REFLECTION ETERNAL, with DILATED PEOPLES, and DJ MASTERMIND, at the Opera House (735 Queen East), tonight (Thursday, May 18). $22.50. 870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Twenty-four-year-old, bookstore-owning MC Talib Kweli is a kind of poster boy for hiphop positivity.
He's obsessed with the music, where it's going and what it can do. One of the hiphop underground's top voices, he's also one of its brightest spokespeople, the kind of guy who will talk for hours about Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange as well as the new J-Live cut.
He spits out dense, almost prosaic rhymes with sparring partner Mos Def in the critically acclaimed group Black Star, and goes even deeper underground with DJ Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal.
Now-classic Black Star tracks like Definition/Re:Definition and Hater Players read like hiphop state-of-the-union addresses, lashing out hard against those who have cheapened the genre with negativity and fast money.
"Truth shines through bullshit," a chatty Kweli declares from his Chicago hotel room. Reflection Eternal joins Dilated Peoples at the Opera House tonight (Thursday, May 18). "I'm just a b-boy at heart, but I feel responsible for my music.
"If I'm going to put something out, it's got to be positive, it's got to build and progress the people. I can't just tell you how fucked up the neighbourhood. I've got to show a vision for something better.
Activist parents "That comes from my parents. They were both activists to a certain extent, but they're also very good people who live their lives right, and that was a huge influence on me. They came correct. I'm not really concerned with street credibility or commercial success or what hiphop purists might say."
Since the early 80s, MCs have been caught in the struggle between rocking the party and preaching social responsibility.
The seismic difference now is that you can do both. In the past few years, conscious hiphop has evolved from a liability to a genuine movement -- in particular, one that sells.
Philly crew the Roots won a Grammy, Chicago MC Common scored a top-10 hit, and Mos Def's righteous Black On Both Sides album went gold. Expect a similar reaction when Reflection Eternal's much-anticipated Train Of Thought disc drops this fall.
Underground has gone overground. Suddenly, Kweli's barbed verses about African-American self-determination and doing something positive for your community don't sound like messages beamed in from Mars.
"There has been a shift, but for a reason," agrees Kweli. "Society creates a context for certain things to be said. The sad thing right now is that in America, there are blatant examples of police misconduct and blatant racism, from the guy getting dragged behind the truck to the shooting of Amadou Diallo and the torture of Abner Louima.
"Those issues are creating the context for people to pay a little more attention to what's going on around them. Music isn't outside of that, it's part of it.
"It's almost become trendy for the media to ask an MC like me what I think of Diallo or Elian Gonzalez or Proposition 21. A year ago, a radio DJ or a writer would have looked at you like you were insane if you started talking about things that actually had relevance to people's lives."
Trendy or not, the community is real. Just check the lineup of artists on the recent Kweli-organized Hiphop For Respect project.
Positive posse Assembled in response to the shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by the NYPD, the collective's self-titled EP brings together dozens of hiphop's heaviest players. Dead Prez and Rah Digga, De La Soul, Common and Company Flow get together for a few giant posse cuts, with the proceeds going to the Hiphop For Respect foundation Kweli started.
The beats hit as hard as the message, and remarkably, at least for hiphop, no one got paid.
"Everyone was so on the same page at that session," Kweli laughs. "There was just this amazing feeling of purpose. No ego, just dedication.
"I think recordings and projects like Hiphop For Respect can turn the tides of what's going on in our communities. It sounds corny, but I haven't given up on that idea."
Where Kweli splits from many in the conscious community is in his reluctance to curse out folks like Master P and the Cash Money Millionaires for their flashy, diamond-studded hiphop.
The era of bling bling, with its stretch Hummers and ice-cube-size pinkie rings, would appear to run on a rather different track than Kweli's conscious party, but the MC insists it's not simply a cut-and-dried, black-or-white argument between right and wrong music.
No backpacks Purists will have a hard time buying it, but it's the same kind of complex logic that found Black Star plugging their message by doing a Levi's TV ad, albeit while holding up a sign saying For Mumia.
"The way presented is, if you're not a vegetarian who burns incense and wears a backpack, you won't like us," Kweli snorts. "Fuck that.
"People always try to divide up this music. There's a lot of conscious people who are arrogant and want to be all pure and holy. Yeah, I make conscious music, but I appreciate good shit. I like Ghostface and Common. Being conscious just means you're aware of what goes on around you and you act accordingly.
"I think of someone like Jay-Z, who makes pop music but also mentioned Mumia Abu-Jamal on his cut. Let's look at the victories, not the petty bullshit. Let's talk about Cash Money and how they bought the Magnolia Projects in Louisiana and are trying to keep people from getting kicked out of their homes.
"We can do shit with this music," he insists. "Entertain, yes, but also educate."
Talib Kweli's got projects on the go like Hiphop For Respect and Reflection Eternal's just-finished Train Of Thought album, due out in the fall and featuring Mos Def, De La Soul, Kool G Rap and Les Nubiens. But his most direct method of getting his message out remains Nkira, Brooklyn's oldest black bookstore.When the Black Star project blew up, Kweli, along with Mos Def, bought the struggling shop two years ago. For the lit-addicted MC, it was a dream come true.
"I worked at the store for five years, and me buying it kinda happened naturally. I was on a plane with Mos and said, "We should buy the bookstore.'
"After we got off the plane, we called and told them, and it was, like, "Uh, we're in big money trouble. Can you have the rent by Friday?'
"Now it's the Non-Profit Nkira Centre for Culture and Education. We just wanted to have a place in the community where people from all generations could come through, learn and get these books out.
"That's our culture, and we have a responsibility to keep it alive.' MG