Rapper Talib Kweli and singer Res discuss defying musical definitions, and the ten-year collaboration that culminated in Habits of the Heart
by Tony Ware
The extended interview with Idle Warship’s Talib Kweli and Res
Friends and collaborators since 2000, Talib Kweli and Res launched their Idle Warship project in 2009 as a vehicle to explore styles, topics and characters independent of any preconceived notions of what’s appropriate for a conscious MC and a neo-soul singer, respectively. Following several years of online drops, the duo has compiled Habits of the Heart, Idle Warship’s debut full-length. Featuring contributions from producers Farhot, Max Drummey, DJ Khalil, M-Phazes and Steve Mckie, as well as collaboration with artists and musicians including Jean Grae, Jay Knocka, Chester French, John Forte, Kay Cola, Michelle Williams, bassists Brady Watt and Brian Cockerham, keyboardist Masayuki Hirano, drummer Daru Jones and guitarist John Cave, the jazzy robofunk honors no one musical deity. Featuring fluid Res-heavy verses and an MC’s ear for air-pushing arrangements, Habits of the Heart balances bang and flow, and here the project’s partners discuss its assembly.
How did you initially conceive the rules to define Idle Warship, and how to break the rules with the project?Talib Kweli: [Me and Res] have been working on music together for a long time. We shared a manager early in our careers, and we ended up being around each other, at each other shows and in the studio together often. And I think we have sounds that really came to complement one another. So we got a to point four years ago where we were both frustrated with the industry and how hard it was for artists like ourselves who struggle to not be defined to come to terms with how people were starting to define us. So we started Idle Warship to wrestle our definitions back from public perceptions, and create our own definitions of how we saw ourselves as artists.
You’ve definitely said you do not consider the project to be hip-hop … so if you’re taking back the definition, what’s the best classification?
Kweli: I just don’t think it can be defined. I have yet to see a write-up about Idle Warship that correctly defines what we’re doing. I’ve seen great attempts, but I don’t think it can be defined. It’s more definitive on the album [Habits of the Heart] than it has been in the entire existence of Idle Warship. That album is cohesive; it has a certain sound. Its influences are very soulful; it comes from dance music, hip-hop influences, but it would be wrong to say it is hip-hop.
Res: The album is more about not even necessarily what’s going on in music right now but just the general sense that we’re in the day and age of music that two artists who do completely different things can make an album and a creative effort that is accepted because people listen to different types of music and like it. More than ever now artists are coming into the game and changing it by blending the genres together and coming up with quirky combinations. Like, MIA and Gucci Mane are doing songs together and I don’t know what that would sound like, which is exciting. This group will always be more about what Kweli and I like at the moment we decide to create the song or body of work, rather than what’s going on as far as what genre it needs to be put in so people will buy it. It’s more about just creating music we’ve never done before.
So, playing off the album title, tell me about your habits and what is at the heart of your creative process.
Res: I don’t know if I consciously think of things while I’m making the songs. I’ve been a singer since I was eight years old and I love to sing and love music and Kweli and I happen to like a lot of the same things musically so we collaborate. It’s not so premeditated. I don’t have an answer. The heartbeat for me is the two people together making music no one has heard them do before, plus the artists we had along for the ride who helped produce, write the melodies, background parts, string arrangements. The heartbeat of the album is the actual music, the intention of doing something that no one has ever heard us do before. As far as the theme of the record, technically we did think it could be about this small town girl who wants to be in the industry and wants to make it, but that even morphed into something else, and I think that’s how the best music is made. We didn’t sit down and think point by point what we’d make the album about, it just organically happened and we rolled with it. As far as what each song is about it just came together from two people. And Kweli especially took a lot of direction as to what beats we’d chose, who was going to help write, and I pretty much followed his lead on it and I think that’s interesting in itself. But as far as the whole heartbeat of the record, for me I think it’s the fact that there are two artists that wanted to make music that their individual fans would not expect.
Kweli: One of the underlying things about our careers at this point is that we’re not kids anymore. Me and Res, we’re both full-grown adults. So thematically there are just some subjects that will be in our minds that aren’t in the minds of kids. But we’re still people who go out, are in nightclubs, performing throughout the world, so we still like to have fun. So I think the basic premise of Idle Warship was to have fun, and the tracks that we picked I think are just tracks that were fun to us and wouldn’t be on our own respective recent solo albums. Then we got with different producers and songwriters who are the same age and do the same things so as a collective we came up with these songs, and that’s why the theme is a little deeper than maybe you would expect on some of these more fun beats. Songs like “Enemy,” and “Driving Me Insane.”
