What is the black star? Is it the car with the black shades, the black car?
According to their debut, it's the powerhouse duo of Mos Def and Talib Kweli that are Black Star. The self-professed "best alliance in hip hop" released a sole LP, that 1998 record representing the first mainstream release from both Mos Def and Kweli. Both artists had honed their skills in the years prior: Def appeared alongside De La Soul on their fourth album, whilst Kweli worked alongside DJ Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal.
On release, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star was showered in praise, elevating the two East Coast emcees to immediate fame within the hip hop scene. Over the next decade, the pair would release a number of critically acclaimed solo records, including Def's seminal Black On Both Sides and Kweli's lauded solo debut, Quality.
Named for Marcus Garvey's short-lived 1919 shipping line, Black Star painted a fitting poetic vision of modern African-American life. Like Garvey’s Black Star Line, which was a part of the greater Back-To-Africa movement, Black Star is laser-focused on the plight of African-Americans, and whilst it stops short of encouraging African repatriation, the focus on marginalised communities in a Eurocentric world carries the hallmarks of Garvey’s ethos. Both a reaction to the maximalist production techniques of late-'90s tastemakers and an earnest revival of politically charged golden-age rap, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star became a critical darling despite only achieving moderate commercial success. Twenty years on, the rhymes are as verbose and intricate as they day they debuted, and the subdued jazzy production as smooth and welcoming as when it was juxtaposed against rap's most overblown aesthetic.
From BDP to Wild Style and everything in between, this is Black Star.
The album opens with a speech by Cannonball Adderley, taken from his 1976 live album, Music You All. Recorded at the Troubadour in 1970, it features two spoken interludes from Adderley, the second of which is sampled on Black Star's "Intro." Members of Adderley's band that night included famed musicians George Duke and Walter Booker.
The voice that calls out Kweli and Mos Def as "real life documentarians" belongs to Mike Zoot, and it taken from the outro to his 1997 track "High Drama." That track featured a verse from Mos Def and production from Hi-Tek, who handled production on six Black Star tracks, including "Intro."
Zoot released a single album, Invasion America, before disappearing from the music scene.
"Astronomy (8th Light)"
The first song on the album, "Astronomy (8th Light)" finds the members of Black Star considering blackness itself. The duo play a game of word association around the word ‘black,’ finding positive meanings to the of-negatively presented word. Ultimately, they decide that they themselves are the black stars, explaining the straightforward title of the LP.
The guitar lick is taken from Gábor Szabó's cover of Alex North's famous "Love Theme From Spartacus." The Hungarian jazz guitarist covered the track on his 1970 LP, Magical Connection, which also included covers of tracks by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Burt Bacharach.
The scratched sample that runs throughout the track is lifted from the close of Beside's "Change The Beat." The 1982 track of the most sampled of all time, with WhoSampled listing a stunning 2,191 indebted tracks.
In an impressive and interesting move, emcees Black Star and producer Hi-Tek build "Definition" from musical and lyrical interpolations of hip hop pioneers Boogie Down Productions. Boogie Down Productions, of BDP, were a hip hop trio original comprised of KRS-One, D-Nice and DJ Scott La Rock.
The distinctive riff at 0:08 is an interpolation, or replayed sample, of an instrument from Boogie Down Productions' "Remix for P Is Free." The track was included on their highly influential debut, 1987's Criminal Minded, a record which paved the way for the East Coast gangster rap that would dominate throughout the '90s. It's the only BDP record featuring founding member Scott La Rock, who was shot and killed whilst mediating a conflict just five months after the release.
At 2:22, Mos Def interpolates a lyric from BDP's "The Bridge Is Over" - "Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it." The Bridge Wars begun when Juice Crew members Marley Mal and MC Shan released "The Bridge," a track that KRS-One felt insinuated that hip hop originated in Queensbridge. "The Bridge Is Over," BDP's response to the claim, prompted a spate of response records. It wasn't until 2007 that the beef was officially retired.
The refrain throughout "Definition" - "one, two, three, Mos Def and Talib Kweli / We came to rock it on to tip top, best alliance in hip hop, Y-O..." - is an interpolation of the hook from BDP's "Stop The Violence." On that track, KRS-One sings "one, two, three, the crew is called BDP / And if you wanna go to the tip top, stop the violence in hip hop, Y-O." In the second refrain, Black Star allude to this line by saying there's "too much violence in hip hop."
Flowing seamlessly from "Definition," "Re:Definition" is a harsher twist on the upbeat original. It uses a single BDP interpolation, continuing with the hook from the preceding track.
As in "Definition," Black Star repurpose the hook from Boogie Down Production's 1988 track "Stop The Violence."
That track was included on BDP's sophomore album, By All Means Necessary. The 1988 effort, a stark departure from their original gangster style, is considered one of hip hop's earliest political records. It was prompted by the untimely 1987 death of BDP founder Scott La Rock.
