9th Wonder and Talib Kweli released their collaborative Indie 500 album on Friday (November 6). Surprisingly it’s the first joint LP between the famed producer and emcee and perhaps the culmination of years of sustained growth and concerted music they’ve created.
Unlike typical collabo albums, the project is more inclusive than just rapper and beatmaker. Members of 9th's JAMLA Records, Talib’s Javotti Media and even Pharoahe Monch’s W.A.R. Media all make appearances. It’s basically stuffed with a bunch of the good s**t you’d expect from them and their kinfolk.
9th Wonder and Talib Kweli are also known for being activists for a greater cause. Talib has been one of hip hop’s biggest advocators for #BlackLivesMatter, marching on the front lines and bringing attention to the movement — among other social issues — via mainstream media.
For 9th, his movement has been with a younger crowd. Recently speaking with BET.com, the North Carolina native broke down why collegiate teaching and activism go hand-in-hand. He explains how social justice activism has changed in hip hop since its inception and why artists now aren’t getting enough credit when it comes to bringing awareness to police brutality, income inequality and prison population. He also let us know who he’s leaning toward in the race for the White House. Hint: it isn’t Donald Trump.
You have a long history of working with Talib Kweli. What did you hope to accomplish with him on Indie 500?
9th Wonder: We’ve never done a full project together. It’s been a few songs here and there. I think Kweli was one of the first rappers that I looked up to that embraced our sound, where it’s been [Little Brother] or whatever. He was one of the first from the Rawkus collective to reach out to me. We’ve been very cool ever since. It’s not a lot of people in this game you can call a friend. Kweli is one of those guys.
We still haven’t done a lot of music together. Maybe it was ‘cause of timing or whatever but this time we decided — along with Pharoahe Monch — to come up with a collective called Indie 500, which Pharoahe Monch named the collective Indie 500. Kweli and I went ahead and did a record together with a lot of Indie 500 artists on it, which is from JAMLA Records that I run, [Kweli] runs Javotti Media and Pharoahe Monch runs W.A.R. Media so we decided to take our collectives and just do a record together.
Give us some background on the project and why you wanted to put this album out after all these years and with all these collectives.
I think the problem with the music we make — and I mean it with a certain feeling — it doesn’t have to be a certain subject matter, but the feel of it, we don’t understand sometimes the power of a collective. The [Maybach Music Groups] and the Young Moneys and the Rich Gangs and all those collectives understand the power of a collective, right? But sometimes we don’t [with] the music that we make. Other than the Soulquarians, Native Tongues, we kind of all out here doing it by ourselves. I guess we kind of understood that it’s power in numbers and just get together and do some music. What could it hurt?
How did you and Talib Kweli meet?
The very first time I met Talib Kweli. Kweli came with his DJ, it wasn’t Hi-Tek at the time, [he] came to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to a venue called The Cat’s Cradle and it was during his Reflection Eternal Tour. Phonte and I went. It was myself, Phonte and a singer by the name of Yahzarah, who was at the time touring with Erykah Badu during the Mama’s Gun Tour. She kind of knew him already but we didn’t. We were just starting out and we weren’t Little Brother yet. [Phonte] was rhyming and I was making beats.
[Talib] said that he wanted to go to Waffle House and we being younger and wanting to get in the game took him to Waffle House. We were riding in the car so of course, we wanted to play beats. I think Phonte played the first version of the beat of “Nighttime Maneuvers” and he thought it was dope and he took time to listen to it. When we went to eat, the next time I saw Kweli after that I was a full-fledged artist by that time, which is like three or four years later.
Did he remember you the second time he saw you?
I was like, “Do you remember me man?” At first he didn’t but after I told him the story he was like, “Damn, that was you?” It was kind of crazy when that happens but the first time I met him was in 2000. And then the second time was like four years later.
You’ve been spending some time with Big K.R.I.T. while he’s on tour. You were the first producer he used beside himself on a project of his with “Life’s a Gamble.” You ever consider doing a project with him?
We have more songs than “Life’s a Gamble,” they just aren’t out yet. That’s something that’s going to have to grow organically. It’s not like a plan that him and I do something. It’s usually like that with people that you’re close to. You spend so much time hanging out or whatever that you can’t even get to the music ‘cause you actually think the person is cool and a genuine person that you like being around and then you never get any work done. We have songs together and you’ll hear them soon.
