Published Feb 01, 2000When he is in Africa chilling out, Nelson Mandela is listening to Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek. Or at least comic Dave Chappelle's faux intro to Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek's Reflection Eternal has convinced many this is the case, mystifying Kweli. "The assumption is Kweli is a conscious rapper and he hangs out with Nelson Mandela," he says, never assuming the skit would be taken seriously. "That shit's too ridiculous to be true."
It would seem Kweli is trying to resist his reputation as a conscious rapper, one earned by both the literary allusions of Reflection Eternal's early singles on Rawkus and his partnership with Mos Def both in the group Black Star and co-owning Nkiru Books, Brooklyn's oldest independent black bookstore. Instead he's just trying to insert a modicum of balance. While his shrewd intellect seamlessly grafts Nina Simone's poignant original lyrics of "Four Women" to an impressive updated version, he's never been averse to blessing hype-inducing tracks with skilful mic bravado and refuses to adopt a blinkered approach. "Hip-hop is a celebration, it's a party music," he says. "We can use it as a vehicle for social change, but we can't forget where hip-hop came from. Too often there's a crowd that forgets that and they want it to be just too heavy."
DJ Hi-Tek's role in conveying this message can't be stressed enough and he superbly navigates Reflection Eternal's ever-changing moods with beats ranging from rugged to soulful. To Kweli's chagrin, the release was often pushed with him in the forefront, probably explaining why the group's name became the album title. "This is a Reflection Eternal album that me & Hi-Tek recorded equally," says Kweli. "There were songs recorded that I couldn't put on the album because Hi-Tek didn't like them. That means it wasn't a Kweli solo album." Disclosing that he gravitates to the meditative material while Hi-Tek prefers their gritty work, Kweli freely admits Hi-Tek "balances me out" in their partnership. "We surprised people with this album, but we made the album we always knew we could make," he says. "It was no mystery to us. And for the next one, we're going to make an album that surprises us."