Complex | Magnum Opus

"Get By" - Talib Kweli | Magnum Opus

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Talib Kweli:

I grew up in a very diverse community in Parksfield, Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the closest thing to the myth of the "Melting Pot" that we learn about when we were in little kids in history class. Brooklyn in the 1980's, through the changes in New York City government, through the crack epidemic, the fact that the late 70's music programs were taken out of the schools which lead to hip-hop. I'm a product of all those things. My father was a DJ in college so there was vinyl all over the house, all over the floors, everywhere. I would listen to my father's old records and he didn't have a preference, musically. He listens to all types of music, so music was everywhere. I got sent away to boarding school when I was in high school because I was cutting class. I was just such a truant. Going away to board school made me miss New York more and made me dive more into hip-hop. I wanted to be in New York all the time. It wasn't until I was twenty-one I found out that I was going to have a son. Then it was like, I either need to go back to school full-time or do this hip-hop full-time. That's what kicked my ass into high gear, to where it was no turning back after that. You've all seen Bank. He was someone that I knew casually but I really was a fan of his style earlier. I had children the sometime that he had children and our families became friendly. So I would go over to his house for some family shit. That's how Black Star formed, from us just hanging out as young men with kids the same age.

88-Keys:

Black Star...They are legendary.

Ralph McDaniels:

Those are the hard-core but educated 'cats' that are from our eighborhood that you respect.

88-Keys:

First Black Star album is classic.

Talib Kweli:

Doing that album let me know that I could do this for a living. That I could rap but a lot of people felt that Mos Def was certainly more famous, more known, and more liked. There were a lot of people in hip-hop thought I was riding his coattails.

Noah Callahan-Bever:

In the wake of having done the Black Star album which was widely successful for him and Mos Def, there were some questions as to whether or not that he could stand on his own as a star.

Talib Kweli:

Quality, my attention was to show that I was complete on my own.

Noah:

Going into this album there was a really sort of a feeling that either this going to be either the thing to live to the next level or he's going to be sort of like the King of the Underground.

Talib Kweli:

I was working on quality in the cutting room studios on Broadway. Kanye West, who I never heard of or met before, walks in. 88-Keys: I was telling Mos and Kweli about my boy Kanye. He was working with Jay and he got beat. And he said, "Oh, cool." But it was in one ear and out the same ear!

Talib Kweli:

He said, "Is Mos Def here?" And I said, "No but Mos Def was supposed to meet me that day."

Superstar Dave Dar:

And Mos Def never showed up! So we were there, our sessions was over and Kanye walks in. He was saying, "I made him make beats with Mos."

Talib Kweli:

I'm like, I will listen to the beats.

Dave Dar:

And we were like, this guy's out of here! So he played all these beats and we were like, "Whew!"

Talib Kweli:

I listened to the beats and they blew me away! I think the 'Gorilla Monsoon Rap'; 'Good to You' was on that mix-tape. So I bought those beats from him immediately.

Dave:

He would come by, play beats, and rhyme for Kweli and I. Always, always rhyming. Rhyming to anyone that would listen! This is before he became Kanye the solo artists. He was just known for producing.

Talib Kweli:

By the time he played 'Get By', he had video on B.E.T. He was known to be associated with Rockefeller and he was blowing up. Everyone was checking for his production at that time. The Blueprint had come out and really put Kanye on the map.

Noah:

He picked this incredible, own sample beat, from Kanye West at a moment where Kanye could not be more white-hot.

Talib Kweli:

I asked him for 'Get By' and he said, "No, I'm holding it for Mariah Carey." For some reason that beat, I like all beats in quality, but I felt like I had to have it.

Dave:

The sample's Nina Simone, that's one of his favorite artists of all time. So just starting from that perspective, sample, and the Nina Simone.

Talib Kweli:

I called him twice a week for a month.

Dave:

When I heard it, I looked at him and I was like, "This was the one we were trying to get."