Res: Or even like “Rat Race,” which seems like a happy song, but it’s real.
Kweli: The material is not what 20 year olds would be writing, but it’s stuff that is set to a backdrop that makes it more interesting to many different people of different ages.
Having the opportunity to have characters in songs, performing under a name other than your own, is it liberating? Can you explore things you wouldn’t usually since there is that level of disassociation?
Kweli: I love it. One of my most favorite things to do is perform with Idle Warship. It allows me to truly be an artist on stage, as opposed to be someone with a legacy to uphold or someone with certain expectations. I can go up and say whatever, dance however, sing whateve
So tell me what type of people you are privately, behind closed doors in the studio, and then whom you get to be as part of Idle Warship.
Res: I think I would describe Kweli as a person that is very passionate. I think it’s the quality you see: a very passionate artist who is always exploring, always working with new artists, new producers, at any given chance. He’s very open and dedicated to his craft, and going beyond just rapping. And on the album I think we both play characters. I think because I really know him I know there’s not just a serious, politically conscious MC side of Kweli. I see more than that, more of the playful, educated but definitely silly and down to earth side. He’s not like the average man, but he’s like the average man. He likes to go out, have a good time. And I think on the album he plays more of that role instead of the role of someone who will teach you something in every song. It’s good for people to see he’s not just reading the newspaper and on NAACP.com every day.
Kweli: I think Res is a boss. And I think musically, boss-wise, it’s like a Biggie thing. Biggie is the type of artist that had an amazing voice, a flow, a storytelling ability. But if you know his story you know he wasn’t really focused on the music, he was hustling; he would get it no matter what. I look at Res as being that type of singer where she has this amazing, supernatural voice, but I think that the singing thing was just something Res did naturally and I’ve watched Res grow as someone who was just like, ‘Hey I can sing let’s do an album’ to someone who is like ‘This is who I am as a person, it’s what I do.’ It’s more than a job or hobby it’s a calling. And on the album it’s interesting because there’s subject matter and songs … the story on this album will be the fact I do underground hip-hop and this is a departure from that, but there’s stories, vocal pitches, things on this album that Res is doing on this album that I haven’t heard her do, and even in the studio we had to sit and figure out how we would approach certain things and it was fun to watch. I just think of Res being a boss, but a boss who is her own boss, and is constantly growing.
So when you first met how did you find your vocal tones and flow complemented each other, and how over time has the interplay grown and changed?
Res: I think, like Kweli said in the beginning, it’s just a different energy that I have about things, and I think when we’re in the studio songs are written. I think when people hear the record they think it’s a Res-heavy record, but that’s the surface. For the songs to get to that point you have to think about the structure, when you’re going into the studio, where the beats are coming from, and a lot of people give Kweli a lot of great music we were able to explore. And on stage live we complement each other more now than we even did in the past; the chemistry is undeniable.
Where in your tonal range are you now exploring that you feel you didn’t before?
Res: Well, it’s just a lot of singing physically. I usually only do about 10 songs in an hour set [when I perform solo], and I think in our set now we do maybe double that. But I learned that you gotta give people now only what they but what they don’t even know they can get just to leave their jaws dropping. Sometimes people go into a situation saying they don’t want to give them too much, they’ll get bored it’s better to keep them wanting more. I’ve been to shows where I’d rather just hear the hits, but with this group I think it’s important to bring them through the journey of the album and give them a little bit of what we do individually and a lot of what we’re doing together. As well, in these songs I think the keys are really high and even though I can reach those notes at times it’s usually not something I usually push for as it’s such a challenge to go into that register everyday. But with this group we get the adrenaline going, the band kicks in, and I just rise up to the occasion.
Do you have any recording or performing habits that you are able to counter or complement through having a collaborator?
Kweli: I can say that definitely performing with a singer … as a rapper it’s easy to get caught up in the vibe of the audience and start yelling into the mic, but when you’re with a singer you see it’s not just yelling to the crowd, getting it hype, it’s hitting your notes and making sure it sounds the way it’s supposed to sound. Certainly working with a singer as talented as Res I have learned that. And working with Idle Warship, I take a band out more often now on my solo gigs but with Idle Warship it’s always there, and working with a band I’m learning more about myself as a performer. I’m able to conserve my energy better on stage, even with a DJ now. I just did a run in Europe with a DJ and the stuff I learned from Idle Warship shows I was able to incorporate; I could breathe better, interact with the crowd differently, incorporate different influences, it’s been a great thing. I’m able to more intellectualize it, to see the show from outside my head and know when to conserve energy, when to go harder, when to sing as opposed to rap; there’s just a lot more stuff I can do now, and pacing is a big part of it.