In "Children's Story," mighty Mos Def placates his nephews with a bedtime story about the ills of late-'90s hip hop. Whilst not directly dissing any single artist or influencer, the track hones in on some stylistic tenets associated with P Diddy's Bad Boy Records, a dominant force throughout the '90s. The track is modelled off Slick Rick's track of the same name, which stands as one of the most sampled hip hop songs of all time.
Black Star's "Children's Story" shares more than just a title with Slick Rick's classic 1989 single: the track mirrors Rick the Ruler's legendary tale of poor life choices, replacing petty theft and violent altercations with producing wack music and meeting a grisly fate. Despite the lesson within, Rick himself was jailed for attempting to murder his former bodyguard in 1990.
"Brown Skin Lady"
A song professing appreciation for beauties shunned by convention, "Brown Skin Lady" urges brown skin women to recognise their allure. Opening with cinematic dialogue bemoaning "conditioning," the track goes on to assert that the European standards of beauty have instilled a belief that emulating whiteness is essential for attractiveness. Mos and Talib argue that brown women the world over are gorgeous in their own right, an earnest sentiment rarely articulated in the excess-heavy ‘90s.
The silky smooth riff that floats behind the starring emcees is the handiwork of the legendary Gil Scott-Heron, a soul legend and forefather of hip hop. "We Almost Lost Detroit" appears on Bridges, the artist's fifth collaboration with Brian Jackson. The track describes a partial nuclear meltdown that threatened Detroit in 1966.
The skit at the open is taken from Chameleon Street, a 1989 film directed by Wendell B. Harris, Jnr.. A social satire about a con man who impersonates others for financial gain, it's based on the real life story of William Douglas Street, Jnr., who successfully impersonated his way through number of professions, even performing 36 successful hysterectomies. The film won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
"B Boys Will B Boys"
A love letter to the culture itself, "B Boys Will B Boys" recalls the four traditional pillars of hip hop: rapping, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti art. Referencing b-boy groups (Rock Steady Crew), graffiti artists ("writers") and early hip hop movements ("Native Tongues"), Def and Kweli even trade some truly old school bars, a reference to pioneering hip hop film Wild Style.
A sound effect from Cerrone's 1978 live performance of "Rocket In The Pocket" is first heard at 0:08 in "B Boys Will B Boys." The effect-heavy guitar trill recurs throughout the Black Star track.
Marc Cerrone is a French disco drummer, often ranked amongst the most prolific and revered disco artists of the genre's '70s/'80s heyday.
Talib interpolates lyrics from Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's "The Show." His lyric - "Mos Def-initely, and we, are / Fresh..." - takes a cue from Doug's outro - "most definitely, we are / Fresh." Talib's cadence as he delivers the "fresh" interjections is also borrowed from that outro.
The sound effect underpinning Talib's "fresh" refrain is yet another from Beside's "Change The Beat," one of history's most sampled tracks. Whilst a famous beep was sampled in "Astronomy (8th Light)," the sample in "B Boys Will B Boys" is of a spoken word section at the close. The sample, like Talib himself, is actually saying "fresh."
The to-and-fro that begins at 0:59 is a nod to Double Trouble, a rap duo featured in 1983's Wild Style. The low budget film is amongst the first exploring hip hop culture.
Though the group never recorded any studio tracks, they rap a number of times in the film. A fitting allusion for a track steeped in hip hop history, Mos and Talib begin a verse with a familiar lyric: "Here's a little story that must be told / About two young brothers that were put on hold..."
K.O.S. stands for 'knowledge of self,' a quality that Black Star sees as separating them from their threatening gangsta rap peers. A high concept track that argues that "life without knowledge is death in disguise," "K.O.S. (Determination)" features East Coast singer-songwriter Vinia Mojica on the hook. Mojica, a longtime Native Tongues affiliate, remains mysterious despite featuring on tracks by Tribe, De La Soul, Mos Def, Reflection Eternal, Talib Kweli and Common.
"K.O.S. (Determination) is built atop a sample of Minnie Riperton's 1975 track, "Baby, This Love I Have." The instrumental sample first appears at 0:13, with guest vocalist Vinia Mojica singing throughout. Riperton's voice appears at 0:52, lifted from 0:12 in the original 1975 track. It was included on her third studio album, Adventures in Paradise, released just four years before her death.
Kweli pays his respects to NYC legends A Tribe Called Quest whilst simultaneously crediting the featured vocalist, flipping a line off ATCQ's "Verses From The Abstract." On that track, Q-Tip raps about the guest on the hook, announcing that "this the funky singing by Miss Vinia Mojica." That appearance was Mojica's first feature, whilst this Black Star spot was her third. She would go on to collaborate with both Mos Def and Talib Kweli throughout their solo careers.
The sole track without any identified samples, "Hater Players" finds the Black Star duo gassing up their lyrical prowess whilst deriding the "hater players" that weigh them down. The term is an inversion of "player haters," a phrase that refers to someone who needlessly disapproves of others' success. The term was perhaps most popularised by Dave Chapelle in his recurring Chapelle Show skit, "Playa Haters."
