Mos Def Taught Us What 'Black On Both Sides' Meant 20 Years Ago
The Brooklyn-born rapper's 1999 debut helped hint at what the next millennium's vision of hip-hop would be like, an impressionistic painting that honored not just his rap elders but many other genres as well
When Dante Smith titled his solo debut Black On Both Sides two decades ago this week, he may not have been thinking about time. But those two sides might be "past" and "future," with who else but the man currently known as Yasiin Bey adjoining them. The Bed-Stuy polymath came to the world’s attention in 1998 with his fellow wordsmith Talib Kweli for just one album as Black Star, appropriately titled Mos Def &Talib Kweli Are Black Star. And redefining both "blackness" and hip-hop was present in their work from the git. The duo's explanatory "Astronomy (8th Light)" spends the entire song doing just that: "Blacker than the seed in the blackberry pie / Blacker than the middle of my eye," "Black like the perception of who on welfare," et cetera. But where Kweli has always adhered strictly to the boom-bap, Mos Def indeed showed another side of himself just a year later.
One of rap's most enigmatic figures then and now, think of Smith like Jack White, an artist who loves history so much he has to mess with it. But where White channels his ideas into paradoxical analog gadgetry, Mos Def sang the praises of Nina Simone on a song that turns into barreling hardcore punk. This was 20 years ago, long before Lil Peep sampled emo songs or Travis Barker grafted drums onto XXXTentacion tracks. "Rock N Roll" didn't really make a show of itself either; the late '90s were so self-consciously eclectic that it was just a matter of fact that Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Andre 3000 were beginning to cut their rhymes with straight-up singing. That's the environment Black On Both Sides was born into, and it was the most nonchalant of all, partly because when Mos Def sang, it didn't sound like he was doing it for a hit.
The meditative, nearly free-associative "Umi Says" was released as a single anyway, with live drumming beneath electric Miles Davis atmospherics for five minutes, while Mos singsongs about "trying to do the best I can" and ultimately climaxing, "I want black people to be free, to be free, to be free." On the neighborhood anthem "Brooklyn," he sings a bit of Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge," which was neither something people were expecting from a moderately mainstream rapper in 1999 outside of maybe an MTV awards show, nor something listeners were expecting from someone who just a few tracks earlier was proclaiming Afrocentric preferences for Fishbone and Albert King over Korn and even the Stones. You could almost say that he was so demure about shifting from a rapped setting to a sung one that Mos got a raw deal compared to Andre or Cee Lo Green, who were seen as innovators by the time "Hey Ya!" and "Crazy" became worldwide smashes.
Hosted by one of the calmest rap voices you'll ever hear, Mos' debut was appropriately soothing, rhythmically hard, vocally liquid, full of melting-pot soul-jazz sonics as his loose cavalcade of compadres like Questlove, Common, and D'Angelo developed their awe-inspiring studio aesthetics. If you can remember which songs he speaks (the opener "Fear Not Of Man"), sings and raps by merely from skimming the tracklist, you’re probably not being honest. It's only now cherry-picking for research two decades on that it's actually apparent he doesn't start rapping until five minutes into his first album. Flow was his thing; for all of Sides' genre-splicing, its trick was that it never felt like it was doing something new (even though it beat OutKast and Gnarls Barkley to the punch by years.
But then there's the rapping. It’s not quite right to call "Speed Law," "Do It Now!" and the flute-flecked "Habitat" bangers in any traditional sense. But they're clever, wordy, spaciously produced and catchy the way jamming in a room gets catchy when all the players lock in. Even "New World Water" is catchy, and you've definitely never heard another rap song fretting about the world's water supply. In the wake of California's droughts and the threat of melted ice caps, it takes on all different layers of apocalyptic new meaning.
It won't surprise you that the most marketable tune from Black On Both Sides was "Ms. Fat Booty," an instant classic that sampled Aretha Franklin's early "One Step Ahead" and wasn't nearly as simple as its title; nothing was simple with this guy. A conversational noir of vivid storytelling, "Ms. Fat Booty" is one of the most cinematic rap songs of the '90s and absolutely the least dramatic entry in that crowded subgenre. Not a lot of hip-hop from any era resembles a smart rom-com, and Mos gives the woman of his pursuit just as clever dialogue as he gets.
