Ten Most Influential Albums: Black on Both Sides

This is post #8 in a 10-post series.  If you missed the earlier posts and would like to read them, here they are:

Thriller

He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper

The Low End Theory

Forever My Lady

A Night at Birdland

Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)

Brown Sugar

For approximately 15 years of my life I was torn between two kinds of music: The kind I listened to when I was with a crowd and the kind I listen to when I’m alone.  Is everyone like that?  Especially from the mid-90’s to mid-2000’s when I frequented bars, clubs, and parties.  On my own I was listening to D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and The Roots non-stop for most of the late-90’s.  Call it more intellectual, sophisticated, or even mature, but they weren’t playing any of that at the parties or bars where I was.  When we went out it was Bad Boy stuff, Jay-Z, or Ice Cube, for example.  There were some exceptions.  2Pac and Outkast, most notably.  Outkast was masterful at making hits like “Rosa Parks” for the club but also giving you something completely different like “Elevators”.  They even blurred the lines with a song like “Ms. Jackson” which was a rare thought provoking hit.  You could rock that at a party and chant along like, “I’m sorry Miss Jackson, OOOOH,” completely oblivious to the fact that it was a deeply depressing tale and he’s actually saying, “Sorry Miss Jackson,” to the mother of the woman/grandmother of the child he abandoned.  FUN!

This conflict in my musical taste was never more obvious than the late-90’s during my brief but wonderful, life-altering stint as a resident of Milwaukee.  My musical taste was rapidly moving away from the club, but my reality was in a party or bar with my friends 4-5 nights a week.  R&B music had mostly died off for me by that point.  The Jodeci, Bobby Brown, and BBD I loved so much 6-10 years earlier had come and gone.  In my discography they had been replaced by soul music.  I’d hear the occasional Aaliyah or Usher song at a party, but that’s about it.  Aside from The Roots, hip hop had not matured for me yet.  My recollection of that time was listening to a lot of Beastie Boys, Redman, and Jay-Z.

While I was in Milwaukee I worked with the greatest group of human beings ever assembled.  We were called Sandburg Halls Project Crew (PC for short) and our job was to keep the dorms of UW-Milwaukee clean for the students who lived there.  During the school year this meant grabbing a two-hour shift whenever you had time between classes and cleaning bathrooms or emptying recycle bins with one of your co-workers.  The best shift was the late-afternoon shift because Justin and I would knock out a floor of bathrooms together.  The first thing we did when we reached our destination was head into that floor’s lounge and turn on BET’s “Rap City: Tha Basement” hosted by Big Tigger.  Once it was on we’d get to work and we’d have some music that we could hear while we moved among the different suites on the floor…as long as nobody was in the lounge changing the channel.

I’m pretty sure neither Justin nor I liked 75% of what we were hearing…I know I didn’t.  The No Limit and Cash Money music had just started flooding in from the south and we were much more about lyrically driven east coast hip hop.  One video that popped up repeatedly that caught my attention was “Definition” by a Brooklyn hip hop duo called Black Star.  If that video came on I’d drop what I was doing to watch.  To any of my PC people reading this, don’t worry.  Justin and I always finished our floor when we did bathroom shifts.  We just stopped to watch videos on occasion.  Don’t act like you weren’t doing it, too.  I saw y’all sleeping on your shifts.  Anyway, I started looking into these Black Star guys and discovered that their names were Mos Def and Talib Kweli.  At that time I was listening to The Roots’ classic Things Fall Apart and I knew of Mos Def as the dude who rapped on “Double Trouble” with Black Thought.  He also appeared briefly on De La Soul’s brilliant Stakes is High.

I knew very little about this Mos Def cat, but what I did know I loved.  I did know that he apparently had respect from some of the best if he was already featured on albums with The Roots and De La and he hadn’t even had his own album yet.  This was college, so I didn’t have a lot of money, and streaming wasn’t quite a thing yet, so I wasn’t about to go drop $12 on the Black Star CD because I heard one song I liked.  Yet when I discovered that Mos Def had his solo debut album coming out I took The Mothership to Exclusive Company on Farwell the day it was released.  I’ve never been so confident about an album by someone I’d heard so little from.  I loved every track on Black on Both Sides from day one.  It was a rare experience to hear an album for the first time and just nod along to it confidently like it was already familiar.  I was 100% sure I was going to love that album and I did.

