Author’s Note: Philadelphia emcee Timothy Welbeck is just coming off releasing his album “No City For Young Men” a project he’s been working on for multiple years. A talented emcee, Welbeck does a lot more than emcee, he’s a professor at Temple University, a Civil Rights Attorney, a contributing writer, a husband, a father and more. Honestly this interview speaks for itself, let’s jump in.
Dead End Hip Hop: For those who don’t know who is Timothy Welbeck?
Timothy Welbeck: In my social media bios, I describe myself as a “Believer. Husband. Father. Hip-Hop Artist. Attorney. University Professor. Contributing Writer. In desperate pursuit of God.” That sums about it up. I am a man who wants to honor God with my life, and use my gifts to make the world a better place. Those various roles merely serve as outlets for me to do that.
More specifically, I am a husband. My wife and I celebrate nine years of marriage this week, and we have three beautiful children. I value my family tremendously, and while I find great fulfillment in my other work, I would not find myself a success if my home life were in shambles.
As an attorney, I serve as the Civil Rights Attorney for the Philadelphia Chapter of CAIR. There, I advocate for and defend the civil rights and liberties of the Muslim community, the immigrant community, and/or people of color throughout Pennsylvania. As a professor, I teach Hip-Hop and Black Culture, along with “No City for Young Men: Hip-Hop and the Narrative of Marginalization at Temple University.” I contribute to The Huffington Post, and have bylines in The Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, Respect Magazine, along with a few other places. I mostly write about various topics like race and social justice, hip-hop, the social implications of the Christian faith, etc. And what got us to sit down and talk is the fact I am a hip-hop artist as well.
DEHH: You wear many hats, lawyer, professor, father, the list goes on and on, how in the world are you able to balance all this?
TW: (Laughs) The short answer is the grace of God and little sleep. The longer answer is I understand the need for balance, so I do what I can to maximize moments of opportunity. We never get this time back, so I do what I can to redeem it, or “reclaim” it as Representative Maxine Waters said. I know I can do it all, but cannot do it all at once. That is true literally and figuratively. So for me, that means when opportunity presents itself to accomplish a particular task, I do what I can to do so in that moment.
More practically, I also do what I can to limit the extent to which my work overlaps: I go out of my way to not schedule court appearances when I have class, I do most of my writing after I put my children to bed, I book most travel on weekends, etc. Most of my days are full, but I push for balance everyday.
DEHH: Where does your hip-hop story start, how did we get to Timothy Welbeck the emcee?
TW: My parents’ introduction to hip-hop came from 2 Live Crew. Around the time the controversy circling the group’s Nasty as I Wanna Be album reached federal court, my mom asked a coworker if the music was “that bad.” If you’ll remember, Uncle Luke filed a suit against local officials that tried to prevent retailers from selling the album on grounds its content was obscene, and thereby illegal to sell. The case worked its way all the up to the federal appellate level. Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew won obviously, and the controversy helped them sell more albums than they might have without it.
But to get back to the story, around the time the federal appellate case regularly made the news, my mom asked her coworker about the album. Her coworker brought a copy the next day. To show you how long ago this was, she brought the album on cassette. My mom listened to it on her lunch break, and came home that evening telling my father, “If this is what hip-hop is, Timothy and Katherine [Timothy’s younger sister] aren’t listening to it.” And that was that. From there, I spent most of my early formative years listening to my parents’ music: Aretha Franklin, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Marvin Gaye, Mahalia Jackson, Michel Jackson, Otis Redding, the Clarke Sisters, Booker T & the MGs, Bob Marley, etc.
When I became a teenager, my parents gave me more autonomy in terms of the music I listened to. One summer, my cousin came to visit during my last week of school. While I was in school during the day, she found the local hip-hop station. When I came home and heard her listening to it, I was like, “What’s this?” She introduced me to what was currently popular in the culture. I fell in love instantly. From there, I went back trying to discover what I missed. This is probably circa 1995. Later that fall, I met a good friend—Whitney Vaughan—who had an incredible hip-hop collection, and impeccable taste. He put me on to the classics, and the two of us began rapping around that time. To show how this all came full circle, Whitney did the artwork for the album.
