Respected worldwide for Ph.D.-level lyrics and social commentary, Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli subscribes to a simple formula for quality tracks: MCs and producers in the same space at the same time.
“If there was no time pressure, everything I do would be one-on-one in the studio,” Kweli says. “That physical proximity, the tangible connection, can have an important intangible effect on how you collaborate.”
Best known for his album-length Rawkus collaborations Black Star (with Mos Def and producer Hi-Tek, 1998) and Reflection Eternal (with Hi-Tek, 2000), as well as a string of hot tracks with Kanye West on two solo albums, Kweli clearly plays well with others, as evidenced once again on his new solo album Ear Drum (Blacksmith/Warner Bros., 2006).
Take first single, “Listen,” produced by MC-turned-producer Kwamé (Lloyd Banks “On Fire,” Will Smith “Switch”). After loading rare cut “Tell Her” by '70s R&B group Fred Williams and the Jewels Band on the Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable, Kwamé chopped it up with his Akai MPC2000XL, played live drums and summoned thick organ squawks from the Roland JV-1080. Next, he teamed live guitars with guitar parts from “Tell Her” and reversed it up in the MPC. But the track really pivots on Kweli's lyrical gut reaction to the vocal sample and how producer and MC collaborated once the raw elements were on the table.
“When I first heard it, I connected with the urgency of it,” says Kweli, who recorded an on-the-spot demo of lyrics for the track to bring with him to Kwamé's studio. “The sample says ‘listen’ with such intensity, and that's how I feel with my people: ‘Open your ears and listen to what I've got to say.’ The track serves as a perfect introduction, banging on your eardrums, setting you up for everything to come.”
At the studio, recording on a Digidesign Digi 002 rig, the two combined and refined their visions for the track, deciding on how best to tailor music to lyrics and vice versa. Just as Kweli riffs on the vocal sample, the music itself responds to the verses. For example, when Kweli says “You love the sounds coming out your speaker/I spit rounds like a nine millimeter” at the beginning of the third verse, Kwamé switches up the beat to an 808 boom for four bars before reverting back to the main beat.
“We sat together one-on-one and built that song up. The changes, the drops, everything,” Kwamé says. As a final touch, the producer composed a flute melody on the keyboard, wrote a notation chart and had a flute player lay it down live in the studio.
Kwamé describes the songwriting process as the complete opposite as that of his biggest hit, “On Fire” for Lloyd Banks, in which he never even met the MC. “I sent the files to G-Unit in London, Eminem added some keyboard parts, and I never saw it again,” Kwamé says. “I respected everybody's work ethic, so I had no problem with it, but I wasn't present for the creative process, so when the record was all done, it was all me there but still a big disconnection. That record sold 2 million singles and gave Lloyd Banks a platinum album, but I chose to never have that process done again because I don't ever want to be disconnected with the artist.”
In the pantheon of MCs and producers, you can't get much closer alphabetically than New Yorkers Kwamé and Kweli, so perhaps working side by side in the studio was just a matter of time. But what about out-of-towners? With eclectic and far-flung guests such as UGK, Norah Jones and Sizzla all on Ear Drum, as well as producers West, Hi-Tek, Rick Rubin, Madlib and DJ Khalil, Kweli remains a realist.
“In the studio, back-and-forth is the best way, but it's my job to keep putting music out by any means necessary,” Kweli says. “I'm a working-class MC, and I got to keep putting music out, working however it makes sense to work — e-mail, whatever. You have to be realistic — people live all over the country. But one-on-one in the studio is definitely the ideal.”