Talib Kweli Says INDIE 500 Would Not Exist Without the Native Tongues
Talib Kweli has expanded his writing portfolio in recent years, taking to the web to publish thoughtful pieces on current events, particularly as they relate to things like culture, racism, and politics. In the past, he has written on topics ranging from fans’ treatment of Lauryn Hill to the recent uprising in cities like Ferguson, and his outspoken views are shared openly with fans. In a recently released op-ed, he discusses the long and arduous journey he’s taken to indie fame. Titled “My Indie Hip-Hop Hustle: The long road to glory was paved by passion & honor for the art,” the thoughtful and deeply personal article was published on Medium and is an autobiographical account of not only how he got to where he is now and what or who inspired him, but also what he’s learned about life along the way. As a whole, this is a story about INDIE 500, his newly formed music group with 9th Wonder and Pharoahe Monch, but it is also a message about resilience, authenticity, and self-determination.
The essay begins with Kweli as a high school student in Brooklyn, New York, where he admits that he often cut class to hang out with his friends, perfecting their rap skills and challenging fellow Brooklyn Tech students and other area kids. It was during these times, he says, that “my real education began.” As a youth, he developed a particular affinity for the Native Tongues, who would go on to inspire his serious pursuit of a Rap career. “At a time when even the realest hip-hop personalities seemed like caricatures of themselves at best, the Native Tongues crew came through and made me feel like it was okay to just be myself,” he writes. It was this sense of authenticity that would sow his own musical seeds. “As they brought in more artists, it became clear that it wasn’t mandatory to dress like De La Soul were to be in the Native Tongues, you just had to be true to yourself. The bond that this incredible group of artists had was a musical one and it inspired me to no end…My debut album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, is soaked in the influence of the Native Tongues crew. It is quite literally our take on what De La, Tribe and Jungle Brothers were doing years before us, with a little Big Daddy Kane/Slick Rick/Rakim-esque lyricism thrown in for good measure.”
Kweli then goes on to detail his work with Rawkus Records, and Pharoahe Monch’s role in bringing the indie label a mainstream success story with “Simon Says,” a feat which echoed the inspirational encouragement as Native Tongues had provided him. “Pharoahe Monch was instrumental in providing proof to other hip-hop artists of the time that you could remain your true self and still be successful making the exact type of music you heard in your mind and heart,” Kweli writes. “Around this time there were three friends by the name of Big Pooh, Phonte and 9th Wonder who were attending North Carolina Central University in Durham that were inspired by all of this raw, independent Hip-Hop music to form their own group and put out an album,” he says. They put it out thru an indie label from the Bay called ABB Records and it was immediately hailed as an underground classic. I remember the first thing I thought when I heard it, reminding me of of what Yasiin and I were doing with Black Star.”
For much of the essay, Kweli lists more influences (including the influx of powerhouse mainstream Rap outfits like Bad Boy, Rocafella, and others) who helped bring money and attention to the world of Hip-Hop. “This created a tide that raised all of our boats and 9th took notice. Jamla Records circled their wagons and began to release stellar music from MC’s like Rapsody, SkyZoo and GQ, and soon Jamla was elevated to the level of the other indie labels that it was competing with…Jamla became like an underground Motown, cranking out high quality hip-hop very efficiently,” he explains. All of these examples, taken as a whole, jettisoned Kweli into his own solo trajectory but it wasn’t until 2011 that he says he truly made a change in his career. “In 2011, after 9 albums, I made a decision to leave the traditional music industry alone and instead build an ‘industry’ around myself. I started a label called Javotti Media, named after my grandmother Javotti Greene. I looked to 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records for inspiration,” says Kweli. And thus, INDIE 500 was born.
“The idea of creating a crew called INDIE 500 came out of a Twitter conversation,” he divulges. “After a couple of DMs, 9th suggested that we form a crew based on our independent spirit and that we involve Pharoahe Monch, a favorite artist of both of ours.” After all those years and their respective successful careers, the 3 were once again connected through their desire to work for themselves and their fans, but that symbiosis began to expand into a much larger vision. “Once we all started cutting records together it was clear to me that INDIE 500 extended far beyond the original founding members, it was anyone we worked with that did their thing independently,” says Kweli.
On the heels of their eponymous debut, INDIE 500 now includes dozens of artists and creative types, including and beyond the artists featured on the album. And, to bring it musically full circle, Kweli says the LP “is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Native Tongues and it puts the skills of our respective crews on full display.” INDIE 500 is now available on iTunes.