DEHH: “No City For Young Men” is a potent project, how long have you been working on this and what was the inspiration behind it?
TW: (Laughs) Far too long. I began actively recording the album in the fall of 2014, but its inspiration came before then. In the fall of 2011, I was retained as legal counsel for the executive producer of the soundtrack for a hip-hop themed horror film. He learned I rapped, and asked me to do a song for the film’s soundtrack. The film had a sizeable promotional budget at the time, so I figured whatever song I submitted would undoubtedly be the biggest of my career. Consequently, I wanted its content to explore a topic I found important. At this juncture, the death of Trayvon Martin had become national news. I decided to write a tribute to Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, because I had followed his story a few years prior. I called it Nobody, in part because the film was called You’re Nobody, ‘til somebody kills you.
The film did not receive the support for distribution we initially projected, so it went straight to DVD. As a result, the soundtrack fell through. By the time we determined that outcome, I had written four other songs with similar themes (what is now No City for Young Men, The Audacity of Dope, Rap and Ball 2.0, and The Afterthought). Before all of that, I had begun writing another album, and none of the new songs fit the theme of it. Nevertheless, I noticed they had similar themes. I decided to put them together and release them. The original idea was to release it as an EP, and an EP grew into a full-length album, university course, and book.
DEHH: This is a bit of an odd question, but in a time where it seems like everyone is trying to put out quick albums that make a splash, what was the motivation behind making this a dense, longer project that you have to study?
TW: That’s actually a great question. On a personal level, I have always found myself drawn to timelessness. I admire things that retain their value after the moment of their creation, particularly as it relates to art. There is a reason why we can return to albums like Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, ATLiens, Low End Theory, and College Dropout decades after their respective releases. There is a reason why we teach children Beethoven more than a century and a half after his death.
What we consider cool in the moment is subjective and fleeting. When that vapor of a moment evaporates, what do you have left? I want to leave my listeners with substantive material that conveys eternal value. On a practical level, it takes me so long to put out music, in part because of my other endeavors and responsibilities, by the time I actually release new material, trends have come and gone several times over, so I have little to gain in chasing them.
The last thing I would say with regard to this is the trend toward quick albums and the perpetual stream of content it fuels is that it feeds into the oversaturation and dilution of the art itself. The push toward constantly releasing content not only wears thin the consumer’s desire to hear from a given artist, but it invariably diminishes the quality of output. Art created like that is usually disposable. So an artist may capture listeners’ attention with a stream of trendy songs for a few moments, but those songs are rarely memorable. With this album, it was important for me to create something that was timely and timeless.
DEHH: What do you want people who listen to “No City For Young Men” to walk away with?
TW: I often say one of hip-hop’s greatest gifts is that it has caused the world to listen to black and brown children. Children who came of age in the underbelly of urban America, and thereby experienced the harsh realities those environments impose of its residents created a culture and corresponding expressions that changed the world and reoriented how we understand music, fashion, and the use of language. That culture, those expressions are now ubiquitous. Hip-hop is on television, film, advertisements, and is the most listened to form of music on the planet. There are places without running water and electricity that hip-hop has touched. That is a powerful statement considering the culture emerged from a party housed in cramped recreation room in a South Bronx housing project forty-four years ago.
One of the themes of this project hinges on the notion that when we listen to people at the margins, many tell the same stories: encountering abject poverty, attending failing school systems, routinely negotiating violence, being regularly exposed to illicit drugs, encountering law enforcement at disproportionate levels, etc. These are the stories hip-hop tells, and has told for more than four decades. What I want the listener to leave this project with is an understanding of why these stories are told, why they need to be told, and hopefully that will produce a sense of empathy for people in these dire straits.
