In 1999, Hip Hop stood on the edge of a new millennium, just the same as the rest of us: full of promise, potential, growth and uncertainty. The music had become more fragmented and sub-cultured than it had been in recent memory, with mainstream coming to the end of an amazing run in the 90s, and underground Hip Hop gaining more and more steam as we headed towards the turn of the century. One of the record labels that stood at the forefront of the underground, backpacker movement was Rawkus Records, and one of its greatest and most charismatic artists was Pharoahe Monch. And on the ultimate underground Hip Hop compilation album from 1999, Soundbombing II, Pharoahe dropped a single that to this day is truly unforgettable with “Mayor”. One thing to understand is the climate of New York city at the time. Before he gained the pristine, patriotic image of “America’s Mayor”, Rudy Guiliani was arguably one of the most hated and polarizing figures in New York politics, mainly due to policies that he passed that pretty much waged war on poor people and people of color. And Hip Hop took notice, with lines from Nas like “Guiliani is the 6-6-6…”. Pharoahe’s fictional account of a man racked with desperation and nothing to lose killing the leader of a major city may not name Guiliani specifically, but one can look closely enough at the times and decipher that the mayor was at least somewhat of an inspiration behind this tune. At only two verses, Pharoahe vividly paints a harrowing tale of a man that knows what he’s about to do will ultimately lead to his own demise, but doesn’t give a crap, as evidence by the final bar: “A dead man walking, destination: Devil’s lair/ F*** it if I’m gonna die, at least I shot the Mayor.”
Looking back, 1998 was a really, REALLY great year for Hip Hop. So much in the way of classic music was released, and with such a wide range and a powerful diversity: DMX with It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, Jay-Z with Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life, Lauryn Hill with The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill, Noreaga with N.O.R.E. and a ton of other music that helped to define the late 90s and the new varied direction Hip Hop was going in. One release that came to be a cult classic that’s still referenced to this day is the trio of Mos Def, Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek with their one and only release as a group, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star. The music throughout the album is a true throwback to the days of the Native Tongues, who Black Star, at least musically, are direct descendants from. And truthfully I could have chose just about any track from this album because just about all of them are classics in their own right: “Brown Skin Lady” and it’s ode to beautiful, strong women of color throughout the world, or “Respiration” featuring Chicago’s Common who seemed to be getting his footing as an emcee back in this era, or the quirky remake of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” with it’s warning again biting emcees. However, the track that the group came to be known for the most had to be “Definition”, a song that harkens back to the days of heavy, block party centered, traditional NYC boom bap Hip Hop. From the opening pseudo-Patois ad libbing by Mos Def to both he and Kweli trading a furious assault of bars, with Hi-Tek all the while interpreting Boogie Down Production’s “Stop The Violence” on the beat, making you think that it was 1988 instead of being on the cusp of the new millennium. The song would help this album go on to be an underground masterpiece, and to this day fans are still clamoring for a new Mos Def/Kweli/Hi-Tek collaboration.
Throughout its history, Hip Hop has seen some of the greatest musical duos the world has ever known: Guru and DJ Premier, Big Boi and Andre 3000, Eric B. & Rakim. Mos Def and Talib Kweli can be put into that category too, having been the two franchise players for Rawkus Records in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the release of the album Black on Both Sides in 1999, Mos Def (these days known as Yasiin Bey) officially established himself as a formidable solo emcee. The debut contained some of the strongest classics in all of Mos’ catalog, like “Umi Says”, “Mista Nigga”, “Mathematics” and of course, the love/lust-lorn summertime-in-Brooklyn spectacle “Ms. Fat Booty”. But it’s his collaboration with Kweli, “Know That”, that really exists as one of Black On Both Side‘s premiere standout tracks. Surrounded with a pounding drum and piano sample that’s as honest as it is dramatic, Mos proceeds to give one of the greatest opening verses in all of Hip Hop history, including the lines:
“I was a young boy — who dreamt about being a big man
on small loose leaf sheets I sketched a big plan
Gotta handle on it properly, boost up my economy
Store it up and get my mom some waterfront property
Yesterday was not for me but nowadays it’s hot for me
The streets is watchin me, I watch back, that’s the policy
Movin along my odyssey like blood through the artery
Navigate the treacherous and make it seem effortless…”
While Kweli is nowhere near a slouch either, trading back-and-forth barbs with Mos on the hook and more than holding his own on verse 2. Surely one of the songs that had fans begging for another Black Star album, both “Know That” and Black On Both Sides helped to light the fuse to a rise in popularity of underground Hip Hop and the further fragmentation of the genre at the turn of the millennium.