Timeless Affairs: Black On Both Sides
Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we'd like to shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.
Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def or Dante Terrell Smith, was born on this day in 1973, so it’s only right to use this space to show some love and give props to one of the best MCs of all time, hailing from the projects of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. ‘Black on Both Sides’ is an important and beautiful album that has hit me like a brick back in the day and is personally hands down my favorite work of his (aside from the groundbreaking Black Star album he made in collaboration with Talib Kweli, an absolute classic and a separate chapter of it’s own). Coming out on Rawkus Records 22 years ago as an underground album at the time, ‘Black on Both Sides’ has hit number 1 on the Billboards Top Rap Albums Chart within a few months after its release and is certified Gold.
Discovering it during my first year in the States as a 16 year old exchange student from Slovakia, with limited understanding of the English language, has allowed me to reveal it layer by layer over the years. At first musically, rhythmically, atmospherically, later diving deeper into the lyrics, reading between the lines. Eye opener is an understatement here.
The cover alone makes it very clear that you’re in for a personal journey. Amidst the reign of the so-called ‘jiggy era’ of shiny suits, Mighty Mos addresses inconvenient truths, crucial, critical and necessary topics ranging from the state of hip hop, shadiness of the music industry, Y2K and generally the panic over the arrival of the new millenium, global water crisis, importance of community, police harassment, love, lust and infatuation. All the while doing it in a completely earnest way with delightful wordplay and captivating storytelling that in time concludes into positive encouragement.
"All over the world hearts pound with the rhythm
Fear not of men because men must die
Mind over matter and soul before flesh
Angels hold a pen, keep a record in time"
- Mos Def on opening track 'Fear Not of Man'
I feel like regardless if you get into this album in 1999, today, or anywhere inbetween, it belongs to the category of musical masterpieces that have the power to really move you in their way of describing the human experience. And if you pay attention, you’re bound to be hit with some crucial, critical and necessary perspective and information that remains very relevant until this day in it's entirety.
Throughout the album we can hear sprinkled out guest verses by Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, his Black Star partner Talib Kweli and a feature by the singer-songwriter Vinia Mojica that is well known for her collaborations with Native Tongues artists (most known for vocals on De La Soul's Rollerskating Jam named 'Saturdays', but also multiple collabo's with Black Star, Common, Heavy D, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, etc). On top of that the level of music production on the lyricist’s debut solo album is absolutely brilliant. Aside for a handful of tracks being produced or co-produced by the MC (joining in himself on percussion, bass, keyboards, and vibraphone on some tracks), the soundscape here includes contributions from ATCQ’s Ali Shaheed Mohammad, Ayatollah, DJ Premier, Psycho Les from the Beatnuts and the great jazz instrumentalist Weldon Irvine. On the uplifting track ‘Umi Says’ you can hear Weldon on hammond organ, Yasiin on bass and Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas on Fender Rhodes. Not to mention that we hear Yasiin singing on a few tracks as well.
The original samples come from the Nigerian pioneer of afrobeat Fela Kuti, Fleetwood Mac’s singer Christine McVie, Kool & the Gang and Queen Aretha, just to name a few. At this occasion, lemme end this piece by pointing out these few soulful cuts that are very dear to my heart, because I believe they can easily serve as
an instrumental gateway to the deep deep rabbit hole of the broader universe of soul, funk and jazz if you're up for the ride. The impeccable ‘Ms. Fat Booty’ sample, Fela Kuti sampled on ‘Fear Not of Man’, Dionne Warwick sampled on ‘Know That’, guitar licks from Fatback Band were sampled by DJ Premier in his mad-
scientist ways on ‘Mathematics’ and Ramsey's Sun Goddess was used on 'Mr. Ni**a'.
“In the days of hip hop being based on the samples, sample’s picked and then additional tracks are put in to reinforce the sound. Sometimes the sample goes away
and we’re only left with the new stuff, so the sample works in different ways, but it’s almost like we learn more about the original song through this hip hop record, because it’s like we’ve taken this piece of music and put it in an X-ray machine. And we get to see the different layers of it and the DNA of it and we examine it in a way
that doesn’t get to happen when we just listen to the original. In its original holistic version there’s a unity and balance that gets upset in the hip hop process to create something new. And we get to learn so much through this process. It’s amazing.”
- Rick Rubin in conversation with Pharell Williams, Broken Record podcast
For those who haven’t had the opportunity to see this clip of Mos Def freestyling in a cypher, it’s one of those uplifting moments in history that will continue to be shared for centuries for all the right reasons. Hip hop in it’s purest form right there.