Talib Kweli is experimenting.
The Brooklyn born lyricist has never been in Hip-Hop for the money. From his first album, "Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star," a critically acclaimed look at the life of a young black artist in New York, to his most recent album, "Gravitas," Kweli has shunned the commercialism that surrounds the entertainment industry. The more his colleagues rap about trips to Dubai and cars that cost more than a Williamsburg loft, the more Kweli focuses on crafting a personal, political message to deliver through his lyrics.
In a world where every musician, actor, and blogger is trying to create their own "personal brand," Kweli is different. He's a legendary figure in hip-hop circles without having to promote himself. He's the guy who brought Kanye West on tour at a time when 'Ye could have walked into Times Square and not been recognized. The guy who Jay Z has referred to as one of the great technical artists of his generation.
So on the surface, Kweli's decision to create an independent label that he owns and operates, Javotti Media, seems counterintuitive. Kweli freely admits that he created Javotti in part for economic reasons. In an interview last week, he told me, "at this point, it doesn't equate on any financial level to have the labels run everything."
At first, the move seems out of character for a guy who has actively shunned making more commercial music (radio hits) that would have fattened his bank account and made him a bigger star internationally. Why care about maximizing your profits if it's only about the music?
In our chat, Kweli put this argument to bed. "The single is dead," he said. "Artists can be discovered by uploading a video. Social media pulls the curtain back on who you, as an artist, actually are."
Kweli attributes his, "cut out the middleman" strategy to an unlikely place: the incredible success of comedian Louis C.K. Tired of dealing with shark-like promoters, the carnal comic released his "Live at the Beacon Theater," special through his website, a Digital Rights Management free strategy that allowed him to bring his routine straight to his audience, and collect a massive windfall in the process.
While C.K.'s successful gamble has resulted in a groundswell of comedians following suit, the transition for musicians to DRM-Free distribution has been slower. The most successful recent examples, Kweli's friends and tour mates Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, were forced to go independent because no label would touch them.
Examples of established artists leaving the comfort and consistency of a label are still few and far between. The labels still handle radio distribution and the increasingly important contracts with streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, but Kweli believes the lack of independence is less because the artists need the labels, and more because they're afraid of change.
"Artists over a certain age are just intimidated by the idea of leaving their label," Kweli said. "They don't want to do anything that messes with their flow, with how things have been. They see artists blowing up on YouTube or Soundcloud and just choose to ignore it."
The challenge in going independent is breaking the listening habits of consumers who are used to doing things a certain way.
As Kweli describes, "people are acclimated to going to ITunes to get their music. They're used to being marketed to. There's always a struggle to get the word out."
Kweli's experiment is certainly a work in progress. Individual sale numbers have never defined his work and seem less important to him than the establishment of a community being formed around his messages.
"I'm a part of the community at the end of the day. Feedback, both financial and emails from the fans goes directly to me," Kweli said. "My hope is these things will make up for what I'm missing."