DEHH: Now I know “No City For Young Men” is more than album you’re making this a multimedia, multi-city tour movement. Tell me a bit about that.
TW: Yeah, so the project is an album, a university course, a book, and multi-city tour. As I mentioned earlier, this all began with a song. One turned into two, two turned into five, five turned into an album. In the process of working on the album, I spoke with the Department Chair of the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple. She had heard of the success I had with my Hip-Hop and Black Culture course in the Department of Africology and African American Studies. She had an opening, and asked if I would be willing to teach the Urban Affairs course in the department. She said I have liberty to make the course my own, and after a few discussions, I told her I had an idea. That was the beginning of “No City for Young Men: Hip-Hop and the Narrative of Marginalization” as a course. This semester marks my third semester teaching it.
The primary focus of this course is to provide a comprehensive foundation for understanding how urban policy initiatives shape the lives of people living in urban centers across the nation, particularly, but not limited to African American men. A significant portion of the course focuses on the relevance of hip-hop’s role in expressing the modern African American experience. So, we’ll examine an article (The Case for Reparations) or an excerpt from a book (The Mis-education of the Negro, The New Jim Crow, Inequality in the Promised Land, etc.) that explores one of these themes. The following week, we listen to an album, while reading the lyrics on Genius. We do that as a means to demonstrate how hip-hop illustrates and documents the phenomena these scholars studied.
The book I am writing will be a collection of critical essays that expound upon the themes from the album and course, in addition to transcribing and annotating the lyrics of the album. I’m pushing for a release of the book in third quarter of next year, and it is my hope the book becomes a foundational resource for hip-hop scholarship, and/or other disciplines to that examine African American culture and history. I’m working on doing a multi-city tour to promote the project. I’m in the process of confirming dates now.
DEHH: Nowadays being an artist is difficult, any tips you can give to up and comers looking to get where you’re at?
TW: That’s a great question. My first set of advice is for the artist to find their voice. No one can beat you at being you, so find what it is that makes you distinct, and amplify it. You have been given something unique to say, give that to the world. From there, hone your craft, so when you present yourself to the world, you present the best representation of yourself.
From there, if you desire to do this a more than a hobby, prepare like a professional. I have a friend who is a successful entertainment attorney—Evita Kaigler. She represents Big K.R.I.T., Joey Bada$$, Jarren Benton, Mick Jenkins, and a host of others. She says something to the effect of, “There is music, the music business, and the music industry, love the first, learn the second, and conquer the third.” That is excellent advice. If you truly want to enter into music, learn the business side so as to properly manage affairs, and prepare to navigate the industry.
Aside from that, be relentless, but be patient. Few things worth having come easily.
Work hard, set goals, but be open to the prospects of success materializing in ways you may not anticipate. When I was fifteen, I thought I would be the next Jay-Z. That did not happen, but I found my own journey, and I would not trade it for anything.
DEHH: You have a ton planned for the year and next year, after “No City For Young Men” what’s coming next?
TW: The next step is to finalize the multi-city tour, then release the book for No City for Young Men. It is my hope to do the tour the first quarter of next year, and release the book by the third quarter of next year. Artistically, I hope to release a joint EP with a good friend who has been a frequent collaborator, then release another album. Professionally, I intend to keep pursuing the fight for justice through the law, and continue using my teaching and writing as a means for advocacy and illuminating the minds of my readers and students. I’m working on making my class more of an experience each semester. We regularly bring artists to campus. Wyclef, Lecrae, Chill Moody, Nick Grant, Mir Fontane, Propaganda, and Skyzoo have visited previously. I also offer an internship with Hype Fresh through the class. Prayerfully, these things will continue to grow. From there, I plan to keep loving my wife, raising my children, and looking for more ways to better this world.
Those who are interested can keep up with what I’m doing by following me on social media (Twitter and Instagram: @timothywelbeck, Facebok: @timothy.welbeck), or visiting my website: www.timothywelbeck.com.