Res: And he sings during a full-fledged punk joint by himself. For me, when I started Idle Warship I was like how am I going to sing the chorus and do a 16-bar rap hype. It threw me off; I thought it would be easier than it really is. Your adrenaline gets you going and you can get out of breath and screw up the rest of the song. So I have to control my energy up to do a super high-energy show; my solo shows aren’t usually like that but I want to get them that way after doing Idle Warship, and I feel like Kweli’s shows are always that way. Keeping it upbeat can be physically a challenge at times.
When we’re on stage we both back each other up vocally a lot. He’ll sing background parts, or he’s there hyping the crowd up while I sing, and I’m trying to do the same when he’s performing. It’s innate, a situation that shows how we’ve gotten better as time has gone on. In this situation I feel like I’ve doing way more than I even felt I could do, and it’s definitely because of this group. It helps me grow as an artist.
Have you established any Idle Warship traditions yet – things that get you in the mindset for recording or performing?
Res: I think a fun thing is we’ll take like a music vacation, where we’ll go to a place that’s really interesting like Puerto Rico, somewhere in the Caribbean, and we’ll go have an engineer come out with us and he’ll create a studio in his room. So we’ll bring a couple writers out and we’ll put together songs in paradise. But it’s pretty matter of fact. It’s not one-trick ponies, but it’s pretty matter of fact; we’re just artists and we make music.
How have these musical vacations influenced the Idle Warship album, and what have you brought from your solo careers into these sessions?
Kweli: Well, with me, I’m at the point in my life where everything is running at the same time, concurrently, so I’m working on Black Starr, solo music, Idle Warship, Jean Grae, Blacksmith Music stuff … so I live in the studio. When I’m in the studio I can’t restrict myself to say okay, this session is for this project. It can get confusing with the managers and business people and invoices, so later I have to go back and remember what hours I spent on what since the money comes from different sources, but the process is all coinciding. When we first started working on Idle Warship, it was because having Res in the studio already made sense for me. Whenever I’m working on a project – solo, with Hi-Tek, anytime – I would always call Res and we would just vibe out, and we were doing it so often Idle Warship popped off. So me and Hi-Tek went to Jamaica to record the Reflection Eternal album I’m putting out this year as well, and Res came along we came up with a lot of the ideas there. So it’s become I guess a kind of tradition at this point to travel, but it’s not like we’re just doing it for Idle Warship; I go there to work on whatever comes to mind and having someone as talented as Res there makes sense. follow-up and Res came with us. The idea was essentially let’s just get in there and make songs, and we came up with a couple Idle Warship songs on that trip. Then a couple years later I went back to San Juan, I started working on the Prisoner of Consciousness.
So, when recording on these musical vacations, do you throw together temporary vocals booths with mattresses in a closet? Do you record in fields and hallways?
Kweli: We’ve got Idle Warship songs like that; a lot of that stuff was recorded however, wherever.
Res: There were times in the very beginning where we did songs without being in the same studio, so I would record at a friend’s house, he’s be in a studio, he’d send a track by email, I’d send back vocals, he’d record vocals, we’d get a mix. Then in Jamaica instead of using a booth we used a corner underneath the stairs that had the best reverb. We pretty much keep it really basic. I’m not sure of any special preamps or anything like that. I know I recorded one song, “Beautifully Bad,” at Larry Gold’s studio, and they have a lot of equipment, a lot of vintage gear. Larry Gold did all the grand string arrangements for all the Sound of Philadelphia stuff, like Teddy Pendergrass songs and stuff like that. So I recorded vocals in that place and really liked them because I think they used a [Neumann TLM] 67 mic, or a [Neumann U] 47, and they capture the resonance, the vibe in my voice really well. And, you know, we used a lot of keyboards. Our keyboardist Yuki, I don’t know if he played on every song but the ones he did play on he used a lot of pads, crazy sounds, and I know he uses two different kinds of [Yamaha] Motifs, a Nord, Korg products. We have the drummer, bass, guitar, keys, and it gets the job done that way. We have stuff triggered off drum pads as well.
Kweli: My vocals in “Rat Race” were definitely recorded at this house in San Juan I rented last year. We had [frequent Talib Kweli album engineer] Dave Dar in there, staying in a separate backhouse, and we had to record during the day before the frogs came out because they were too loud to record at night. I actually have them on my solo album and Jean Grae, who came out with us as well, has them on a song she put out. [Ed. Note: See Sidebar for More On-location Recording Specifics]
With the live instrumentation, is it written to the track and recorded as a complete take, is it recorded as freestyles then treated as a sample source, or both?
