Essential Records: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

Posted by Amoebite, May 11, 2015 05:36pm | Post a Comment

Essential Records Black Star

The '90s proved to be interesting times for Hip Hop. Early in the decade, the “golden era” produced countless classics, while the middle of the decade gave way to a highly publicized beef between East and West coast rappers. Gangsta rap came and went. “Bling bling” became a thing with rappers wearing chains so big MR. T was blushing. The entire Hip Hop community was shaken up by the untimely murders of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., leaving a major void in the mainstream. Slowly, the tide began to shift and Hip Hop audiences started looking to the underground for what was to come next.

In 1996, with backing by James Murdoch (son of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch), Rawkus Records was established in New York City. The small label launched with Company Flow’s debut, Funcrusher Plus (1997), quickly establishing itself at the forefront of the new underground movement. Rawkus set the bar high by following up with two stellar compilations, Sound Bombing (1997) and Lyricist Lounge Volume 1. (1998). The latter featuring veteran emcees including De La Soul, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Common and Black Thought of The Roots. Music fans and critics began taking note of the fledgling label and all the stars seem to align for what came next.

Mos Def Talib Kweli Black StarOn August 18, 1998, Rawkus Records released Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. The album marked the label's fourth official release and only the second from their artist roster. Despite being relatively unknown outside the local New York scene, Black Star quickly made an impact with their first single, “Definition.” Producer Hi-Tek samples Boogie Down Productions' "The P Is Free" for the main beat of the song, creating the perfect backdrop for Mos Def and Talib Kweli to showcase their undeniable lyrical prowess. Faster than the original BDP version, "Definition" is full of energy with Hi-Tek adding some extra bassy kick drums for a super fat boom bap sound. With the support from various TV outlets playing the music video, "Definition" became an underground hit while reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart. The video shows Mos Def, Talib kweli and DJ Hi-Tek driving around New York City in a van with cameos made by fellow emcees Dead Prez and Pharoahe Monch. They couldn't have selected a better track to help promote the album. Right off the bat, Mos and Talib show us they mean business with lines like, "Still sippin', wishin' well water imported from Pluto / Three hundred an' sixty milliliters for all our believers / In miles or kilometers, most cats, cannot proceed us / In the jungle with the leaders, we the lions, you the cheetahs." In just one song, they manage to raise the bar lyrically, showcase superb production skills, pay homage to KRS-ONE and Boogie Down Productions, and touch on the topic of violence in Hip Hop. They do all this seamlessly, never once coming off as cliche or corny.  

I was a senior in high school and I remember browsing Hip Hop albums at Wherehouse (or maybe it was a Ritmo Latino). I spotted the Black Star album and had no idea what it was. I picked it up and stared at the cover and thought, “this has to be good.” The cover had all the little indicators letting me know I struck gold. The design had a wood-like texture giving it a burning effect similar to the cover of  Burnin’ by Bob Marley & The Wailers. The color scheme had hues of orange giving it a warm feel reminiscent of '70s vintage. There were greens and reds that hinted at a Jamaican influence. There was a silhouette of a boom box with red stars over the speakers and I assumed it was a reference to Communism or revolution. I definitely was not a fan of what pop radio rappers were saying at the time, so this cover was speaking to me. The image of Mos Def and Talib Kweli side by side was instantly iconic. Rawkus recruited designer Brent Rollins to help create this classic cover. (He's designed for Stones Throw, Florence + The Machine, NIKE & Complex Mag). Needless to say, it easily passed the eyeball test and I had to hear it right away!  

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is one of the few albums I've bought several times over the years. Not only is it one of my favorite Hip Hop records, but it's also very nostalgic for me. Every time “Brown Skin Lady” comes on, I’m transported right back to the driver's seat of my 1992 Honda Accord, summertime in Boyle Heights, driving with the windows down on a quarter tank of gas. “Brown Skin Lady” was a fresh alternative to the oversaturated “bitches and hoes” theme rappers became infatuated with. Instead, Mos Def and Talib pen lyrics praising the natural beauty of women with darker complexions, seamlessly executed over a smooth sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s, “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Producer J. Rawls manages to deliver that sweet soul feel you get from classic love songs, while Mos and Talib execute intellectual romantic rhymes without alienating the male listener. “Your skin's the inspiration for cocoa butter / You provoke a brother we should get to know one another / I discover when I bring you through my people say true / All I can say is all praise due I thank God for a beauty like you / Brown skin lady..." 

Another great song (and fan favorite) is "Children's Story." For this song, Mos Def retools rapper Slick Rick's 1988 classic "Children's Story" and turns it into a commentary criticizing the commercialism of Hip Hop and radio politics of the time. Although Hip Hop was birthed from utilizing samples, it is often frowned upon when producers take already popularized samples and use them again. Many people believed Mos Def was taking jabs at Puff Daddy aka P.Diddy, who, at the time, produced hit songs using blatant samples of David Bowie, The Police, Diana Ross and Grandmaster Flash, to name a few. Mos Def raps the lyric, "They jacked the beats, money came with ease, but son he couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease, He jacked another and another, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder / Sang some R&B over the track for 'Deep Cover'." Legend has it, Puff Daddy had words with Mos Def and Talib Kweli after hearing them perform the song in a club.

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is very Afrocentric in its aesthetic and content. The name Black Star is a nod to the shipping company founded by Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey. The Black Star line was a fleet of ships that used all black crews and black captains to transport goods throughout the African global economy from 1919 to 1922. The name alone is a lesson in history! Like so many other similar classic Hip Hop records, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star managed to transcend and reach a universal audience. I was a young Mexican-American kid playing this album daily, loving it for the way the rappers performed and for the dope beats the producers made. When I grauduated high school, I took the album with me to college. When I was on the road touring my own music, the album was played in the van. As an adult married with kids, I have a CD copy in my car, two vinyl copies at home (one to DJ with and one to never play), and an mp3 version on my iPod just in case. If that is not an essential record, than I don't know what is.

- Ray Ricky Rivera 

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