Mos would become more adventurous on The New Danger, an underrated half-rock album with his supergroup Black Jack Johnson that no one in 2004 knew what to do with, and he even topped his debut with 2009's exotically gorgeous The Ecstatic before changing his name and all but disappearing from release schedules. But Black On Both Sides helped hint at what the next millennium's vision of hip-hop would be like, an impressionistic painting that honored not just his rap elders but many other genres as well. The great achievement of Mos Def's debut is that it made rap feel more comfortable in its skin, being whatever it wanted to be. That's still an ongoing process for too many black Americans, and too many are still not free.
Re:Generation Moves Music Into The Future
Documentary provides a behind-the-scenes account of the creative collaborations between prominent DJs and artists
(A partnership between The Recording Academy and Hyundai, Re:Generation premiered in February during GRAMMY Week. Watch a special online premiere of the film below. Re:Generation will also be screened this week at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. See below for screening information.)
On the surface, Re:Generation addresses a familiar musical theme: What happens when you ask disparate, seemingly incompatible talents to create music together?
But the reality of this documentary, a partnership between The Recording Academy and Hyundai, digs far deeper.
Screening this week at the annual South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas, Re:Generation is not only about accepting and appreciating diverse musical genres, but about reimagining music from the past with an ear on the present and future. Five DJs/producers collaborate with artists from five different genres in five attempts to "re:generate" music. Or, in the words of hip-hop's DJ Premier, who tackles a classical composition with composer Bruce Adolphe, conductor Stephen Webber, rapper Nas, and the Berklee Symphony Orchestra: "Music can't die as long as someone keeps on makin' it fresh."
From medieval troubadours and train-hopping folk singers to Top 40 covers of obscure songs, the concept of cross-genre collaboration has always driven both the art and commerce of music. But watching turntablist and beat-maker Premier reimagine the centuries-old works of white-wigged geniuses, waving a baton as he conducts a full orchestra, one can't help but be struck by the level of cross-pollination happening — or the level of joy most of the collaborators share in discovering how to combine their familiar processes into a new whole.
"We were trying to have the possibilities be as wide as possible. That's how we came up with the assignments," says Amir Bar-Lev, the film's director. "One of the things that's most interesting about music films is that most drama has to come from conflict, and music films are an exception. You can really enjoy watching conflict in a music film, and you can also enjoy things going smoothly."
Also featured in the film is Skrillex, who won the first three GRAMMYs of his career in February. As the 24-year-old gets the living members of the Doors into a Santa Monica, Calif., recording studio and tries to explain what he has in mind, their segue from who-is-this-kid skepticism to how-cool-is-this enthusiasm is something to behold.
"I really appreciated the way the Doors handled the collaboration," Bar-Lev says. "I appreciated the way Skrillex did, too, because he had the right amount of humility, and he was genuine and earnest. I enjoyed watching the ice thaw. I enjoyed watching them cook."
While Skrillex and the Doors cover rock with "Breakin' A Sweat," the Crystal Method's Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland re-examine R&B in Detroit with Martha Reeves and the famed Funk Brothers, yielding "I'm Not Leaving." GRAMMY winner Mark Ronson finds a jazz groove with "A La Modeliste" in New Orleans with fellow GRAMMY winner Erykah Badu, Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, Trombone Shorty, Mos Def, and members of the Dap Kings. Electronica DJ Pretty Lights reinvents the folk standard "Wayfaring Stranger" with GRAMMY winners Ralph Stanley and LeAnn Rimes in Nashville.
Bar-Lev, whose previous credits include My Kid Could Paint That and The Tillman Story, had a DJ project in development for television several years ago and was delighted to revisit the concept in coming onboard for Re:Generation.
The documentary not only shows the environments that shaped the collaborators' foundations (in one heartbreaking scene, Reeves watches the Ford Theater, where she performed her first big show, crushed by a wrecking ball), but the resulting fruits of the DJs' collective labor.
"What you see in the film is electronica artists challenging themselves to dive deeper, and to use their technology, not just to make things extraordinarily accessible, but to make things rich and complex," Bar-Lev says.
