At the time of its initial release, Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides was hailed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, and a record that defined the end of the 20th century.
15 years later and the album, along with a host of other classic hip-hop albums, is getting a reissue as part of a Back To Black series pressed on 180g heavyweight vinyl.
The album’s reputation has remained largely unchanged; some may argue that it was overrated as it became part of the late 1990’s Golden Age which is now losing some of its gleam. However, we feel that it captured the end of the century perfectly with its conscious lyrics which stretched the boundaries of hip-hop to areas from which it has never retreated.
Mos Def, real name Yasiin Bey, outlined his musical vision within the first track of the album. Within the conversations heard in ‘Fear Not of Man’ we hear:
“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?”
From this mind-set it is easy to see how the album attracts plaudits for having qualities that transcends musical genre and boundaries. At its core, it's an album which takes hip-hop and displays that nothing is off limits when it comes to inclusion of other music styles.
However, it is not just the musicality that was ground-breaking. It celebrates the rich history of music of black America, and at the same time it uses this history to send us a strong political message to educate and inform regarding the institutional racism that still exists.
The track ‘Rock n Roll’ perhaps best exemplifies this. Amongst the vast amount of name dropping of various artists from the last 70 years, Mos Def drops these gems concerning stolen material that allowed white musicians to stand on the shoulders of black giants.
“Elvis Presley ain't got no soul/Little Richard is rock n roll/You may dig the Rolling Stones/But they didn't come up with that shit on their own”
‘Mr. Nigga’ is perhaps the most intelligent hip-hop track about real life racism in the modern world. Mos Def explains how black stereotypes are seen and imagined by white audiences. He challenges them and asks the big question about the differences that exist purely due to colour. It’s easy to say that this is now an almost outdated commentary, but back in 1999 intelligent, conscious rap was revolutionary. Rather than preaching white hate, Mos Def attempts to strike up an understanding and debate with his own audience.
Although this album is obviously highly political, it is not without some wonderful music samples. Its use of Aretha Franklin on the wonderful track ‘Ms. Fat Booty’ is one of the album’s highlights. Alongside the wonderful use of samples such as within ‘Brooklyn’ which uses Roy Ayres alongside a Red Hot Chili Peppers interpolation.
It showed that although hip-hop as a medium was expanding vastly and incorporating all musical styles, it was still able to provide a voice to artists whose social commentary was as important as the samples it craved.