A veteran of Rock the Bells, Talib Kweli returned to the hip-hop festival this weekend as the annual rap extravaganza kicked off its tenth anniversary in San Bernardino, California with Wu Tang Clan, Kid Cudi, J Cole, Common, Juicy J, Jurassic 5, Tech N9ne, ASAP Mob and more. The festival, which will also hit San Francisco, New York and Washington DC this year, has become an almost embarrassment of riches, Kweli noted. "Who can complain about having too much shit to look at?" he asked Rolling Stone. "There are too many choices. The biggest problem with Rock the Bells is you don’t know who you want to watch; that’s a good problem to have."
With four weekends to perform in front of thousands of fans, Kweli will take that time to develop his arena-level show as he prepares to hit the road this fall. "I’m going on tour with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, I’m trying to get that together," he said. "I’m just trying to give the best possible show I can give."
Touring arenas isn’t a new thing for Kweli, who learned about playing to tens of thousands of fans while going out once with the Beastie Boys and once with the Black Eyed Peas. "Definitely touring with the Black Eyed Peas taught me the most about preparing for that type of tour. I toured with them in '04, '05, when they were making that transition from super hip-hop group to pop phenom group," he said. "I had to change my show immediately.Within the first two days, I had to make my shit way more grandmom- and kid-friendly. I had to switch it up."
Kweli understands that with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' pop chart domination this year – first with "Thrift Shop," then with "Same Love" – there will be a lot of similarities to touring with the Peas nearly a decade ago. "Luckily, with this I’m way more seasoned in the game now, I know going in I have to do that," he said. "A lot of those people who listen to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis don’t know hip-hop, even though they’re doing straight ahead hip hop, so I gotta take that into account."
While Kweli recognizes some of their fans are newbies to hip-hop, he has a lot of respect for the duo. "I know them as artists, I’ve got to know them over the course of the year," he says. "I’m a fan of theirs, they’re a fan of mine, and we were able to make it happen. They invited me and Big Krit on the tour and I’m grateful. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are still doing that straight ahead hip-hop show, they have a trumpet player and every once in a while they have dancers and theatrics to it, but it’s still a DJ and an emcee."
One of the things that appeals to Kweli, who released his Prisoner Of Conscience album earlier this year, is that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis also share a penchant for socially conscious rap, as evidenced by the gay rights anthem "Same Love." Kweli found himself becoming an advocate for the cause as well recently when he answered a question in an interview with Mother Jones by saying the time was right for an openly gay rapper.
"There’s so much homophobia in hip-hop, someone asked me that question and I answered it as honestly as I could," he says. "Then I saw this thing with another website and I read some of the comments and the first couple of comments were, 'Why is Kweli talking about it? Is he coming out? Is he gay?' That was just hilarious to me because you know the hip-hop community is still in that space, sometimes where it rears its ugly head like that, it’s a little bit shocking."