20 Years Ago Black Star Released A Gold Standard For Hip-Hop (Audio)
Twenty years ago today (September 29, 1998), Mos Def and Talib Kweli joined forces and waved the Black Star flag courtesy of an incredible album. Time-tested, that same flag is forever planted in ears, hearts, and consciousness of so many Hip-Hop Heads. After two decades, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is one of the best definitions of a successful full-length introduction.
Ahead of 1998, Black Star was brewing. On the first volume of Rawkus Records’ Soundbombing, Heads got a taste of the incredible chemistry between Mos and Kweli. 1997’s “Fortified Live” is a song that belongs to another group, Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek). However, Mos and Da Bush Babees member Mr. Man slid in nicely over a slowed-down 1960s Rocksteady loop. Substance and swagger intersected magically from three MCs and a DJ/producer that just oozed love for Hip-Hop.
Last year, Talib broke down some Black Star history while on Desus & Mero. “Yasiin Bey was a dude like—he was like hood-famous. I used to freestyle [in] Washington Square Park with like Supernatural and Mr. Man, [as well as] Agallah The Don Bishop [aka] 8-Off The Assassin. Mos used to come around buy people hamburgers because he had a job. Like, we all used to just freestyle for free. Mos was working on a show with ‘Theo’ [played by] Malcolm-Jamal Warner of The Cosby Show. He had [students] he was teaching [and] Mos was one of them kids. And then he did a show [You Take The Kids] with Nell Carter. He had did Cosby Mysteries. He had a Deion Sanders commercial [for Visa]. So he was out really doing his acting thing and coming to the park and rhyming.” The two men hit it off through rhyming.
“I was a fan of his. But then, our children were born around the same time—and he used to hang out at the bookstore; I worked in Nkiru Books. So he’d come around the bookstore [or] I’d go over to his crib, he’d come to my crib. We developed a family bond before we even talked about doing music—before he was even really a fan of mine. We just became family…that young-Brooklyn-dad-talk.” Ahead of Black Star’s album, in 1997, Kweli and Mos would buy the historic Nkiru Books, located in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The brick-and-mortar store was closed during their blossoming entertainment careers. In 2016, Talib re-opened Nkiru online.
The artists started working together, as “Fortified Live,” a fitting name. A year later, the album was released. It was an intersection of like-minded creators. Early ’90s artists like Common and Da Beatminerz stood in to knight these MCs. Meanwhile, the LP would cast a greater light on important sound-providers including Hi-Tek, 88-Keys, J. Rawls, and others. Jazz O.G. Weldon Irvine also got involved, along with Native Tongues’ go-to vocalist Vinia Mojica. The 13-track, 51-minute effort took a detour from the flashy, fantastical, and flash-fried music on radio and TV at the time and slow-cooked an organic brand of Rap. When rappers were talking about luxury brands, exotic cars, champagne magnums, and being players, Black Star celebrated the “Brown Skin Lady,” sampled Style Wars in a city symphony, and demanded justice for the murders of Tupac and Biggie, while reminding all to stop the violence. The message was challenging, confident, and celebratory. In many ways, this LP felt like the last new blossom in the Native Tongues’ garden.
Although these two virtuosos met late in the game, they rolled together like lifelong brothers. The duo recorded a late ’90s freestyle, with Mr. Man still in tow, as well as Hi-Tek on the wheels of steel while on the road. At a Baltimore, Maryland radio show and its host Lil’ Mike, the crew begins freestyling over All City’s “The Actual” (produced by DJ Premier).
Mos spits first, then Kweli. There are off the top of the head rhymes, as Talib raps, “Catch me rappin’ my poems / I’m in Baltimore, like Nina Simone / Catch me tonight at The Twilight Zone / Maybe around 2 am, you can see me rock the mic-ro-phone / Yo, then I’ll get back in the van and go home / Maybe watch The Shining on the VCR / See, we the Black Star / Hot like black tar / Who you are? / My name is Kweli, for short they call me Kwe’,” he flows. Back to Mos, he raps, “I be Black Star nebulous / What is you tellin’ us? / We never felonious / Bang like Thelonious / Monk with funk / That is bumpin’ outta your trunk / And for young and old / At once, be told / Like Cab Calloway / Street, or the alleyway / Avenue or cul-de-sac / B’more, I’m coming back / ‘Cause we got the Black Star, and you lovin’ that / So cover that / Go purchase this / No nervousness / Black Star services / Yo, we worship this.”
Black Star has kept fans interested ever since the ’90s. Although Yasiin and Talib have released additional collaborations, Heads still only have this esteemed album to possess, digest, consider in legacy.
At the top of this 20th anniversary year, Yasiin suggested that that could change. The duo has been touring and recording, including with Madlib—another late ’90s Underground movement alum. After a break between albums longer than Dr. Dre’s, A Tribe Called Quest’s, or almost any in Rap, Black Star’s brand is legendary. Even if Heads never get that second album, Black Star’s impression is cemented in the genre and culture.
#BonusBeat: In 2018, Black Star is still representing lovely. Ambrosia For Heads caught the duo at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater this summer performing from the LP:
Additional Reporting by Jake Paine.