"Musicians borrow from the past, learn from the past, and then move music into the future by standing on the shoulders of those who came before them," he adds. "It's a pretty traditional story we're telling … I mean, that's what music is, and that's why I love music."
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)
Re:Generation is being screening in conjunction with South by Southwest at the following locations:
Tuesday, March 13, 10 p.m.: Alamo Slaughter Lane
Friday, March 16, 2 p.m.: Vimeo Theater
Saturday, March 17, 5 p.m.: Alamo Village
9 Revolutionary Rap Albums To Know: From Kendrick Lamar, Black Star, EarthGang & More
These nine rap albums exude Black solidarity and revolutionary fervor.
Studied observers know that hip-hop rarely goes along to get along, or consents to being made a cat's paw of. The genre is punker than punk. When Ronald Reagan's austerity government caused deep harm to Black communities, hip-hop spoke up, asserting its humanity with albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy and Pure Righteousness by Lakim Shabazz. And when subsequent presidents beefed up their strategies of surveillance and entrapment, hip-hop spoke up again; sometimes in song—who could forget Ice-T's disavowal of the security state on "Drama"?)—and sometimes in person. In fact, X Clan were among the demonstrators who in 1989 descended on hostile territory for a Day of Outrage.
But hip-hop responded differently to COVID-19, even when the pandemic snarled Black and brown people like nobody else. It's not like life continued as normal. How could it with so many rappers' livelihoods hanging perniciously in the balance? But many would argue the hip-hop community didn't push back all that forcefully on the bunglers of our national COVID-19 response. There were hand-washing PSAs aplenty, but very few howls of indignation.
Does this mean the flames of revolt have been extinguished? Absolutely not. Thirteen-time GRAMMY winner Kendrick Lamar—a familiar face at police reform rallies—shares his forebears' penchant for protest. So do Jay Electronica (a GRAMMY nominee), Isaiah Rashad, Noname, and others.
Below are nine hip-hop albums of "revolutionary" character. Some are faith-based; others advance a Black nationalist or Marxist perspective. But they all exude Black solidarity and revolutionary fervor.
Related: From Aretha Franklin To Public Enemy, Here's How Artists Have Amplified Social Justice Movements Through Music
Jungle Brothers, Straight Out The Jungle (1988)
Where would hip-hop be without the Jungle Brothers? On Straight Out The Jungle, the Harlem trio sculpted verdant soundscapes that were at once naturalistic and futuristic. They improvised rhymes with effortless deft. They created out of whole cloth wonderfully lifelike characters. ("Jimbrowski" introduces us to Dreadlock Man, a lion-maned prophet of truth.) And they cleared a path for plucky, socially conscious overachievers from De La Soul to A Tribe Called Quest to Black Sheep.
Hip-hop was still very young in 1988, but already it was the target of a disinformation campaign. Rappers were said to be "small-minded," slothful, materialistic, basically pliant stooges for the sportswear industrial complex. Thank god for Straight Out The Jungle. Much like De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, which came out the following spring, Jungle rebutted the most intransigent mistruths about hip-hop and Black youth culture more generally.
Poor Righteous Teachers, Holy Intellect (1990)
Miraculously, the Five Percenter community was big enough to accommodate Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian. Both were professorial, tough as leather and unyielding in their convictions; stenographers to no one except Allah. Both could be high-handed and self-regarding, yet they coexisted without incident.
Brand Nubian was a great group, but too homophobic to pass moral muster. To its credit, Holy Intellect doesn't wade nearly so deeply into hip-hop's confected gay panic. The album is about three things: Allah's grace, Allah's mercy and Allah's beneficence. This is weighty stuff, to be sure. Luckily, the music is effervescent, with turntable scratches, rolling triplets, harmonica flourishes, and Doors-style organs.
Divine Styler, Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light (1992)
Divine Styler had a minor hit with 1989's "Ain't Savin' Nothin'." At that point in his career, he bore the impression of a chin-stroking sonneteer making music for coffee shop revolutionaries. But Styler underwent a dramatic transformation, and he did it inside of three years; by '92, all that remained of his former self was the hushed spoken-word cadence.
