Ten years after their 2000 debut, 'Train of Thought,' solidified their place as two of independent hip-hop's brightest stars, Reflection Eternal have finally returned with a followup release, 'Revolutions Per Minute.' Released on May 18,
the group's long-awaited sophomore album re-unites Brooklyn emcee Talib Kweli's thought-provoking rhymes with Cincinnati producer Hi-Tek's melodic, hard-hitting beats for a soulful, uplifting full-length.
On the day of 'RPM's release, we caught up with the duo in Los Angeles -- where Kweli dwells part-time -- and shadowed them as they ran around town, making promotional television and radio appearances, in support of their new record.
After meeting Hi-Tek and their young tour DJ, Clockwork, in the swanky lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel at 9 A.M, we left Hollywood in an SUV to pick up Kweli. En route, Tek, who is as humble and easy-going as you could possibly hope, gently ribs Clockwork, who is also a Cincinnati native and self-described "rookie."
"Tryna get his rookie dust offa him," Tek jokes, before musing on the tour. "This tour ... I was thinking about it yesterday, how I get the same flashbacks and that same feeling I had the first came to L.A., last time our album came out, on the Spitkicker tour. I feel like we're more experienced and more comfortable with the formula now, though it kinda feels the same to me. Even when I hear my song on the radio, I still get excited, you know? Nothing changed."
Although they're on Warner Brothers this time around, instead of the then-fledgling upstart indie Rawkus, Tek doesn't seem to be phased by their grueling tour and promotional schedule. "Major labels have more resources and are able to organize [tours and promo] with a bigger staff to line up all the press and everything, so it makes the day way hectic... The life of a rap star," he laughs. "Nah, I'm lovin' it man. I'm in good spirit right now, probably one of the best feelings I've had in a long time.
Once we pick Kweli up at his house, which has a lemon tree in the front yard and a studio in the back, the conversation devolves into a discussion about the inevitable; Twitter and YouTube videos, as Kweli plugs a cellphone into his laptop and begins hitting people up via Twitter, to send out a buy-link to their album.
"Listen n----, it's favor time, can you tweet the link?" he jokes to himself, as he plays an Aziz Ansari video, and direct messages friends from Deepak Chopra to Snoop Dogg, who had previously done the same.
"Snoop make you feel like he your best friend," Kweli continues. "He like 'What's up playboy? Listen I'm a need you to do a little favor.' You're like, 'Ah, Snoop sent me a personal message?' Then you hear he hit up everybody."
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Behind the Video With The-Dream
As we cruise to Fuel TV, Kweli mentions that he recently recorded a song with Lupe Fiasco and Diggy Simmons the night before, one of four that he banged out in his studio. He then searches for some misplaced health-food snacks. "I had my granola bar, my banana... I had my whole plan!" he says playfully, before getting serious about his daily routine.
"My life is not as interesting as people might think it is. I can't even think of the last time I didn't have nothing to do when I woke up."
"Man, it's always something to do right?" Tek agreed. "Even when there's nothing to do, you should be doing something."
As we enter Fuel TV, a young skater named Emmanuel Guzman gives Hi-Tek a pound and appears to mistake him for Kweli, whom he ignores until after their performance.
As they pick at a breakfast spread, Tek mentions that he needs to "eat through the day... I need that energy." He then sits for makeup, as the rest of the crew check out a new Jay Electronica freestyle, and Clockwork surfs the hip hop blogs searching for new tracks.
Once they hit the stage, Kweli and Tek wow the studio audience with impassioned performances of 'In This World' and 'Back Again' from the new album, before bringing out Clockwork to DJ while Hi-Tek grabs the mic for his verse from their 2000 hit 'The Blast.'
After the performance, they hustle out of the building to drive over to Power 106 FM; Kweli still direct messaging people on Twitter, single-handedly running his own internet marketing campaign.
"We usually don't have any time," he muses. "It's always a problem with touring, because what you're actually on the road to do, which is perform for the people ... it's very hard to do that and promote the record at the same time. The label is a business, so they treat you like a product. It ain't nothing personal, but to them you're a product, so they wanna sell the product. If you have a label that's behind you a little bit, they want you here, they want you there... Sometimes you can't do a phoner cause you in a bad area. Sometimes the bus gets in late and you gotta do soundcheck, or you gotta get rest for the show, and sometimes you gotta make choices between resting and getting the s--t right for the show, versus doing your job to sell your record."
Rushing into Power 106, they arrive just in time to record an interview with radio personality Yessi Ortiz, plugging the album and their House of Blues show for broadcast the following day. Unforunately, as soon as the interview is finished, they're told that they have to re-record the entire conversation, because the mics were off. Hi-Tek just takes it all in stride, laughing, "Oh, it happens in the studio all the time, recording vocals."
Once that interview is finished, Kweli records a hilarious spot with campy Armenian-American DJ Vick One, then takes a moment to scarf some California Pizza Kitchen and salad, before we all head back to his house to hang out with his wife DJ EQ and her daughter, and discuss recording techniques and equipment in their new studio.
EQ brings out some defrosted cake from last year's wedding, and big glasses of juice, as everyone takes a moment to relax and check out the physical copy of their record.
Teq and Clockwork pore over the liner notes for several minutes, as we listen to the album, which features outstanding guest appearances by Estelle, Bun B, Bilal, J. Cole, Jay Electronica and, of course, Mos Def.
Tek notes that a drum kick is really just the amplified sound of his finger tapping the turntable, before the conversation shifts to his recent beatmaking drought. "Seriously, I haven't even really been able to make a beat in like 3 months," he says candidly, before noting that he has no upcoming beat placements on outside albums, due to his dedication to the 'RPM' album. "I totally committed to doing this album as opposed to trying to produce for whole lot of people. I wouldn't say I'm stressed, but it makes me feel like I gotta work faster, 'cause theres a lot of opportunites where people want to work with me, and I want to work with them too. I do know one thing though, making a body of work is more important than putting a track out here or there."
After listening to the album once through, we head to 102.7 KIIS FM to do an interview with DJ Skee, who proficiently runs through a rapidfire collection of questions, hailing the duo as rap legends and mentioning several times over how the industry has changed since their last release, frequently referring to their music as non-radio friendly, which they both seem to take with an air of positivity.
"I love it," Kweli said of the music industry's transformation since 2000. "People don't buy music anymore, which changes the way people get music ... but were both on Twitter, and we have a connection with the fans whether we're on the radio or not, and that's who supports us."
It is now well into the afternoon, yet Kweli and Tek show no sign of slowing down, making the next stop a two-hour signing appearance at Fat Beats on Melrose -- a store whose history is intertwined with Kweli's, and virtually anyone who considers themselves a fan of independent hip-hop.
"I go back from Fat Beats in new york," Kweli announces to the crowd of backpackers. "So if you support real music, make some noise right now!"
Finally, around 7 P.M., they take a much-needed Rosco's Chicken break in the back, before heading out to rehearse for their House of Blue's show at a nearby studio, and then, ultimately, hit their release party, which goes until close to midnight.
At the end of the fifteen-hour day, Kweli's earlier statement about never having a free moment to himself suddenly comes to mind. "Cause somebody always doing something," he reflected, a mantra he and his Ohio counterpart clearly both have in common.