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 Idle Warship?
Talib Kweli: [Res and I] have been working on music together for a long time. And I think we have sounds that really came to complement one another. So we got to a 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.
You’ve said you do not consider the project to be hip-hop. If you’re taking back the definition, what’s the best classification?
Kweli: I just don’t think it can be defined. It’s more definitive on the album than it has been in the entire existence of Idle Warship. The album is cohesive; it has a certain sound. Its influences are very soulful, it comes from dance music, hip-hop, but it would be wrong to say it is hip-hop.
Res: 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 what is at the heart of your creative process.
Res: 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.
Kweli: One of the underlying things about our careers at this point is that we’re not kids anymore. 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, and 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 are just tracks that were fun to us and wouldn’t be on our own respective recent solo albums.
Do you have any habits that you are able to counter or complement through having a collaborator?
Kweli: 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 hyped, it’s hitting your notes and making sure it sounds the way it’s supposed to sound . . . working with a band, I’m learning more about myself as a performer. 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 . . . pacing is a big part of it.
Res: When we’re onstage, 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’m 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.
What gets you into the mindset for recording or performing?
Res: 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.
So, when recording on location, do you throw together temporary vocal booths with mattresses in a closet, or record in fields and hallways?
Kweli: My vocals in “Rat Race” were recorded at this house I rented in San Juan 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 [hip-hop artist] Jean Grae, who came out with us as well, has them on a song she put out.
You’re moving between recording spaces, sessions, contributors, and projects a lot; how do you lay down ideas efficiently?
Kweli: To me, it’s all about the engineer. I use this studio in Brooklyn, Rough Magic, a lot, because it’s comfortable, not flashy . . . 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. [Learn more about location and studio recording in “The Habits of the Heart Sessions”.]
How do you share projects?
Kweli: I use Pro Tools for just about everything at this point when I’m coming up with ideas. 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 flow of the recording process.
Res: 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. 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. Res was on tour with me for Gutter Rainbows, up in the Pacific Northwest, and we stopped at a 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.
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?
Kweli: I would say it took about a year, and we recorded for three or four months of that.
Do most tracks just start with a beat and some chords, or are they more fleshed-out arrangements?
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, though it was more replaying or adding to parts rather than writing completely new ones. When we play live, though, it becomes something totally different.
How do each of you vibe on a track when you are 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: 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 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.
The Habits of the Heart Sessions
Engineers Alby Cohen and Dave Dar share recording details
What were some standard vocal chains used while recording portions of the album in Rough Magic Studios in Brooklyn?
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 were your portable workstations 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?
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 re-amping for their own color, whether 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 Joemeek 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. On upright piano, 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?
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 for his upcoming album Prisoner of Conscience.
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.”
Tony Ware is a writer, editor, family man, budget satorialist, headphones enthusiast, and rumpshaker.
Read extended interviews
with Talib Kweli and Res.