In the prologue of Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story, Talib Kweli takes pains to say that his first book shouldn't be treated as a manifesto, a guidebook, or "a rallying cry for real hip-hop." Rather, his memoir outlines the evolution of hip-hop and Kweli's experiences in that ecosystem, and traces his journey from the Five Percent Nation to boarding school in Connecticut to eventually reaching the "top of the nerd food chain" by establishing a career that's spanned decades and found Kweli routinely collaborating with the biggest names in rap. While he delights in recounting his successes, he's just as quick to dedicate chapters to tales of going broke, screwing up, and letting people down.
Kweli also writes in his book about the necessity of reaching across generational lines to uplift artists who came before and after, the value of carefully curating what you consume, and even the pitfalls of internet culture, from the early message board days to the ceaseless chaos of Twitter. During a conversation with AllMusic, he discussed the experiences and mindset that guided his career, the internal contradictions that successful artists have to learn to navigate, and when this lifelong student of hip-hop realized he no longer felt obligated to keep up with the relentless influx of new artists and styles. Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story is out now.
AllMusic: Your book delves the general history of hip-hop, not just your involvement in it. Did you always plan on that being an aspect of the book?
Talib Kweli: My story is a hip-hop story, my story is a story of community, the story of [Kweli's parents] Perry and Brenda. I don't exist without those things, so I didn't see how I could tell my story properly without telling the story of my neighborhood, of certain things that really inspired me, because not everybody was there for these things, and I really wanted to give the audience context.
AllMusic: Did you read other music memoirs to think about where yours might fit in with that world?
Kweli: I read a lot of music biographies, and I enjoy biographies in general, but I was looking at myself more in the canon of Black authors who told their stories, like a Richard Wright or Maya Angelou. I do know that when I started working on it, the Keith Richards biography had just come out, and Patti Smith had just come out, so those were inspiring to me.
AllMusic: You get into your family tree and trace it back a ways, were those details common knowledge in your family when you were growing up?
Kweli: I sort of interviewed my parents, I sat with them and said, "Tell me about your history, tell me about growing up," so some of that about my parents and the history of their parents, I learned from doing this. A lot of it I knew, and it filled in the blanks of a lot of things I was only marginally aware of.
AllMusic: Was that an experience you'd recommend to other people?
Kweli: It was beautiful, it was great to get that sort of perspective, and it was great to think about them as not fully-developed parents, it was great to think of them as young people trying to figure it out in the world.
AllMusic: I appreciated the honesty about your early exposure to rap being the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" instead of something more cool and obscure.
Kweli: Those records were a matter of proximity, right? Those records were huge in the culture, huge mainstream records, records that everybody in the country was a part of.
AllMusic: Do you still remember all the words to the "Super Bowl Shuffle"?
Kweli: Oh yeah. William "Refrigerator" Perry was a big deal back then. I remember the novelty of him rapping about the fact that he's so big and people only expect him to be this big football guy. He goes, "You've seen me hit, you've seen me run/When I kick and pass, we'll have more fun/I can dance, you will see/The others, they all learn from me." As a kid, it was hilarious that he was the one who taught them all how to dance.
AllMusic: You write about your relationship to the internet at a few points in your book. How do you think your life would have been different if the internet had been around in your formative years?
Kweli: I read a diary of mine recently, I kept a diary in junior high school, and it was a pretty detailed diary, I didn't hold back. I thought about if I had social media, my life would be ruined right now. I can't imagine being a young person, navigating a world in which the social norm is for you to put all your business in such a public forum, and I can't imagine how that makes you develop. Obviously, everyone is different, not everyone uses it the same, and not everyone cares about it, but I do notice that with younger people, they are more accepting of certain things that my generation wouldn't have accepted, like putting people's personal information online, or emoting in certain ways. Not that emoting is a bad thing, but it can be weaponized against you if you're sharing all your emotions with strangers.