Talib Kweli:

I said, "Yo, did you hear from Mariah yet?" And I think that I just wore him down. I think he was just saving that for someone else. He then said, "Alright, you can have it."

D Prosper:

I thought that the way Kanye flipped that sample was crazy.

Rashad Smith:

Wow, that was the clever way! It was the perfect piano played over it.

Noah:

The brilliance of Kanye West does is he's about to sort of find the pop thread in the most hip-hop sounding music.

Pete Rock:

It was not too far from what we did in the 90's so it was easy to like something like that. When the producer is in the mindset of hip-hop.

Dave:

His whole aura was captured on the song but it was still funky.

Talib Kweli:

When I wrote it, I was listening to a lot of Jay-z around that time. The song, 'I Just Want to Love You.' It struck me that Jay was writing in a way that you want to sing along in the verses. That is how I wrote, 'Get By'.

Dave:

He was doing his rapid-fire delivery but it's still catchy and people could repeat it.

Talib Kweli:

Kanye heard that and the first thing was, "We should get the boys cry out 'Harlem'! But they were too expensive. But I ended up getting my friend, Kendra Ross, who's a great singer. She's been on most of my projects.

Dave:

She invited maybe three or four singers from her church. We made them in a semi-circle and recorded five takes of it. Each take we would switch people around so it sounded like a choir.

88-Keys:

The female audience can know sing along with an underground rapper.

Miss Info:

So that was kind of his grand debut as a solo star.

Talib Kweli:

I didn't feel like the average working-class person was represented in mainstream hip-hop. And so, I wanted to do a big record that represented those people. I was definitely thinking of the common man. When I wrote 'Get By', hip-hop was in an honest phase. It needed to come back to just regular people just trying get by. I'm just trying to pay my phone and light bill today. If I can do that, I'm good, have an extra dollars and go to the bar tonight. The guy that works in the store everyday or the deli that makes sandwiches, I'm talking about that dude. That's what Talib's Kweli represents to me.

Miss Info:

The lyrics, kind of straddle that line between just sounding super-duper fresh, but also having a really powerful message. That is the type of hip-hop that Talib really excels at but also kind of keeps you thinking for much longer than your ass keeps shaking.

Rashad:

Talib's flow on the record was amazing. They really sat and thought how to put this record together. It was amazing.

Noah:

It was a perfect set-up for an artist like Talib. You see that he really matches the emotion and the depth of the record. It created it a really compelling total package.

Dave:

I knew right away, I knew it. I said, "This is the best record that you ever did, my brother. This is out of here!"

The Twilite Tone:

Talib proved himself as a solo artist.

88-Keys:

Kweli was booking shows left and right after that.

Dave:

They were both at a point, but I think that people thought Kanye gave a Kweli a hit?

88-Key:

Kanye told me himself, "The industry, like, the suits and everybody then looked at Kanye as a hit-maker."

Talib Kweli:

People talked about 'Get By' being one of Kanye's best beats and I think is. I think that's why I gravitated towards it. When I mean he's got incredible beats and if it's not his best, it's one of his Top 5.

Miss Info:

It elevated Talib from being a pure back-pack rapper to being somebody that could make a bona-fide smash.

Speaker:

I was working at Hot 97 at the time and Talib Kweli was not an artist that got played on Hot 97 on a regular basis. They played 'Get By' immediately.

Talib Kweli:

If I do a venue that has a thousand people, there's at least a three or four hundred of them that know 'Get By', who want to see him perform that song. I know because they come to the shows and scream, "Get By!" It's my 'Free Bird'. 'Get By' has a record that sustained my career.

Speaker:

People probably realized that it was a really good record. It was needed for our society at the time to hear a record like this.

Talib Kweli:

'Get By' was exciting for hip-hop because people who felt like real messages and real music weren't being heard in the mainstream. Can celebrate around 'Get By'. I think that was the most important thing about it.


In the late '90s and early 2000s, Talib Kweli wasn't seen as a star. In Complex TV's Original Show--Magnum Opus, the Brooklyn rapper talks crafting his biggest hit, "Get By".

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