Saturday night at the famous Double Door in Chicago, the headliner is hip-hop icon Talib Kweli. Fifteen minutes to show time and he’s downstairs in the green room. A door with a “Restricted” sign opens to a dark, grimy hallway lit by the red glow of an exit sign. Groupies hang out on couches mingling with Kweli’s crew. Steve, the tour manager, slides open a curtain to the back room where Kweli sits with his band.
The Double Door is buzzing. There’s a sold out crowd upstairs and you can feel the anticipation. Tonight is going to be a good show. Kweli has worked with everyone from The Roots to Norah Jones. On his upcoming album, he collaborates with Nelly. But leave it to Kweli. The 37-year-old rapper knows what he’s doing. He’s been at it for years.
“I started writing as a wee lad. Like, a real little kid,” says Kweli. “I was writing poetry and plays before I was writing hip-hop songs. I got into hip-hop in junior high school. When I was younger, I wrote in my notebook. I carried a journal, I wrote in composition notebooks, I read a lot of books and I did a lot of writing.”
Kweli was born and raised in Brooklyn, a city you can practically hear in his music. He’s known for descriptive, poetic lyrics that take listeners to the bustling streets of his hometown.
“The city, especially for me, New York City, has such an effect on how I grew up. Almost equal effect as my parents did,” he says. “So naturally, you’d hear through the music, and I think that because hip-hop is so loquacious, and such a vivid type of thing with the imagery and the words, that the city and where you’re from becomes very, very important.”
The song “Respiration,” featuring Common, was released back in 1998 by Kweli and Mos Def as part of their duo, “Black Star.”
“I had to come do a show with Common and Mos Def back in the day and that’s when we finally got Common to be on the song,” he says. “Common was my favorite emcee and I really wanted him on the Black Star album. We recorded that song here in Chicago at Streatorville Studios. That song is a part of our legacy, it’s one of my favorite songs.”
Critics label Kweli as a conscious rapper. Rather than producing Top 40 hits you’d hear bumping at night clubs, he’s known to take on social issues, from violence in the media to politics and the current state of hip-hop.
“The artist at their best is painting a picture of not just how things are, but how things can be. And in order for you to get to how things can be, you have to deal with how they are,” he says. “You have to talk about your environment and paint accurate pictures, but you have to be an optimist about it as well. And that’s sort of the job of the truest artist.”
The track titled, “I Try” is a song about surviving through what he describes as life’s beautiful struggles.
“The actual fact that it’s a struggle and the fact that it’s hard, helps you to build character. Helps you to build beautiful art. Helps you to understand why you should love your people. Helps you to understand why you should fight for justice and fight for freedom,” says Kweli. “And all those things are beautiful.”
Kweli says he’s not totally sold on the conscious artist category. In fact, it’s the subject of his upcoming album, “Prisoner of Conscious,” out in May.
“Being a conscious artist is a compliment,” he says. “But too often, people look at it as some sort of limitation. They feel like I’m limited as an artist. That’s how they describe me or relate to me, as an artist with limitations. But that’s not how I see myself.”
The trick is breaking out of those limitations while maintaining the fan base he’s built over the course of his career. As for now, Talib Kweli is focused on tonight’s show, and he’s ready to take the stage.