mentality was at. Every lyric on that song was something I was doing at the time. I was in the club every night. And that song was about me and my friends leaving Brooklyn going to a nightclub and meeting girls. Me being a DJ now I understand sonics a lot better and what moves a crowd.”
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.”
“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.’”
The Guest MCs and Singers: Black Thought, Pharoahe Monch, Xzibit, Cocoa Brovas, Reese, Vinia Mojica, Kendra Ross.
“Everybody you named were people I was hanging out with. You just named my immediate crew. Even Xzibit was somebody who would call me up when he came New York. I started my career with Digga at SOB’s Lyricist Lounge. Kendra Ross, we were in college together at NYU. I was hanging out with her when I was going to A Tribe Called Quest concerts at Howard Homecoming and she was interning for Diddy. Those were just the people who were around me. It just so happened I was around a great group of people.”
“Guerilla Monsoon Rap”
“That’s the first beat I ever picked from Kanye. Kanye came to the studio while I was working on “The Joy” and he invited himself to the session because he heard Mos Def was gonna be there. I didn’t know who he was, but when he said his name I knew the name because I liked the songs he produced for Beanie Sigel. I was like ‘Mos is not here, play me some beats.’ And in that session he played the beat for “Good to You” and “Guerilla Monsoon Rap”. But I remember picking “Gorilla Monsoon Rap” immediately. Kanye was a little bit more humble on that day, but a year later when we recorded “Gorilla Monsoon Rap,” a lot had happened to him. So he was a lot more confident. I remember him really wanting to have a verse on the song and my thing was, ‘Huh? You haven’t earned a verse on this song.’ Talking about me, Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch, I don’t think Kanye fit in that. In 2001? Just calm down. Maybe I’ll let you on the hook. Kanye was acting so much like he was gonna be on the song, when Pharoahe laid his verse he said, ‘See these four MCs came to get down,’ [including Kanye]. But it was really three MCs. I think Kanye even had a verse, but it was too long. So we kept him on the hook, which was a great hook.”
“I had children by then, a three-year old daughter and an eight-year-old son. I felt like my kids inspired me to get to that point where I was at. I was very interested in dealing with the whole midwife thing. I think the midwife thing is a good way to go. My experience dealing with the hospitals as a father and a man wasn’t good. That’s something I wanted to explore through song. I remember I felt like I was on a corner and somebody was trying to sell me weed the way they were pushing the drugs and epidurals. Why are you pushing all these things that cost money? My son was born at Downstate and one of the unfortunate by-products of poor neighborhoods are children are born and fathers aren’t around for a lot of reasons. So they’re not used to fathers being around. That’s my anecdotal experience. There is this focus from the state in trying to separate the family.”
“Won’t You Stay” f/ Kendra Ross, produced by Super Dave West
“I remember I was having a lot of drama in my personal relationship. I wanted to do a song with Kendra, I love Kendra, she’s one of my best friends ever and I wanted her on the hook. The Dave West beat is gorgeous so I gave it to Kendra and she wrote the hook first. I wrote my verses around the hook she wrote. It was about being a recording artist and a working man and trying to explain to your significant other that you have to work and have to go and the problems with being outside the home and you don’t want to bring that energy back. Just trying to give voice to significant others who experience their partners leaving and not being invested in the relationship the way they want them to be. I had lunch with Kendra the other day and she is such a strong Black woman. I was rehearsing for my Blue Note show thinking 2017 Kendra wouldn’t have written that hook.”
Talib Kweli performed Quality at The Blue Note for the first time on September 7, 2015 as part of a 15th Anniversary slate of shows.
It was good. “Waiting For the DJ” was a record I performed a lot back then. “Good to You,” “Talk To You” and “Shock Body” were records I performed a lot, but I hadn’t performed them in years. So I was worried. I went to rehearsal and I went over them, but I was worried that I would flub them onstage but a muscle kicked back in so strong. “Oh shit I’m remembering this,” was the thought I was having as they were coming out of my mouth. I was like I got this.
You can stream Talib Kweli’s latest album Radio Silence here and support the album which is out now!