Talib Kweli has never been afraid of hard work. In his quest to keep creative autonomy, he’s had to face down the record industry, fight racist trolls online, and, most recently, call out people he believes are culture vultures. Still, it seems like a pretty rewarding (often adventurous) path to walk when we hop on the phone for an interview, with the rapper phoning from an undisclosed location in Amsterdam — on the road with Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Yasiin Bey.
Over the course of a 30-minute conversation, our first, it becomes clear to me that Kweli is more than just the host of People’s Party with Talib Kweli (produced by Uproxx and Luminary), more than a solo MC, and more than one-half of the beloved duo Black Star. What he represents to me by the end of our call is a Black man trying to create on his own terms in a world that appears to be heavily at odds with both Black men and the creative class.
This two-pronged struggle surfaces in myriad ways in our interview — as the internet has been ablaze recently with articles about how the legacy and art of J. Dilla and MF DOOM have allegedly been exploited. Kweli has been vocal in stating that he blames record executive Eothen Alaplatt aka Egon, who he has openly deemed a “culture vulture.” It’s a phrase I asked him to define and expand on in our conversation, which also sheds light on his next project, his longstanding relationship with Luminary, Dave Chappelle’s role in Black Star, and the band’s upcoming live shows.
I’ve been listening to No Fear Of Time on Luminary and saw that you played with Yasiin at the Blue Note Festival. Do you guys have more shows on the way? Will you be playing spring festivals together? Any scoop you can share on what that looks like?
There are a lot of Black Star shows on the horizon. I don’t have the schedule in front of me but I do know there are a lot of deals floating around for shows. So I think we can look forward to seeing more Black Star on stage — Black Star started as a live thing anyway. We’ve recorded a lot of material. There are a lot of songs that we recorded that didn’t come out. We’re trying to figure out the best ways to put these songs out and retain our control, like we did with Luminary.
Your long anticipated Drink Champs with Yasiin and Dave Chappelle finally dropped. Can you speak to how Dave has supported Black Star over the years?
Oh, man. Dave is like the third member of Black Star. I met Dave Chappelle and became friends with him in the Black Star era. He has been very, very vital and instrumental in bringing Black Star to the masses. The first musical act on Chappelle’s Show was Yasiin Bey. The next musical act was Talib Kweli. Then we did Black Star on the show. I also did Chappelle’s Show again with John Legend later. So he’s not just supported who we are but put money in our pockets and provided his platform.
I’m on the road right now with Dave and Chris Rock. We have our podcast Midnight Miracle, so we’ve been doing podcast stuff during the day, but just the fact that he even has Yasiin and me with him for most of his shows… It’s amazing. The Black Star album, No Fear of Time, half of it was recorded in Europe. The other half of it was recorded at Dave Chappelle’s house, or backstage at a show.
The next music coming from you is Liberation II, correct?
That’s what I’m focused on and working on now. Whether or not that’ll be the next thing you hear from me I don’t know… most likely.
On social media recently, your name’s been popping up because you accused Madlib’s long-time business partner, Egon — Eothen Alapatt — of being a culture vulture. Can you unpack that?
There’s a lot to it. You know, and I wanna be careful here because I wanna speak for myself and I don’t wanna speak for J Dilla’s mom and MF Doom and Madlib, particularly. Especially not for Madlib because Madlib is still alive and he can speak for himself. I have my own personal stuff with Egon that I feel like I could speak to with clarity. It overlaps with some of the issues that he has with some of these other people. I feel like some of the things that have become public about him, that I had a hand in making some of this public, are relevant to my issue with him.
My relationship with Egon began in 2006 when I dropped Liberation with Madlib. My timing might be incorrect but he worked at Stones Throw and he had a falling out with Stones Throw. Madlib’s company is Madlib Invazion and Egon started Now-Again Records around then. At that same time, Madlib’s manager was Egon. We put that out and Madlib and Egon got into it.
Later, after a change in management, I started dealing with Egon on my own. I started working on Liberation II around 2012 or 2013. But by 2015, I was in conversation with Madlib and Egon, mostly Egon, about possibly putting out Liberation II through Madlib Invazion.
So you signed a deal with Egon?
There was a deal memo that we all signed and just said, “We’re gonna do it.” There was an amount of money discussed but I never received that money. And beyond the initial deal memo, we never did anything to get this album out. Yasiin decided he wanted to do the whole Black Star album over Madlib beats right? So now I’m reaching back out to Egon and I put Liberation II on the back burner because I thought “If anybody hears anything from me and Madlib next, it should be Black Star.”
When I told Egon that we weren’t gonna go with Madlib Invazion, that we were gonna go a different route, that’s when my problem with him started. He started becoming rude and belligerent. The way he was talking to me was as if he was at odds with me. I didn’t understand why someone who doesn’t make music would have any control over me, why he felt any type of way. Then the issue became “Okay, well we’re not gonna put it through your company. We still wanna pay Madlib. So how much does Madlib want for his advance?”
The amount Egon asked for was the whole advance. And he did that to show us that we wouldn’t be doing it without him — not without a fight.