Spiral Walls is gutsy and eclectic—very, very brazenly eclectic. The polarity between hip-hop and noise rock, or hip-hop and exotica, ceases to matter. These are all just ingredients in a bitchin' brew concocted by Styler, the gamest fusionist you'll ever meet.
We haven't even gotten to Styler's writing, which is breathy at times and garrulous in a way that only he could be. But no one can deny the extraordinary scope of his imagination. A devout Muslim, Styler, like so many Black men, was born anew in the image of Allah, who he credits for his creative, not just spiritual, awakening.
The Coup, Genocide & Juice (1994)
The Bay Area might vote reliably blue, but there is no love lost between Boots Riley and America's oldest bourgeois party. Riley will probably never perform at an inauguration ball or headline a Democratic fundraiser. He's not a Democrat; he's an unreconstructed Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist, and he's suspicious even of like-minded people with pretensions to the electoral office.
Genocide & Juice is refreshing, not least because it affords us a rare opportunity to hear about class exploitation from afflicted persons. Riley is a relatively anonymous gear in the capitalist machine, not a paid politico, well-coiffed pundit, or tenured academic. And on Genocide & Juice, he rails jocularly and impassionedly against the people: landlords, debt collectors, prosecutors, energy monopolists, CIA spies--who not only butter his congressperon's bread but make life hell for working Black folk.
Black Star, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Mos Def is a competent yodeler and raps in a twangy patois over island-inspired sampledelia. (Give him a crate full of dub or reggae 45s and presto—a great song is born.) Talib Kweli is no flyweight, either. His flow—sturdy as stucco and fearsomely articulate—is one reason Black Star's 1998 debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, has held up through the millennia. He also makes powerful cases against colonialism, consumerism, colorism, and every dastardly "ism" in between. Still, this album is remarkable for its unqualified positivity.
BUSDRIVER, Fear Of A Black Tangent (2005)
Rich kids do the damnedest things. Given his penchant for undecodable jabberwocky, you might assume that BUSDRIVER was raised by wolves. But no: He's the son of a screenwriter, showrunner, and all-around straight arrow (Ralph Farquhar, whose credits include "Moesha"). Despite his fortuitous background, BUSDRIVER has always felt most at home in the wacky world of mass transit.
Fear Of A Black Tangent's production is slightly gauzy, but it doesn't matter because BUSDRIVER's protestations are so spot-on. He calls out the white establishment for its persnickety elitism and credential humping: "They want to hear good freestyling with the sarcasm of Woody Allen," BUSDRIVER raps on "Cool Buzz Band." BUSDRIVER is many critics' Platonic ideal of a rapper: smart, adenoidal, free-associative, self-lampooning. But he's tired of being fetishized as "one of the good ones," and he's tired of bohemian critics with denigrative attitudes about hip-hop. "I'm a post-rap wizkid," he says on the mocking "Sphinx's Coonery." "My speech is littered with double entendres and sharp sarcasm."
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Imagine if Adrian Nicole LeBlanc had followed up her groundbreaking book "Random Family" with a scrapbook of fortune-cookie-like benedictions, incantations and truisms. That's sort of what Kendrick Lamar did. His 2012 breakout, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, was like a Victorian novel, densely plotted and stuffed to the brim with interweaving characters.
To Pimp A Butterfly is different. The record mosies along at an unbothered pace, lapping up the borrowed wisdom of Lamar's elders. Typical of To Pimp A Butterfly is "Institutionalized," where Lamar's grandmother is quoted as telling her grandbabies, "Don't s*** change until you get up and wash your ass."
Loving TPAB, by far the most inward-looking and "experimental" of Lamar's four studio albums, is, to quote "U," complicated, at least for those who prefer K.Dot as the rough-and-ready, battle-rapping prole from times past. But even when he's singing—in a coiled, stricken, serpentine falsetto—Lamar has plenty to say about obstacles one faces when seeking self-love and self-cultivation in the Black underclass.
