By Paul Russell
11/29/2002 6:40:39 PM
Tags and topics realted to this article include Talib Kweli.
Talib Kweli sees himself as a "breath of fresh air" in a hip hop world recently polluted by violence.
The critically acclaimed Brooklyn rapper seeks to steer the genre toward its traditional lyrical roots with his latest album "Quality" (Rawkus, $18.98 ), a politically charged tome fused over a medley of beats ranging from rock to reggae.
Kweli named the album "Quality" because "the industry is focused on quantity, a number you can count on." But he prefers to limit his criticism of the genre in favor of a more proactive approach.
"If you're going to say the state of hip hop sucks, I don't want to hear that unless you want to do something about it," Kweli said. "And I'm doing something about it in my music. I want to focus on a solution."
Running late for a meeting, Kweli remains relaxed in an interview during a chauffeured ride to the midtown Manhattan offices of his management agency.
He seems nonchalant about the praise he has received from critics, some of whom have compared his presentation to the social commentary of Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley.
USA Today gave "Quality" the maximum four stars in a review, saying Kweli "has put out top-shelf material, blending street sensibilities with political consciousness." The New York Times calls him a "dream come true" for "anyone who has ever yearned for rappers to be more reasonable," and the Chicago Tribune says he "remains one of hip hop's best-kept secrets."
His unique style earned his last album, "Reflection Eternal," a nomination for a Shortlist Prize, which honors the best musical act that has yet to enjoy commercial success. While Kweli appreciates the positive reviews, he says he's not doing anything special.
"I'm just being myself," he said. "It becomes a selling point for me because it is out of the box. It's not all about trying to come up with a character or something else."
Born Talib Kweli Greene in Park Slope, the 27-year-old rapper said his love for hip hop grew out of his avid reading. At the behest of his parents, both teachers, he delved into literature, writing short plays and poetry, which he later combined with his passion for rap.
"In junior high school, I started writing rhymes for my friends, and then eventually it turned into writing rhymes for myself," Kweli said.
Last month, rap fans were devastated by the execution-style slaying of hip hop icon Jam Master Jay from Run-DMC. Jay, whose real name was Jason Mizell, was shot in the back of the head at his Queens studio. No arrests have been made in the case.
More bad news followed this month when Los Angeles police raided the offices of Tha Row Records, formerly Death Row Records, owned by notorious hip hop mogul Marion "Suge" Knight. Three associates of Knight were arrested in connection with a gang-related killing.
Kweli, saying Jam Master Jay was "influential" to his career, was shaken by his slaying. But he blames the violence that took Jay's life on issues that transcend hip hop.
"Whether it's Death Row or Jam Master Jay, these are young black men and these are things that are happening in our community regardless of whether rap existed or not," he said. "You have black-on-black crime with or without hip hop. So we do a disservice when we say it's hip hop related. Dudes are not killing each other over songs."
Like most rappers, Kweli rhymes harshly about the brutality and poverty of urban America. However, he rarely glorifies mindless violence, rather urging listeners in his moving "Get By" to stay clear of alcohol and drug addiction.
He also shares hip hop's dislike of cops, denouncing police brutality in his searing screed "The Proud," although he does commend the "heroes" at ground zero in a verse added to the piece after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In other songs, such as "Where do We Go" and "Talk to You", Kweli displays his musical dexterity by rhym
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