Welcome back to "Have you Heard?" the podcast where we discuss under-appreciated music from different genres, artists and eras. I'm your host Trevor. Thanks so much for taking the time to listen to me today.
Now, in this episode I'll be talking about Black on Both Sides by Mos Def. Too long didn't listen? This is a classic hip hop album that came out in a time when rap was only just starting to take hold. It has iconic beats, legendary samples and ridiculous bars that will no doubt rival anything you've heard, even 20 years later. It is a celebration of Black culture and preaches positivity but invites anyone and everyone into its wide, wide world. It's very old school, but provided a foundation for many of the best rap albums out right now. It is definitely a must listen.
My favorite songs are “Speed Law,” “Know That” and “Mathematics.” So if you want the highlights, go listen to those. But to be honest, there are no bad songs or throwaways anywhere to be found, so I'd recommend the entire thing.
Now, Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def, is a Brooklyn based rapper and activist who started his professional career alongside Talib Kweli. The 1998 duo named themselves Blackstar and marked their musical debut with their first album released through Rawkus Records in that same year. Mos would come out with his own solo debut in 1999, called Black on Both Sides, but it was much more commercially successful than than the previous project.
In many ways, I think, Black on Both Sides is way way ahead of its time. Or maybe it's just that problems people faced in 1999 are really similar to the problems we're facing now. But either way, it's almost unsettling how Mos introduces the album, just talking about how hip hop (or music in general) will reflect the situation it's in. What's funny is he doesn't even start rapping until three minutes in. He says, "You know what's gonna happen with hip hop? Whatever's happening with us." And, true to his word, Mos spends the entire run time of Black on Both Sides just talking about whatever in the world is happening with us.
What's cool about this project is that all of the stories and advice told through it are down to earth and they're all relevant to today's environment. In the second track, titled “Hip Hop,” Mos discusses problems with the 1999 music industry that could easily be applied to the toxic label practices of 2021.
[“Hip Hop,” by Mos Def]
The fifth track, “Speed Law,” begs the listener to slow down and relax, saying that you need to obey the rules of the road in life before you crash.
[“Speed Law,” by Mos Def]
Something about hearing Mos rap about these things is refreshing, honestly. Even if the delivery and features are a little bit dated. It was honestly weird to re-listen to a lot of these lyrics because, while truthful and deep, they’re also just really positive. Maybe it's just because not a lot of music is really being released right now or because of the stressful time we're in, but it feels like a lot of recent popular music has just been empty party songs or doom and gloom. I feel like we need something super conscious and uplifting like this album that can help us in these times. I don't know, I guess Mos is right, you know? Music will just reflect whatever is going on with us.
Anyways, not only is the album sort of prophetic in its content, but also in its sound. Like many other albums and artists in the late 90s, Mos uses a wide array of samples to beef up the instrumentals. But unlike Mos Def's contemporaries (let's say Nas and Jay Z), the range he draws from is pretty wild at times. From Aretha Franklin and Fela Kuti samples to interpolations of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mos doesn't shy away from his influences. And that's what really makes this album for me honestly. A lot of the sounds he incorporates can sound kind of wacky or out of place, but they always complement the mood and lyrics of the song. The experimental and jazzier aspects would eventually inspire artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar to incorporate them into their own music and help push the genre forward. It's a hip hop album that's for sure, but like I said before, it's also a celebration of music.
Take “Do It Now,” featuring Busta Rhymes. The segmented guitar and bass in the background mixed with the stray voice samples sound choppy on their own, but they match the urgency and delivery of Busta Rhymes and Mos Def going bar for bar. It's awesome.
[“Do It Now,” by Mos Def]
Or look at “Rock N Roll,” where in the final third of the song, Mos completely switches genres and becomes his version of a 1980s punk rocker.
[“Rock N Roll,” by Mos Def]
And although it takes from so many different kinds of genres, it adds even more. This album is just filled to the brim with creativity, it's so awesome. It's hard to understand how forward thinking this album was because it takes so many risks, but all of them just work. I still listen to it and can't believe it came out in 1999.
Finally, I know I talked a bit about the music and instrumentals, but there is still one more factor that I haven't really mentioned yet ... and that's the actual lyrics. It's fine to say that he raps about important topics, but it's really hard to convey how well he raps without playing the songs. But I'm gonna try to do it anyway. I mean, just the technical ability it takes to come up with the crazy wordplay and rhyme schemes is just ridiculous. And that doesn't even mention how his delivery and presence on these tracks are just perfect as well. If you're listening closely, you'll understand that no words are wasted and that keeps you hanging on, just enough, just waiting for the next verse.
The best song to describe this is the second to last one, called “Mathematics.” Mos implores young kids to go learn their math, but it's not really in the way you think. He brilliantly uses numbers and statistics to relay important messages that he believes people should hear about.
[“Mathematics,” by Mos Def]
And, in the end, that's really what this project is: a message about self-worth, knowledge and positivity that's really almost timeless. Above everything else, it's just cool. And I know that isn't the most editorial word or whatever but that's just how I feel. To be honest, Black on Both Sides has really helped me get through these past couple of weeks. And even if it doesn't do that for you, I think it's important to have something – whether it's an album or a show or a person – that, you know, just helps you get through. Something that lets you nerd out and talk about it for hours. Or something that inspires you to keep on keeping on.
This is Trevor Duggins for NBN Audio.
Email: trev[email protected]