Res: I think the producer usually has the beat laid out, so the process is usually to take that skeleton and get the live musicians on there. It’s similar to a N.E.R.D. album where you hear the MPC version and then the version with a live band and you see it’s more impactful. Once we have the base track we have musicians play over it and add to it, then we have someone mix it, and then it becomes a completely different, more grand and musical song. Live parts really enhance it.
So, you’re moving between different recording spaces and sessions and contributors and projects a lot … what helps get the ideas laid down most efficiently?
Kweli: To me it’s all about the engineer. Like, I use this studio in Brooklyn, Rough Magic, a lot because it’s confortable, not flashy … and next door there’s this band Soulive who are incredibly talented and there’s always musicians going through their studio so it’s a good vibe to be near that. My engineer, Dave Dar, is a good friend of mine and works on my hip-hop stuff and makes trips with us, so when I travel I take him. And then there’s this guy Alby Cohen at Rough Magic who’s a total music geek and really gets involved in the project he works on. He was a big reason I use that studio. [Ed. Note: See Sidebar for More Rough Magic Recording Specifics]
Is there a preferred workstation you use to allow you to share projects between all your projects and sessions?
Kweli: I use Pro Tools for just about everything at this point when I’m coming up with ideas. I’m definitely a fan of laying stuff as analog as possible, so even if we lay it in Pro Tools I like to put it on a 2-inch reel if possible. We didn’t do it for Idle Warship, but I did it for all my solo albums. Pro Tools just seems too easy to front on for me, so that’s why I use it. I’ve gone to studios with Logic, and that’s cool for them, but Pro Tools I’m stuck on because more people I work with have it.
Walk me through a track that you feel best exemplifies the album, that best exhibits the flow of the recording process.
Res: I don’t think any track best shows the process, because it’s not premeditated. The way we made these songs was different every single time and never really duplicated past the process of booking a space and showing up at a specific time.
Kweli: It’s true, but I will say that if I had to pick one song it would be “Enemy.” There’s a producer named Farhot from Germany, and he produced a majority of stuff on the album. Farhot has all these incredible musical ideas that he makes at home and I just felt like they were suited to what Idle does. He sent me tons of tracks, all different types, and a lot I was interested in using but it was too out there for the solo hip-hop stuff I’m known for. So Res was actually on tour with me for Gutter Rainbows, up in the Pacific Northwest, and we stopped at this friend of a friend’s home studio, and we sat there in the room with Farhot’s track and just laid it and forgot about it. Then months later, working on the album while touring in some small California town, we remembered it, listened back to it, and it just is really us, nobody else wrote on it so it really captures our energy. And I’m playing a character. I don’t say the word “bitch” on records like that; I’m beating women up, Res is being the victim, and that’s not us. But that’s what I think is the beauty of Idle Warship … we’re not restricted to any one approach. After we wrote our parts we had our band come and play on it, we sent it to Farhot and he mixed it all back together, and now we start with that song on the album and we start with that song in our shows.
How long was the entire process, from the selection of the first beat till you sent it to mastering, and how much time was spent in the studio?
Kweli: I would say it took about a year, and we recorded for three or four months of that.
What is an example of a track that took the most work to get it to express exactly what you had in your heads?
Res: I think there’s one song that seemed like it kept going back and forth … it might have been “Are You In,” just because it was written by a few people, and sometimes when people write songs with you or for you they reference the track, so we had different writers writing on one song and we had to figure out how to incorporate different verses, choruses, sections. And that was a bit weird for me as I usually don’t do stuff like that, and when I got the song back from the mix engineer I almost didn’t know what it was because it developed so much from the demo stage to the actual album mix. Some songs got more developed, and some stayed pretty much exactly the same as the first time we demoed it.
Do most tracks just start with a beat and some chords or are they more fleshed out arrangements?
Res: No. It’s hard to explain, as every song is different. We’d just have a version of the song and when it came time to have musicians add to the song, replay parts that were already on the demo, they naturally embellished on them.
Kweli: That’s something that’s very influenced by hip-hop, the process through which we picked the track. With a band things start with one part and each member comes in and adds something, while others change things based on those additions. But with these songs most of the tracks were fully developed as musical ideas when we started on them. We just added our spin on them. We did add some flourishes when the band played on it, even though it was mostly replaying parts rather than writing completely new ones. When we play live, though, it becomes something totally different. But from watching Res write, put together music, I can say this album was closer to how I put an album together, where I get tracks and those dictate where we write, what we write.
