1, 2, 3… How the Best Alliance in Hip-Hop Came to Be

Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star at 20

Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, Rawkus Records 1998

In 1998, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli were both working on their own solo projects when they decided to put their individual debuts on hold and record what would become one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop collaborations of all-time.

Known for their lyrical prowess, the two Brooklyn-born recording artists were joined by DJ/Producer Hi-Tek to form the conscious hip-hop alliance known as Black Star—a name that derived from the Pan-African shipping line founded by Marcus Garvey.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of their seminal album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, we at Rock and Roll Globe take a look back at what made this album so influential.

Opening with a brief introduction, the album opens with samples of spoken word poetry from Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, a renowned jazz saxophonist and band leader, whose track “Cannon Raps” is credited for its early influence to hip-hop. It has also been sampled by a number of other rap artists including Lord Finesse, The Beatnuts, MHz, and A Tribe Called Quest.

“Astronomy (8th Light),” produced by The Beatminerz, is the first track on the album that really gives listeners a glimpse at the type of chemistry between the two emcees as they exchange verses back-and-forth, almost like Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels did almost a decade before.

The lead single, “Definition,” and it’s sister-track “Re:Definition,” were not just catchy but they were impactful too. Released only a few years following the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace, both tracks aim at sending a poignant message to stop the violence in hip-hop.

They are followed by “Children’s Story,” a slightly different interpretation of the cautionary tale depicted in the 1989 original by Slick Rick—about a teenager who resorts to a life of crime before he is gunned down by law enforcement—which is told instead from the context of the music industry.

Another noteworthy track, “Brown Skin Ladies,” was produced by J. Rawls as a tribute to women of color around the world. The song features a sample of “We Almost Lost Detroit” by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson and a movie clip from the 1989 independent film, Chameleon Street.

Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey also pay respect to the origins of hip-hop with the aptly titled, “B Boys Will B Boys,” which looks back at how breakbeats and break dancing shaped the genre as a whole.

Perhaps one of the more powerful songs on the album, “K.O.S. (Determination),” features Vinia Mojica of the Native Tongues Posse who speaks about the “Knowledge of Self” and the importance of determination in everyday life.

Produced by J. Period, “Hater Players” is the first time we really hear the two emcees go after the industry for labeling those who disagree as jealous. They also name drop several popular artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s including Clarence Carter, Gregory Issac, Kid Rock, and Spice Girls.

“Yo Yeah” is a poetic interlude which shares the spoken word of three different individuals and more or less embodies the tone of the entire album.

The second single, “Respiration” features a special guest appearance by Common on this track about growing up in a big city and the everyday interactions that take place.

“Thieves in the Night” is another of the album’s more powerful moments. Loosely based on the award-winning novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, the song challenges the belief of the story’s protagonist who desires to be seen differently suggesting instead to be proud of who you are without any need for society’s approval.

To wrap things up, the duo decided to bring back some of their old friends from the Rawkus Records compilation, Soundbombing Vol. 1, on the posse cut “Twice in a Lifetime.” The track also serves as a follow-up to their “Fortified Live” cypher and features guest verses from Wordsworth, Punchline and Jane Doe.

The album, which was highly regarded for its conscious rap lyricism and poignant messages, went on to peak at No. 53 on the Billboard 200 charts in 1998.

Fast-forward two decades later and rumors of a new Black Star project have started to circulate on social media. The discussion began to catch wind on Instagram after Talib Kweli shared a photo of Yasiin Bey and acclaimed rapper/producer Kanye West.

Back in February, it was reported that Yasiin Bey announced during a DJ performance in Denver, that he and Talib have returned to the studio with producer/DJ Madlib and that there may be a new Black Star album on the way soon.



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Daniel Offner

Daniel Offner is a contributing writer for RockandRollGlobe.com. Follow him @OffnerOffbeat.

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