Mos had an ability to take the intellectual stuff that I loved and make it easy to digest.  He was spitting the entire dictionary at you and it was actually enjoyable.  Not many can do that.  Mos is truly a poet.  Even when he’s not rapping on tracks like “Umi Says” and “Fear Not of Man” the words he’s saying are intelligent and poetic.  He’s also prophetic.  No, I did not choose poetic and prophetic because of alliteration.  Total coincidence.  This album is 20 years old but the content is every bit as relevant today, if not more.  “Mr. N***a” told stories of his travels around the world as a black man long before people were armed with mobile devices that could record those experiences.  His storytelling is also second to none, specifically on “Ms. Fat Booty”, a cleverly written track about him falling hard for a woman who bails on him the second he gets too serious on her.  Every song on Black on Both Sides eloquently tells a story like no rapper I had heard before.

Of course, after I fell in love with Black on Both Sides I had to go back and check out the Black Star album.  That album is deservedly considered by many to be the peak of underground NYC hip hop.  Putting Mos and Kweli together is an embarrassment of riches.  Kweli released Train of Thought a few months later with DJ Hi-Tek and those three albums together were a trilogy of amazing hip hop that we haven’t heard the likes of since.  Everything that Rawkus Records put out during their short existence was legendary.

Much the same way I said D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar made other R&B music sound inferior, Black on Both Sides effectively did the same thing to hip hop.  Did I still like other rappers?  Of course.  But when I’m alone and able to choose what I want to listen to, I pick guys like Mos, Kweli, Black Thought, and Common over the more popular stuff every time.  I’ve had a lot of people hear hip hop songs and say to me, “How can you like that crap?”  I’ll say, “I don’t like that crap.”  Then they say, “But you like rap music?”  How is it that people who hate rap don’t understand that just because I like it doesn’t mean that I like all of it?  If I want that person to relate, it’s easy to say, “Well if you like “Come As You Are” by Nirvana you must also love “Cherry Pie” by Warrant, right?  They’re both rock.”  20 years ago Mos Def took top 40 hip hop and killed it for me.

I have two more albums remaining in my 10 Most Influential list, but neither one of them is hip hop.  I feel the need to comment on that.  For 20+ years if someone asked me what kind of music I liked my first answer would’ve been hip hop.  Sadly, that is no longer the case.  I’m not saying that hip hop is dead.  There are people out there making great hip hop, but it’s getting more difficult to find by the year.  I realize every art form evolves and nothing stays the same forever, but if what currently passes for hip hop is the evolved version of what I used to listen to and love, then I can safely say I’m out and will never be back.  I am definitely not the target audience for hip hop now, but I never was.  That never stopped me.  Have I gotten older?  Of course.  Maybe I just don’t get the new shit and that’s fine.  Once again, though, I’ll argue that I never really got it.  Yes, I’m older, but I understand quality and I’m not hearing it.  I know there are exceptions.  I’m told repeatedly that Tyler the Creator is dope, but I’m just not feeling it.  At least I respect it.  When my daughter tells me what they’re listening to at her school I can tolerate it for a minute or two, and that’s only to laugh at how bad it is.  It truly makes me sad.  There’s hope.  Rapsody is amazing.  Joey Bada$$ gives me hope.  Of course, Kendrick Lamar.  Childish Gambino doesn’t really rap anymore.  The list ends there.  Anderson .Paak is my favorite new artist of the past 15 years, but he’s more R&B than hip hop.  It’s a sad state of affairs in hip hop.  Some of these cats need to listen to Mos Def and learn.  The first track on Black on Both Sides is called “Fear Not of Man” and it’s mostly spoken word.  Here’s an excerpt:

Listen, people be askin me all the time
“Yo Mos, what’s gettin ready to happen with Hip Hop?”
I tell em, “You know what’s gonna happen with Hip Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us.”
If we smoked out, Hip Hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Hip Hop is gonna be doin alright
People talk about Hip Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside
Comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip Hop
So Hip Hop is going where we going
So the next time you ask yourself where Hip Hop is going
Ask yourself: where am I going? How am I doing?
’til you get a clear idea
So if Hip Hop is about the people
And the Hip Hop won’t get better until the people get better
Then how do people get better?
Well, from my understanding people get better
When they start to understand that, they are valuable
And they not valuable because they got a whole lot of money
Or cause somebody think they sexy
But they valuable cause they been created by God
And God makes you valuable

If what Mos says is true, then shit must be pretty bleak based on the hip hop I’m hearing.

OK, I’m done with my angry old guy soapbox.  Next on the list is the greatest album of all time.

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