How do each of you vibe differently on a track when writing, and how has Idle Warship allowed you to expand your approach?
Kweli: I definitely come from writing first and fitting my writing to the music, but as my career has developed I’ve moved further away from that and tried writing more to the music. But because of the way I started I find different rhythms and different melodies, and that’s always what people have said about my flow, that sometimes I sound off beat or that I use too many words, but I feel like I’ve figured it out to where it works for me and it’s my style. With Idle Warship I don’t have to be so much on a specific style, so I’ve even been purposefully looking on some of these songs for a different beat, a different rhythm to write to. What I’ve tried to learn how to do, but I’m still not good at, is to create melodies on top of a beat. That’s something I feel like I’ve never been good at. I’ve done it by mistake sometimes while I flow, I have a natural rhythm and it can do it, but I don’t feel like I have a way to bring a natural melody to a song.
Res: I think for me it’s the drums and guitar that spark my interest in the record, and just the overall sound of things. That helps me understand what the song is going to be about. I definitely don’t write lyrics before I hear the track, but I think I take a lot of time trying to find out what to say, and sometimes it comes to me and sometimes it doesn’t, so it’s good to write with other people.
Over the years have you changed the way you like to record yourself? Have you found an approach that works best?
Res: I learned that basically that the first idea that comes to mind is usually my best. Melody usually comes to me first. Usually I like to write at home, sitting in my bed, surrounded by nothing but thoughts. That’s better than writing in the studio. I usually like to be in the studio with the least amount of people possible. I don’t feel comfortable with a whole lot of things going on. But you can’t always have it that way so you learn to adjust. For me, I like to write at home with the beat done, sent to me, I play it on the laptop, and when I’m done I go to the studio and lay it down, just me and the engineer.
Anything you’d like to add about the project?Res: Let people know about our website, IdleWarship.com, our tumblr, and that the album is out on iTunes!
Recording Specifics Sidebar
What were some standard vocal chains used while recording portions of the album in Rough Magic Studios?
Alby Cohen: The standard chain for Habits of the Heart at my studio was a Neumann U87ai through the Avalon VT-737sp [Class A mono tube channel strip].
What made up the portable workstation(s) used while on writers’ retreat in Jamaica and Puerto Rico?
Dave Dar: In Jamaica we used a MacBook Pro, Digi 002 rack, Focusrite TrakMaster Pro [channel strip compressor], AKG C3000b mic and Genelec 8030s. In Puerto Rico we used a MacBook Pro, [Avid] Mbox Pro, PreSonus Eureka, AKG C3000b and Genelec 8030s. I constructed makeshift booths with materials lying around the premises (door panels, curtains, rugs).
What are typical signal chains used for recording members of the live band?
Alby Cohen: For the bass (Brady Watt or Brian Cockerham) I was just going direct through the Avalon 737 DI. I left the sonic work to the mixing engineers when it came to reamping for their own color, whether it be in the box or through their own chains. For guitars (John Cave) I set up an AKG C414 through an API 312 preamp, a Shure SM57 through a Joe Meek VC6Q channel strip and the Neumann U87ai through the Avalon. For keys I usually went direct from Yuki's Nord right into the DIs of an AMEK System 9098 Dual mic pre we had been using at the time. On the upright we piano we were using I put two Neumanns (through the AMEK 9098) on the front and an Electro-Voice RE20 on the back (through the Avalon). For the horns I used a 57 on the trumpet through an API. The trombone was picked up by an RE20 and run through the Avalon, the sax was recorded on a 421 through a Focusrite Red 8 and I set up a stereo room image with a pair of U87s running through the Amek 9098.
What were some of the most memorable recording sessions?
Alby Cohen: I loved tracking and arranging the strings on “Rat Race” with Chad Hammer and Gene Back. It was actually the first time I had done that for Kweli. Chad, Gene and I were in a small studio space recording triples of all of their parts and then writing multiple lines and counterpoints all tripled. It sounds so big, but it was just four mics, two string players and me. We actually ended up putting together four more songs for Kweli on his upcoming album Prisoner Of Conscience.
Dave Dar: We recorded at the highest point in Puerto Rico, up in the rainforest. If you listen closely, you will hear the coquí frogs in the background of some of the tracks. We also recorded at the Villa Orleans, which is a fly resort on the beach. Keep an ear open for crashing waves on the "Ocean Song."