In your documentary The Wonder Year, Drake talked about working with you in the future. Is that still something that’s possible or has already happened?
That’s on that man [laughs]. I honestly believe that space where he was when he was in love with — and I think he still is with the sound — that boom bap stuff. I think he’s past that. I think that he’s moved onto something that people may see as being bigger. He’s in a different lane. His fans are in the popular sense. You can tell by the albums he put out or the records he put out. He put out a lot of records that appeal to a certain stream but at the same time he has a couple on there that shows everybody that, “You know what? I can still spit now. Let’s not get it confused.” I just think he’s past that sound that myself or Madlib [can make]. I think he still respects it. I just think he’s not there anymore.
Is he past it musically or desire to make it-wise?
I think it’s an audience situation. I’ve come to realize — although I’ve been on some big records — I’ve been on Destiny’s Child records, Mary J. Blige records, but I know they type of music I make is not for mainstream consumption. I know that. If it does become a part of mainstream consumption it’s because everyone is listening to our sound again.
There was a time in hip hop where what [A Tribe Called Quest] did and N.W.A. did and what [LL Cool J] did in the early ‘90s that that was a part of and not necessarily mainstream consumption when it came to Madonna or people like that. It was only mainstream with two artists. It was Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Everybody else was kind of under the line but there was still stuff that you heard on the radio. Now that particular sound doesn’t dominate radio and that’s fine with me. That’s just the way it goes. But that’s what Drake is. He lives there. Although he may listen to a lot of it in his free time, which a lot of people do, but people just know what works in a mainstream fashion.
It has been just over 10 years since The Minstrel Show was released. Does it seem like that long and what does it mean that that album is still revered by so many after a decade?
When you’re in the middle of something you don’t know how big it is. You have no idea what you’re a part of until you step outside of yourself and look at it and see how much an album or piece of work you’ve done really means to a lot to people. You don’t know that until it’s past the times. When the 10th anniversary came up, we didn’t know how many people were in love with us around that time. Maybe if we would’ve had something other than message boards around at that time we would’ve known.
What if The Minstrel Show was released and Twitter was out at that time? The LB fan base a lot of times feels like they are the only ones who like us. It’s not something that’s kind of widespread. Twitter would’ve told them that that’s not the case back in 2005. But we didn’t have that. Our fans were kind of shooting in the dark. We were one of the first groups or first entities in hip hop that we had fans that you really couldn’t put your fingers on. Now, you can see that. You can put your hands on your Instagram followers or your Twitter followers but we hadn’t seen them then. That’s kind of like the deal with us. It’s a surprise of us [going] “Oh, this many people like us? We had no idea!”
You’ve always had a higher purpose than being a producer. You’re a teacher, heavily involved with JAMLA, but you’ve always pushed higher thinking and advocating for social justice. With all of these instances of injustice when it comes to law enforcement, etc., do you see your purpose changing at all?
No, I think that all of us have a different approach. The civil rights activists of the ‘60s, whether it be [Martin Luther King Jr.], Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte, Medgar Evers, Shirley Chisholm the list goes on, whether it be the Black Panther wave or more moderate, everyone has had that particular wave or particular way of being an activist. Some people march, some people are out on the front lines and some people have activism in the classroom. That’s my activism. The classroom. I believe that’s where it starts. It starts because people are being educated or taught certain things then when they get older they activate certain things they were taught.
It just so happens now that maybe I need to go and not just [do] the collegiate level. I need to start [at] fifth grade and just change their mindset. Moral standard and code changes per generation. I think I need to go to fifth grade and start to have conversations with kids and see exactly where they are. By the time they get to me, they’re 19, they’re 20. They’re mind’s made up somewhat and you spend your time trying to either deprogram the mind or get their mind to even speak up. My aim is in the classroom. It’s always been in the classroom.
How has hip hop’s role in social justice activism changed over the years, if it has at all?