AllMusic: You also make a point of discussing the importance of the older generation of artists uplifting younger talent. Did you always have that attitude?
Kweli: If you listen to my early music, I came from a community that was always like, "We have to pay tribute to our ancestors," and a lot of my records were talking about b-boys and keeping hip-hop on vinyl and paying tribute to the Rock Steady Crew and people who came before us, and that was very important. But I feel like if you're going to be like that, it's got to go both ways. I know that early in my career, people would often try to use me and other artists as a way to diss more mainstream artists, or younger artists, or artists who weren't doing real hip-hop. "I like Talib Kweli and Mos Def because they keep it real, they're way better than these other guys."
Especially being a Black artist and knowing what Black artists have to go through, that's not something I ever wanted to celebrate. I didn't want to be used as a measuring stick for how good some other artist is, because who's to judge what experience leads someone to create the art that they make? I don't have to like it, but I don't have to be a barometer for dissing it. And early in my career, I saw that the way in which some of my peers talked about music, talked about hip-hop, was the same way that old people talked about music they didn't understand, and that's not something I ever thought was productive or healthy. If it's not for you, it's not for you, everything isn't for everybody.
AllMusic: Was there a moment when you suddenly realized you weren't part of the younger group of artists anymore?
Kweli: I DJ now, and for a long time, I made it my business to keep up with the trends. If I didn't know about a city when I went to it, I'd listen to the radio and figure out what was trendy there, but once I turned 40, I slowed down on doing that. It wasn't a conscious thing, it was more like, "OK, I have no interest in keeping up with everything." Before, I did it because I really wanted to know, I really was enamored with the idea of being someone who knew everything about music, and now I really don't care at all, I only focus on what I need to focus on for myself. Other things are more important to me. I think it would have happened to me sooner if I wasn't involved with it for a living. Other people probably start feeling like that at 30.
AllMusic: There's a story in the book about Q-Tip praising an early performance of yours, which meant a lot to you. Once you had success and were able to give other artists that sort of co-sign, did you feel you had to be selective about who you gave it to?
Kweli: The way I look at it, I don't look at it as some exclusive club. I know for a fact how hard it is to make a good song, much less a good album. Making a good song is one of the hardest things in the world to do, that's why people cherish art so much, because it's a prize commodity, not everyone can do it. People who make good songs over and over again, they become heroes, icons. That's because making a good song is such a hard task. So to me, if you've made one song that I like, then I'm treating you like a brother or a sister. I'm treating you like, "OK, we're in this art shit together." I don't have to like everything you do, but if you make one song I like, then I've got to give it up.
AllMusic: You describe Nas as someone whose path took him from being a smart observer of the culture to being a reluctant participant in it. That struck me as an astute description of a common trap of success.
Kweli: I've done that, I've definitely found myself doing and saying things based on being a famous person that made me cringe, like, "Wow, how could you be like that?" I've definitely gone through that. When I listened to Drake's music when he first came out, a lot of his rhymes were like, "I'm at this club drinking champagne, and I don't really want to drink this champagne, but they're putting it on my table in front of me." And now he's like, "I'm Champagne Papi." I've always been interested in that kind of artist.
AllMusic: Was it an obvious decision to include a whole chapter about your use of Twitter?
Kweli: That was definitely obvious to include. But I've since been suspended from Twitter, so I had a conversation with the book people -- I'd already turned it in -- and I was like, "Can I add a paragraph to address my suspension?" and they were like, "No, it's already turned in," so that can be in the next book. But I was on Twitter actively for 10 years, and if I didn't get suspended, I might still be on there right now. If you look back at my history on Twitter, there were a lot of things I saw early on, like getting trolled by the Proud Boys, there's a lot of things that are coming up now that my Twitter was documenting 10 years ago, so I definitely think it was an important thing. But I'm also glad that it's over. Whether it was a suspension or my own free will, it was definitely time for me to do something else with my time.