“I can’t really separate that or say that it’s easier or feel guilty about it because it’s the music that makes my voice valuable to so many people.”
On March 31, hip-hop icons Talib Kweli and GZA of Wu-Tang Clan will perform with the New Orleans brass ensemble the Soul Rebels at Big Night Live. It will be the only time that this is happening as part of the latter act’s current tour, and it’s bound to be special.
It’s also a prime opportunity to see two of the best rappers on the planet rhyme over horns. Kweli and I spoke ahead of the show about how this whole thing came together, performing with a band versus a DJ, the podcast that he started with some famous folks, and an update on that upcoming Black Star record.
How did you get involved in this exclusive show with GZA and the Soul Rebels and who had the idea to make it a one-night only thing?
The Soul Rebels are good friends of mine, I’ve been touring with them and doing shows with them for a number of years. I’ve also done shows with them and GZA over the years and GZA and I have done shows together without the Soul Rebels. This is pretty much a family event for me.
Everyone knows that the dynamic between the DJ and the rapper is part of the foundation of hip hop, so when the DJ is replaced with a brass ensemble like the Soul Rebels, does it change anything for you in terms of delivery or technique?
One thing that’s significant when I perform with the Soul Rebels is if I’m performing with a DJ, I have a lot more space for my voice to test the audience. With the Soul Rebels, I have to really trust the band and trust the sound people because there’s a lot more music involved. I give all respect to those guys because they’re real hip hop fans, they know what they’re doing and they’ve somehow been able to recreate hip-hop jams with horns. It’s amazing to watch.
When it comes to the overall vibe of performing with them, what makes it different when it comes to performing with them versus with a DJ or with another MC and a DJ or anything like that? You just said how it’s amazing that they convert the samples and the beats into horn arrangements, so does it all change with that or is it something else that people might not recognize?
It’s both intense and calming at the same time. It’s like walking on a cloud if that makes any sense, it’s something that’s hard to describe.
Back in 2020, Dave Chappelle, Yasiin Bey and yourself started a new podcast called the Midnight Miracle and the episodes for it were recorded during Chappelle’s Summer Camp Shows he put on that year. I find the podcast to have an interesting structure where it’s pretty much a variety show being put forth in a different medium with interviews with various guests and snippets of music with an in-depth approach. What was the experience like for you venturing out to the middle of Ohio to do this podcast?
That was an amazing experience for me. I was there because of the lockdown and I really have a lot of love for Yellow Springs, Ohio. You nailed it when you said that it’s like a variety show because when you think about what Chappelle’s Show was, the Midnight Miracle is sort of like the podcast version of it. It’s not as funny as Chappelle’s Show because you have Black Star with myself and Yasiin so it’s not just about comedy, but you’re right to say that the structure of it and the way that it comes across is absolutely like a variety show. We have new episodes coming soon and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.
What do you enjoy the most about podcasting? You’re a hip-hop artist first, but you’ve been doing podcasts for the past few years so what made you want to get into it? Did you grow up listening to the radio a lot as a kid and it influenced you?
I love radio, I love interviews, I love conversation, I love debate, I love all of that stuff. Podcasting is something that definitely came natural to me and I take it as seriously as I take MCing. When I first started doing it, I had a little bit of guilt because people seem to be as interested, or even more interested, in hearing me talk as they are in my music. Music is harder for me to do because there’s just a lot more put into it so at first I felt guilty because I was just talking but what I had to learn over the process is the reason why me talking is valuable to so many people is because of what I’ve achieved in the world of music. I can’t really separate that or say that it’s easier or feel guilty about it because it’s the music that makes my voice valuable to so many people.
Also, I just had to learn to accept that it’s ok and that this is an art. Most people do not know how to have a conversation, so when people see us having a conversation, which is something that comes very natural to me, people are like, Wow! How is he doing that? I had to learn that not everybody can have a conversation like that.
What’s the status of the next Black Star record? I know that it’s already been done and there’s a ton of anticipation behind it, so are you and Yasiin still figuring out how to release it? Can we expect it to be out this year?
I know it’ll be out this year. I don’t want to announce how, it’ll be more of a surprise, but it’s my priority and I’m looking forward to dropping it. I always have a bunch of stuff going on but that’s my main focus.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.