How did you and Yasiin respond to his initial proposal?
That rubbed Yasiin and me the wrong way. We argued about this for months back and forth through emails. Those are the emails that I posted a week ago, where Egon is calling me a bully is because I was calling him out for trying to delay the Black Star album because he wasn’t getting what he wanted out of the deal.
How did all this impact your relationship personally or artistically with Madlib?
Madlib is a recluse. So my only conversation was with Egon. I wasn’t talking to Madlib about anything. So I had to trust that Egon was representing Madlib properly.
It devolved to the point where Egon bragged about the price of his home saying things like “I don’t even need money… I got money stashed in the walls.” And I just thought it was weird for someone’s manager to be bragging to me about how much money they got, as they’re negotiating on behalf of their client to a creative partner. I got to the point where I was frustrated with the fact that I couldn’t reach Madlib and I was frustrated with the fact that Egon seemed to be in the way.
How did you get around Egon to speak to Madlib?
I made, a social media post about it. My post was something about interlopers being in the way, and I’m not sure if it [No Fear Of Time] will ever come out. To his credit, Madlib reached out to me when I made that post and said “Can you please take that post down? Because this is involving my business,” which is a fair request. I took the post down immediately. But when I took the post down, I was like, “Listen, I still have an issue with the way that Egon is talking to me and you can do business with him. But if I’m gonna do business with you, I can’t do business if I have to deal with Egon.”
So Madlib made a caveat for me. He said, “Look, when it comes to Black Star business, when it comes to business that you and I have together, you don’t have to deal with Egon.”
Okay, boom, then we got to work. Me and Madlib had a conversation and about maybe two years after that conversation, the Black Star album comes out. Just from me being able to finally be in touch with Madlib and communicating artist to artist.
Did everything go smoothly after that?
There’s a sample on the Black Star album that Egon administered. Now-Again, records, essentially from my understanding, buys up catalogs of older soul artists, mostly Black artists, the type of artists that Madlib would sample. He’s providing Madlib with these records to sample from his own stack of music that he owns. So when Madlib samples something, they can clear it easily. They don’t have to worry about the sample clearance. But the problem is, now we’re asking for Black Star samples to be cleared that Egon administered. So now he’s, he’s like, “I’m not gonna clear that sample to the Black Star and Madlib album. I’m not even gonna tell you what that song is.”
Madlib has done interviews where he’s like, “I freestyle sample — I’m not paying attention to where the sample’s coming from.” Egon, being shrewd and dastardly, realized this years ago. So he’s like, “Madlib is not paying attention, but I’m gonna pay attention.” So when the money has to come in, for example, it gotta come into Egon. That’s like some real double-dipping type of shit.
We have the song called “National Sunday Law” — Egon knew the sample but refused to tell us. So I had to find out the name of the artist and I sat there and I listened to all their music and found the song myself. We were able to circumvent Egon. But that’s just one example of how he was actively putting himself in the way because he wasn’t involved in the album.
This feels like predatory sampling practices. Do you feel that is the case?
That whole sample clearance thing happened a year ago. But I feel like, it’s over, we got the album out. We don’t have to deal with Egon. Everything’s all good. Well, now we have Liberation II. So now there are two songs on the Liberation II album with samples. One is a song called “Pop Up, Pop Art.” I think the name of the band is The Hykkers. There’s another song that’s featuring Sticky Fingaz, Pete Rock, NIKO IS, and myself, the song is called “Neighbor.” I’ve shot videos of these songs because I’ve been working on this album for years. The videos are ready to go.
For those two songs we reached out to Egon cordially, as you would do, “Can you clear the samples for this project for your business partner, the reason that you have a three million dollar house and that money in the wall, can you clear the samples for me and Madlib?”
Where did it go from there?
I brought up the deal memo, I completely forgot about it because I didn’t get paid for it. If I got paid in 2015 for the deal memo between Egon and Madlib, I guarantee you, I would’ve turned that album in!
If you gave me money for the album, I would’ve given you an album. I wouldn’t have wanted that to be lingering. When asked for sample clearance what was Egon’s response? “Not only do I need to consider whether or not I wanna clear the sample, but I own the Liberation album.”
That’s what he said in the email.
So now you are finding out even more than you thought was happening?
I was like, “Let me read some articles.” I started reading articles and a couple of things jumped out at me. The first was an interview with Ma Dukes from last year. I posted it on my Instagram, Ma Dukes is explaining how Egon was taking advantage of her. He had this lawyer, Sheila Bowers, I would guess is her name — that’s his lawyer. He would sic her on me. But she was explaining how Egon was representing himself and making decisions on behalf of Jay Dilla. But she wasn’t with that.
So I was like, “Okay, that’s a huge red flag for me.”
What else did you find?
I came across another interview with a major magazine [Huck] in which Egon is talking about the legacy of releasing that last J Dilla record that they released. Egon said, “during the time we spent at that vulnerable space at the hospital, she told me it was okay [to work on The Diary]. When I took the role of creative director [of The Estate of James Yancey], I’d just listen to whatever she said and do it. But when she told me to shelve the record, I said ‘I can’t.’”