I think that it’s changed a lot. I see more rappers being vocal. It’s not all about the march. There are some on the front lines marching but at the same time people are doing things other ways. I’ve seen more rappers getting involved in social justice now than it’s been in a long time, which in the early ‘90s, it was a norm to have something on your album about something. Now, you see rappers kind of changing their tune when it comes to what they talk about on their records. It’s not necessarily all about social justice. It’s more about self worth and self-awareness. Jeezy was at the Million Man March. If you ask a kid or a college student or somebody if you think Jeezy would be at the Million Man March — this is the Snowman — they would be like "nah." We have to understand a lot of cats, Jeezy, myself, everybody, man, we’re growing up so we’re thinking past the “perks” of rap music. At some point you’ve got to start thinking about the future. Like, “Yo man, what am I doing? What is my music doing to people? What can I do to change it? How can I be involved?"
The bad part about it is they’ll talk about Jeezy if he gets arrested or his tour bus gets raided but nobody’s talking about this side of Jeezy. And I hope Jeezy sees that. He probably knows that. Nobody talks about when he takes kids to the movies or gets them book bags or stuff like that. They should. But they’re not. I understand why they do it. Nobody will talk about the millions of dollars Nelly has raised for leukemia. Nobody expects rappers to have that side of them in this day and time. I’m glad to see a lot of brothers and sisters standing up and being more vocal to this major problem we have. I’m just happy to see the power of hip hop and what we really can do.
To this point in your career, what would you consider your biggest accomplishment has been?
I’m 12 years in and I’ve been lucky enough to stand the test of time. For somebody who was first looked at as a backpacker or backpacking producer to being on a Jay Z album and everybody looking at me like, “How the hell you get on it?” And I’m looking at everybody like, “Getting on Jay Z’s [record] wasn’t on my path of goals.” I don’t know how I got here but I’m just happy to be able to do the music I want to do, dawg. I’m at the part of my game now. I went though that period where I might’ve wanted to change my sound and go after whatever the new sound was at the time. It changes every two to three years. People don’t ask me that anymore.
If I want this particular sound, I know who I can go to. It’s not too many people with a name that’s doing that particular sound. It’s just sticking to your guns and if you stay here long enough, the sound’s going to cycle back around to you anyway. But this time when it cycles back around, it’s not too many of us who can do it. Whether it be me or Jake One, The Alchemist, DJ Premier — who is now going on almost 30 years in the game, Dr. Dre, Swiff D, The Soul Council, Madlib, we can go on for days of the ones who believe in taking a record and chopping it up. We’re not going to change for s**t and I think people are now understanding that.
Who are you supporting for president if you had to choose at this point?
My man Joe Biden said he’s going to run.
He’s out now though [laughs].
Yeah man, I know it. Bernie Sanders looks like a great candidate. I just want somebody who’s going to get in there and do the job. Everybody likes to stick the Black president [label]. For me, I think [Barack Obama] has done a great job. No president we’ve ever had has done a 100 percent clean, clear, crisp job of making everybody happy. It’s impossible. You’re going to make somebody unhappy. I think we’ve had some presidents that have went above and beyond. [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], if you know his story, he was in there for three terms. He might’ve won again if he hadn’t passed away. All I’m saying is no president that we’ve had has been 100 percent squeaky clean and not made some bad decisions. They wouldn’t be human. I would say Obama’s done a great job.
The thing with Hillary Clinton, and I’ve said this before, she has experience. This is somebody who’s been connected to the White House since 1992. This is 2015. She’s been in that building for a very long time in some way, shape or form — as a first lady, Secretary of State — she’s been in there. As far as inner workings of things in that house, she understands how that works. She’s been on the front lines. Experience is the best teacher. That always means a lot. May the best man or woman win at this particular point.
What do you think about Dr. Ben Carson?
He has different views than I have and that’s just what it is. The way he looks at the world, the way he sees things in the political realm, he sees things differently. If I have a conversation with him one-on-one about fatherhood, we may see things the same. I think most fathers see things the same. Any good daddy to their kids sees things the same when it comes to raising children. Outside of that, his political realm and political views I just don’t agree with. Simple as that.
How about Donald Trump?
Once again [laughs]. His political views I don’t agree with. There are people that agree with him politically. I don’t. It just is what it is. That’s why we have different parties, moderate and conservative and liberals. People just have different ideas about how they think things should be run.
BET.com is your No. 1 source for Black celebrity news, photos, exclusive videos and all the latest in the world of hip hop and R&B music.
(Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images)