Read: Black Sounds Beautiful: How Kendrick Lamar Became A Rap Icon
Smino, blkswn (2017)
If you find fault with Smino's unlofty personal commandment ("I know I'll be aight if I just make it through tonight," he raps on "Amphetamine"), it's because you live in a rose-scented never-never land. Smino does not. He's from North St. Louis, a poor, internally colonized lazaretto with one of the highest murder rates in the developed world. Ambition is a luxury Smino, a self-described "ashy lil' black boy," can ill afford; it's not a foundational human need.
Smino is flirtatious, even sex-mad, but he spends most of blkswn ducking and dodging oligarchs, not baby mamas. The corporate state has no use for "shiftless" Black youths like Smino—except, of course, in a 6-by-8-foot jail cell. The fidgety, cut-and-paste production is adventurous, and Smino is frantic in his febrile gaiety, but he hasn't gone daft. He's only too aware of what he's up against. "Life ain't even granted," he says on "Maraca". "Off the strength, I'm brown-skinned."
EarthGang, Mirrorland (2019)
EarthGang are an Atlanta duo with sherpa-like mountain endurance. The duo has been plugging along for nearly 15 years. In that time, many a nonbeliever has voiced displeasure with the duo's output, a spastic comingling of vaudeville, música latina and Southern trap; Twitter was not receptive when Julianna Godard likened EarthGang to a younger Outkast. For most of their career, though, EG were too marginal to generate significant hostility.
After years of thankless toil, EarthGang finally penetrated the mainstream with Mirrorland. Like Wakanda or Stankonia, Mirrorland is an egalitarian, vaguely transcendentalist, wholly self-ruling Black utopia. Based on communal ownership, Mirrorland nonetheless cherishes the sanctity of the individual. As Doctor Dut says on "Blue Moon," "We not each other's property."
Let Me Play The Answers: 8 Jazz Artists Honoring Black Geniuses
Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images
Korn Announce 'Follow The Leader' 20th Anniversary Celebration Shows
Two decades after their breakthrough third album arrived, the influential metal band will play three special U.S. shows to celebrate
GRAMMY-winning metal band Korn have announced three special U.S. shows to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their landmark third album, 1998's Follow The Leader.
The short West Coast run starts in San Francisco on Sept. 12, then heads to Los Angeles on Sept. 13 before concluding in Las Vegas on Sept. 15. According to Blabbermouth, Korn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch recently revealed these will be the band's only tour dates this year, but they'll embark on a "cool tour" in 2019.
Follow The Leader arrived on Aug. 18, 1998, and climbed to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 on its way to being certified five times platinum by the RIAA. The hit single "Freak On A Leash" earned Korn a GRAMMY win for Best Short Form Music Video and a nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards.
Korn singer Jonathan Davis has also reportedly said the band is working on its 13th album, the follow up to 2016's The Serenity Of Suffering, which yielded a GRAMMY nomination for "Rotting In Vain" for Best Metal Performance at the 59th GRAMMY Awards.
Davis is also gearing up for the release of his first solo album, Black Labyrinth, which is due out May 25.
Tickets for the three special Follow The Leader 20th-anniversary shows go on sale Friday, May 18, via the band's website.
Photo: Victor Boyko/Getty Images
Lauryn Hill Plans 'Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill' 2018 Tour
The GRAMMY winner and former Fugees member is hitting the road to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her debut solo album
Two decades later, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill remains standing tall as one of the best albums to come out of the '90s, and one of the best modern R&B albums of all time. To celebrate the landmark recording's big milestone, Lauryn Hill has announced a new summer tour during which she plans to perform the album in its entirety every single night.
Featuring profound hits such as "Everything Is Everything," "Ex-Factor" and "Doo Wop (That Thing)," the album shot to the top of the Billboard 200 upon its release in 1998, and earned the triple-threat singer/producer/songwriter a total of 10 GRAMMY nominations at the 41st GRAMMY Awards. Hill took home five GRAMMYs that night, including Album Of The Year, Best R&B Album, and Best New Artist.
Hill's 27-city North American tour will kick off on July 5 in Virginia Beach, and run through Oct. 3, where it will wrap up at UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. Presale tickets went on sale today, April 17, and tickets for the general public will go on sale on Friday, April 20 at 10 a.m. Eastern.