My question is — what’s physically stopping you from honoring this woman’s request of her son — who passed away? But you just made a whole shit ton of money off it?
If Egon were Black, would he be a culture vulture or would he be just an unkind executive in the music industry?
I think culture vulture to me has nothing to do with race because of a white supremacist system of status quo culture, vultures tend to be non-Black. He’s not a cultural vulture because he’s non-Black. The only reason I highlight the fact he’s non-black is to highlight the context of how often black artists are taken advantage of in the music industry, by non-Black people
There are plenty of Black culture vultures I’ve met. They just happen to be non-black a lot more. It’s not Egon being a non-Black person that makes him a culture vulture, it’s his actions.
What in your eyes are the most artistically respectful and business-balanced ways you would like to see Egon and others like him conduct themselves?
The people like Egon, with that mentality, should just leave us the fuck alone. Stay away from us and stop trying to be in the way. I worked hard. I worked hard to do the first Liberation with Madlib. I worked hard to do this one because of all these people in the way that are not me and Madlib.
It’s like, Egon is an agent. He’s agent Smith. He’s like a federal agent. He’s like a music business agent. Just in the way. And without respect, if you look at his Instagram, he’s like buying wine at Sotheby’s, that’s a flex, he’s flexing on us.
That’s like old-school colonial shit. “I’m buying that with the money I’ve made from a black artist, I don’t sing, rap, make a beat, nothing.”
He didn’t create anything. I’m not speaking for Madlib. Now-Again is considered a successful record label. His success is built on his association with Madlib. This is what gets him in the door, period. This is what puts him in the position to be able to run a successful record label. Anything that Madlib wants to sample, he should give to Madlib for free. That’s how I feel about it. If Egon controls any samples on Liberation II, regardless of how he feels about me, he knows that Madlib wants to Liberation II come out. I can say confidently that Madlib wants Liberation II to come out the same way Madlib wanted Black Star to come out.
You should give Madlib anything he wants for free, bro. Matter of fact, Madlib should get a percentage of everything Now-Again makes, to be honest with you. That would be fair. The second thing is you need to give MF DOOM’s family his rhyme book back.
Do you know how he got hold of it? What is that story?
I don’t know how he got ahold of it. If I had to guess, I would guess that he hasn’t made a public response. I would guess that he’s like “No, I don’t have it. Prove I have it.”But it’s not like the FBI’s gonna run into his house and find the book and take it. He’s not under threat of that. So he could just lie and be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
So there’s no real consequence from that besides his reputation. But I think he should apologize for saying publicly that Ma Dukes asked him to do something and he said, no. I think he should apologize for that. Then as far as everything else, he should just leave us alone, go drink your wines, listen to vinyl with Logic and whoever you be hanging out with. Do that, stop trying to be in the way of things. You got away with it, bro. You won. The heist is a success. You became a rich man off of Madlib. Take your winnings and your coins and your toys and your ascots, and scarves, and go away. Stay away from Black artists.
You have a social media philosophy that is 1) very clear to you, and 2) often something that friends, family, and strangers on the internet try to talk you out of. You have often said that you respect the right of even your best friends to unfollow you, but the approach you have to social media isn’t changing. Can you share why this has become such an essential piece of your being and what about it feels crucial to how you represent yourself publicly?
I don’t live like a celebrity. I never have, never will. I don’t behave the way people expect celebrities to behave because I’m an artist and celebrity has never been a goal of mine. The dope part about that is that it keeps my ear to the street. The problem with that is people who don’t normally have access to celebrities have access to me. Fame is a virtue to these people. It’s not to me. I’m not going to pretend I don’t see what the people are saying about us. I’m not going to live in some sort of celebrity echo chamber, that doesn’t sit right with my spirit.
At my core, I’m an anti-racist and I’m about social justice. As our lives become more meta and we spend more time online, racism and bigotry become more insidious. The algorithm is programmed to be racist. We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring this and saying that online racism ain’t real. Ignoring online racism got us Trump. Ignoring the language of internet trolls led to the insurrection at the capitol. I cannot in good conscience see this stuff and do nothing, and I am in a privileged position to be able to combat this stuff head-on without losing my job. People who actually do activist work thank me for supporting their voices. The ones who complain the most about how I spend my free time are the ones that do the least for our people.
Finally, what’s next for Talib Kweli?
Right now, Yasiin Bey, Dave Chappelle, and I are gearing up to release season two of Midnight Miracle on Luminary. It was recorded all over the world and I’m incredibly proud of this work. Liberation 2 with Madlib will be on Luminary as well as vinyl after the Luminary release. People’s Party is still going strong — headed into a third season and just dropping our Season 2 finale, with Yasiin Bey — and I am happy about that.
But honestly, what I’m most excited about is my kids’ music. My son Amani Fela was on that Alchemist Arman Hammer album last year and this year we are gearing up for his solo release. And my daughter Diani, who also works on People’s Party, just dropped an amazing lyric video for Lil Bit ft Chelsea Reject. 2023 is going to be an amazing year for Javotti Media and the Greene family.