Though the shortest track on the album, "Yo Yeah" samples from five seperate sources including smooth jazz and African-American poetry. It borrows heavily from an obscure 1972 spoken word compilation, Black Spirits: Festival Of New Black Poets In America
The ethereal atmospherics that creep in at 0:15 are lifted from John Klemmer's 1975 track, "Touch." A prolific jazz musician, "Touch" appeared as the title track from his eleventh album as band leader.
The titular "Yo" is lifted from Mos Def's debut single, "Universal Magnetic." Released in the year prior to Black Star's project, it sparked an interest in the up-and-coming emcee. It featured production from Shawn J Period, best known for his work at Rawkus, the label on which this single was released.
The single was released with a b-side, "If You Can Huh! You Can Hear."
The dialogue that opens the track - "Black is..." - is that of Kali, a young poet.
The poem, entitled "Black Is," was included on 1972's Black Spirits: Festival Of New Black Poets In America. That record was distributed by Black Forum, a Motown imprint that also distributed works by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elaine Brown.
The poem read between 0:17 and 0:45 is Johari Amini's "A Folk Fable For My People." Though it's Amini's only contribution to the compilation, she has a storied career as both a literary figure and, apparently, a chiropractor. A socio-politically active essayist, poet and short story writer, Amini used nontraditional prose to illustrate the ills of America's inherently racist society.
The third and final poem that appears on "Yo Yeah" is Norman Jordan's "One Eyed Critics." The excerpt finds Jordan mulling over his societal conditioning, his point so potent and well-illustrated that he elicits cheers from the crowd. Jordan, a poet and playwright, read ten seperate poems on the 1972 compilation. He passed away on June 27, 2015.
Featuring acclaimed up-and-comer Common, who would go on to even greater success following the release of Black Star, "Respiration" recalls the hardships of urban living. The title refers to the suffocating grasp of the inner city, teeming with violence, criminality, immorality and hopelessness.
The loop that underpins "Respiration" is lifted from Don Randi's "The Fox," a track included on his 1969 album (Plays The Love Theme From) Romeo And Juliet. Randi is a jazz keyboardist and composer, most famous for his role as a session musician. As a member of The Wrecking Crew, he was instrumental in developing Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound technique. He had a brief career scoring films in the '70s, and recorded a swathe of albums with a jazz trio throughout the '60s.
"Thieves In The Night"
Another of the group's more popular tracks, "Thieves In The Night" explores the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. It’s based on Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, from which Kweli and Def take thematic and direct inspiration. Consider this familiar passage from Morrison’s novel:
“… and fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good but well-behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life."
The sole identified interpolation comes in the form of a lyric from Kweli. At 1:01, he makes a reference to the 1976 broadway musical, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. Kweli claims that "your firearms are too short to box with God," flipping the religious lyric into a menacing warning.
"Twice Inna Lifetime"
A sequel to 1997's "Fortified Live," a track by Kweli that featured Mos Def and Mr. Man. The title of this track comes from the hook in "Fortified Live," which opens with "once in a lifetime." "Twice Inna Lifetime" features guest emcees Wordsworth, Punchline and Jane Doe, the latter of which could either be a stage name or the famously nondescript pseudonym.
Twenty Years Later...
Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star marked the end of an era, falling as the loose Native Tongues movement burnt out in the late ‘90s. September 29, 1998 also brought forth efforts from movement-aligned acts A Tribe Called Quest, who released The Love Movement, their last LP for nearly two decades, and Brand Nubian, whose Foundation proved a critical and commercial revitalisation. Though their positive themes, irreverent lyricism and jazz-rap palette had been a whirlwind force throughout ‘90s alt hip hop, it receded alongside the rise of Diddy sheen, Eminem edge and 50 Cent bravado.
Though Mos Def and Talib Kweli were peripheral members of the noted clique, Black Star could represent the most pointed manifestation of the Native Tongues philosophy. In eschewing party-ready beats and doubling down on socio-political commentary, the duo crafted one of the greatest conscious rap albums of the ‘90s and - in this writer’s opinion - all time. Even amongst their poetic commentary, there’s fun to be had: tracks such as “Definition” and “Brown Skin Lady,” whilst addressing societal ills, bounce about with the same contagious vibe as Jungle Brothers’ “Jimbrowski” or ATCQ’s “Check The Rhime.”
February 2018. Mos Def stepped onto a Denver stage, another of his frequent post-'retirement' appearances celebrating the upcoming 20th anniversary of the sole Black Star LP. This wasn't his show, however: he'd just come from the Ogden Theatre, where he and Kweli had energetically revisited their full-length debut. Arriving as collaborator and production legend Madlib was wrapping up a nearby set, Def delivered some guest verses before making a clandestine announcement:
“New Black Star with Madlib, Talib Kweli, Yasiin, comin’ soon! All Madlib, all day. New Black Star, 2018. Madlib Black Star, Madlib Black Star.”
So the legend continues, assisted by one of hip hop's most sought after producers. Whether the new LP will ever materialise is another thing altogether, but the announcement is proof enough that the Black Star movement is alive and well. Mos Def and Talib Kweli were - and still are - Black Star.