Album: Sound Bombing
Label: Rawkus Records
Talib Kweli: “When I started my career, I was known for freestyling in Washington Square Park. There was like a full community of artists that used to freestyle, battle, and vibe off each other in the park. It was Supernatural. There was Agallah, who used to be 8-Off the Assassin.
“Then you also had Mr. Man from Da Bush Babees, who I also went to Brooklyn Tech High School with. Bush Babees were the only one who had a record deal, but even then, Mr. Man would still be in the park—he was just one of us. These were like the most popular freestylers back then.
“And also, you had Yasiin Bey—who used to go by Mos Def. Yasiin had a deal with his group Urban Thermo Dynamics but my family was getting friendly with his family. My demo tape got in his hands and he liked it. He would always compliment me on my demo tape. Yasiin was starting to be known in local hip-hop circles.
Yasiin was like, ‘Yo those Rawkus dudes gave me some money. I went up there, played them some music, they gave me some money, and I’m sure they would do the same for you.’ I said, ‘You know what? I didn’t even think about that.’
“He was my favorite MC at that time, even though he was brand new. I was working at a Nkiru Books and he used to come to the bookstore to the point where I asked him to get on the record with me. And I already knew Mr. Man because I went to high school with him and I was already planning to have him on the song.
“By this time, I had started to work with Hi-Tek. I went to college at NYU and my roommate was from Cincinnati. I went to visit him in Cincinnati and that’s how I met Hi-Tek.
"The beat is a Tom Drunk sample, an old ska reggae sample. One of my best friends was an avid reggae head and he’s the one who came with the idea. He gave the record to Hi-Tek and Hi-Tek flipped it.
“We recorded the record and then me and Hi-Tek had a project called Groundation which was a glorified demo tape that we were kicking around to record companies, trying to get a deal.
“I knew the Rawkus dudes because John Forte was exclusive to Rawkus. Five years before I was even on Rawkus, John Forte tried to sign me to Rawkus when he was their A&R before he went into his [prison] situation.
“So I knew Brian Brater and Jarret Myer from Rawkus, but I didn’t take them seriously. At this point they had only put out Sir Menelik and Company Flow, But they were about to put out Yasiin’s record. He had done a deal with Rawkus to put out the ‘Universal Magnetic’ single.
“Yasiin was like, ‘Yo those Rawkus dudes gave me some money. I went up there, played them some music, they gave me some money, and I’m sure they would do the same for you.’ I said, ‘You know what? I didn’t even think about that.’
Rawkus was like, ‘Listen, we just did a deal with Yasiin. It’ll be a great tie-in, that’s what we think you should do. And we’ll give you money for it.’ We got like $5,000 or $7,000 for the single. Something like that. I had never seen that amount of money in my life.
“So we scheduled a meeting. I played them some songs. One of them was an early version ‘Eternalist’ and one of them was an early version of ‘Knowledge of Self.’ They were just kind of cool on all of those songs. They were like, ‘Ehh.’
“I wasn’t gonna play them ‘Fortified Live’ because to me, I didn’t want my first single to have Yasiin and Mr. Man on it. I wanted to stand out on my own and establish myself first and then bring that record to them. But Brian Brater heard the beat and was like, ‘What’s that?’ And I played him the song and he was like, ‘That’s the record we want to put out.’
“I remember fighting with him like, ‘No, that’s the second single. The first single gotta be this,’ and I played him whatever song we were trying to get them to put out. But they convinced me.
"They were like, ‘Listen, we just did a deal with Yasiin. It’ll be a great tie-in, that’s what we think you should do. And we’ll give you money for it.’ We got like $5,000 or $7,000 for the single. Something like that. I had never seen that amount of money in my life.
“But I was still working at the bookstore. That’s why if you look at that record cover, I have on a wrinkled shirt. Me, Yasiin, and Mr. Man are basically standing in front of the bookstore.
"What happened was, we said we need some art for the cover. I was at work so I said, ‘You guys need to come down here and take the picture.’ I was moving boxes all day, that’s why my shirt was wrinkled. We just went outside and we took a picture.”