Black On Both Sides Is Still Mos Def After 20 Years
Twenty years ago today (October 12, 1999), Mos Def released his solo debut, Black On Both Sides. After two decades of testing time, the Rawkus Records album remains a hallmark from the Underground Hip-Hop boom. On his own strict terms, Dante Smith crafted an LP driven by creativity, piercing commentary, and one of the best flows in Rap. The Brooklyn, New Yorker showed his star power while locking arms with a movement that kept Hip-Hop fresh, provocative, and spiritually uplifting in the year of “Bling, Bling.”
Approaching Black On Both Sides, Mos was no stranger to Hip-Hop Heads, even if his audience expanded greatly in the LP’s wake. The album arrived just over one year after Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, and following noteworthy appearances alongside De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Roots. Since the days of his group, Urban Thermo Dynamics, Mos had represented a last wave of the Native Tongues. The former Cosby Mysteries actor was a sharp MC that could seamlessly shapeshift into poet, musician, and singer. A product of Washington Square Park cyphers, Mos knew how to effectively role-play as a collaborator. He enhanced other MCs’ stage, evident since his breakout work Da Bush Babees and work on Rawkus compilations leading up to the fall of ’99.
However, after playing a teaming with Talib Kweli and featuring for many others, Black On Both Sides served as a blank canvas to communicate who the 25-year-old was on a deeper level. “If I remember correctly, when I started working with [Yasiin Bey], there was some confusion with some of the tapes we had gotten since they had ‘Black Star’ written on them,” album engineer John Wydrycs told Vice’s Jaelani Turner-Williams. “I believe he had already written songs that didn’t make the cut on that album, which in turn helped in the quick turnaround to Black On Both Sides. Whatever he didn’t say on the Black Star album, he saved for his solo effort.”
That message was presented cohesively. “Fear Not Of Man” kicked off a ceremony that was as close to a Hip-Hop invocation as one could get—organs and all. Listeners were turned away at the door if they were not as invested in cultural preservation as Mos. However, those down for the cause were presented with a color guard that articulated a love of the culture and a concern for its direction. In one of the best transitions from intro-to-song on any album, the journey slid right into “Hip-Hop.” Produced by an Underground forefather, Diamond D, this moment is a testament to B.O.B.S‘s endurance.
“My restlessness is my nemesis / It’s hard to really chill and sit still, committed to page / I write a rhyme, sometimes won’t finish for days / Scrutinize my literature from the large to the miniature / I mathematically add-minister / Subtract the wack / Selector, wheel it back / I’m feeling that From the core to the perimeter, Black / You know the motto, stay fluid even in staccato / Full-blooded, full-throttle / Breathe deep inside the drum hollow,” is the brilliant opening to this song. “Native son / Speaking in the native tongue / I got my eyes on tomorrow, there it is! / While you still tryin’ to find where it is / I’m on the Ave, where it lives and dies, violently but silently / Shine so vibrantly that eyes squint to catch a glimpse / Embrace the bass with my dark ink fingertips.” Although never a single, this batch of bars captures the essence of this album. After moving to limousines, nightclubs, and now helicopters, Mos was the Sherpa returning Hip-Hop to the street corner, the same place where humanity “lives and dies.” Two-a-half-years since Biggie died, it was a war-cry for the borough of Brooklyn and an argument that Rap verse was the new Ellison, Baldwin, and Shakespeare. MCs created literature, and Mos Def was bound to his loose-leaf penning his. Rap was not easy, and this poet had spent years crafting his debut.
As the 17 tracks unwound into a journey, Mos let the listener know that he was upholding tradition. “Love” traces the genesis back 16 years to Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack and other seminal radio shows in the five boroughs. The Ali Shaheed Muhammad-produced cautionary tale “Got” and the Q-Tip-assisted “Mr. N*gga” continued Tribe’s vibe the year after that group disbanded. “Mathematics” employed a numeral concept on exponentially-dope DJ Premier production. Mos showed his influenced and made songs in their likeness, from Gang Starr to A.T.C.Q to Leaders Of The New School.
Elsewhere in the LP, “Rock N Roll” warned of cultural appropriation while showing that Mos chanted his way from The Wizard Of Oz into Bad Brains. The moment was aided by a fellow second-wave Native Tongues affiliate, The Beatnuts’ Psycho Les. Les’ involvement was born out of happenstance. The group was making The Musical Massacre a few rooms down from the B.O.B.S sessions. “We were all working at Chung King, and [Yasiin Bey] would always come in just to hear what we were doing. One day, he was like, ‘Yo! If you got beats—boom, just bring ’em through,'” the MC/producer told Vice. “Love” spoke of passion for rapping at a time when so many rappers were driven by capitalism. With an orchestral Ayatollah chop, “Ms. Fat Booty” served as a love story that died before its name. The record honored a lineage of Slick Rick, MC Lyte, and The Pharcyde, all at once. With an equally-seductive Aretha Franklin sample, the song was the kind of Hip-Hop many fans missed from the earlier half of the decade. Mos was broadcasting it on a higher level.
Meanwhile, the LP’s follow-up single, “UMI Says,” stands with the top of the Jazz-Rap canon in its infinite wisdom. In a stream of consciousness, Mos flipped anxiety into a reminder to be strong, stand tall, and shine a light on the world. Blending Rap, poetry, and Jazz, the song calls to listen to elders, treat our neighbors better, and free those enslaved. The song defied the conventions of any Y2K single, and the mainstream yielded to its power. In a time of aggression, beef, and dissonance, Dante Smith reminded Hip-Hop how much better harmony felt.
Mos Def represented his roots lovely with Black On Both Sides. The LP is a time capsule of Hip-Hop, of Brooklyn, and of Dante Smith in 1999. These 17 songs have aged with the best of the best in Rap, thanks to a sincerity, a deep care, and a beautiful marriage of words and music.
As Yasiin Bey dedicates himself to performing this benchmark body of work in a season 10 years removed from The Ecstatic, one of the genre’s anomalies may be poised to let Heads know what’s on his mind yet again.