Welp. Here we are! Welcome to a Week Fulla 90s Hip Hop! I have decided to finally begin my mission to become a hip hop head in real life, by listening to some 90s hip hop projects that I’ve never heard before. The thing is that I feel like I’ve been exposed to 90s hip hop for a pretty good chunk of my life, but it’s always been in the form of singles, rather than entire projects. I can only name maybe like 10 projects from the 90s – off the top of my head – that I’ve heard all the way through. But I have an (ever-growing) 90-song playlist of old school music that is primarily made up of stuff from the 90s. I don’t know what that means for my life, but I’m gonna think through that more lol. And I haven’t necessarily been avoiding these projects, it’s just that…music gets made everyday lol. So it’s easier to keep up with the stuff that gets made in the present. The gag with that is that there are so many influences that get missed, when you don’t have a certain frame of reference. And so this leap into 90s hip hop is partially for me to gain those frames of reference, so that when I listen to more contemporary music, I can have one of these moments:
Lol. So this week is going to be full of First Listens. No Top 5. No vinyl library. Nothing but me listening to these projects and writing about them. I’m also hoping to listen to some projects outside of my posts, so I’ll try to add a little morsel of my experience with those into these as well.
Anywho, let’s get to Yasiin Bey fka Mos Def. Yasiin is someone that I’ve held very highly in my mind, but I’ve never pursued any farther than hearing him on a couple of features. He just seems like he smells really nice and has an amazing spirit and energy. Like, he seems like one of those people that you talk to, and you’re entire perspective on life changes because he reaches into your soul, reads you like a book, tells you to get your life together, pats you on the head and says it’s gonna be ok, and sends you on you way lol. I’ve seen the cover for Black on Both Sides (1999) several times throughout my time searching for records online the past few months, so this was a project I was pretty excited to finally check out. And after scrolling through a few lists of “90s hip hop must listens,” there was a consensus that this project was one that was worth listening to.
1999: Black on Both Sides
And, y’all. This album? Oh my god. The whole thing is FIRE. From top to bottom. This whole project is so high quality, that I had to stop a couple of times during my listening to it – mostly to yawn because I started listening to it at 3am yesterday (couldn’t sleep 🙂 ) – to think “WOW, this project is so good!!!” Just me sitting on my bed, at 3am, mouth agape, trying to grasp words for the feelings I was feeling! Yasiin just gives us SO MUCH on this. I really don’t even know where to start lol.
I guess an easy place to start is the lyrics. One thing that I really enjoy about this project – among 8 million other things – is the snapshot of Brooklyn that we get. I was looking back at some old poems that I wrote for a final project for one of my classes during college, and normally looking back at my old writing is a pretty cringey experience. It usually involves me immediately going into “this is TRASH” mode. Especially when it comes to poetry. But this particular poem was actually really good! I think I’ve mentioned on here before that I majored in Urban Studies, while in college, and one of the works that we focused pretty heavily on in one of my classes was Michel de certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1980). There’s a chapter in that book called “Walking in the City,” which is essentially a dive into ways of viewing the city from particular vantage points and both as the looker and the looked. The chapter starts from the vantage point of a view from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, traveling down into the streets of New York. It’s a super descriptive bit of text, and I found it to be a great resource when writing that particular poem. My mind immediately went to both of those works, while listening to Black on Both Sides.
"Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide-extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday's buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today's urban irruptions that block out its space. Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future." Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
"Seeing my neighborhood from the 3rd floor balcony Of My Apartment building. Beneath the cigarette smoke stirred up by the winds, the urban food desert A sea of momma's pushin' strollers, balancin' checkbooks, and tryna catch up on Sleep before the night shift. All at the same time. Black Boys - with teeth like Chiclets and skin like Melted chocolate ice cream on the concrete after Joe Joe's momma told him To "stop playin' so much" after he knocked Kiki's ice cream outta her hand - Balance basketballs on fingers long enough to play piano If the church could ever fix theirs And if momma could stop yellin' so much so she could hear melodies Escapin' pursed lips. Unlike New York, my neighborhood has never learned the art of growing up By forgetting all its pasts. Its present stays frozen in time, stuffed beneath Creamsicles and ice cream sandwiches. The future costs more than 50 cents, So momma says we have to wait til next week to get it. So momma says we have to wait til next week to get it. So momma says we have to wait til next week to get it." Tamar Ballard, "Views: an adaptation of the beginning of Michel de Certeau’s 'Walking in the City'"
I was also thinking a lot of Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor (2006) and The Cool (2007), while listening to Black on Both Sides. It’s so clear (to me now lol) that Lupe drew some inspiration from Yasiin for both of those projects, albeit potentially passively. And there are songs like “Just Might Be Ok” and “Baba Says Cool for Thought” that work in a very similar way of not just painting a picture, but creating an experience for the listener to be immersed in an environment. For both artists and all of those projects, having those moments of immersion make the difference. Songs like that have always won over a special place in my heart. There are a couple of Chance the Rapper songs that come to mind that fit the same bill. I’m thinking specifically of “Summer Friends” from Coloring Book (2016). For cities like Chicago and New York, especially the heavily Black areas of both of those cities, there are certain ideas of those cities that get perpetuated that I think songs like these bring nuance to. But you can read my thesis for more of my thoughts on that 🙂
Another obvious main theme on this project is Blackness, and Yasiin makes it a point to talk about it from various angles. I love where he and Q-Tip go on ‘Mr. Nigga,” with things like respectability projects and the idea of…hm. I wanna call it unescapable Blackness, but in a way that doesn’t sound bad lol. I mean the way that Black folks tend to be seen as Black before anything else, and that Blackness (and the spectrum of shades within it) is usually the way that people decide how to treat us. And Yasiin talks about that very thing in multiple places on this project. “Rock N Roll” had some really amazing moments as well, with conversations around the consumption and the co-opting of Black art by non-Black folks. He definitely said some THINGS on there. Some WORDS that needed to be heard. I also appreciated the “power to the people” moment he and Busta Rhymes have on “Do It Now“ and push for Black freedom and unified Blackness on “UMI Says.”
Ooh, and Yasiin’s storytelling abilities???????? GEEEEEEEEEZ. Very brief, funnyish story: before listening to this project, whenever I was looking for “Ms. New Booty” – which has been maybe a handful of times over the years, I would accidentally search for “Ms. Fat Booty.” I never listened to it, but I kept getting confused because I just couldn’t understand how Yasiin had made that song, and come to find out, those were two different songs lol. Such a great song.
And the features on this project were amazing as well. I’m not really here for
Talib Kweli like that, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I guess he needs to get his “stop harassing Black women” game up. But I loved Busta Rhymes on “Do It Now.” He and Yasiin going back and forth that song is FIRE. And Vinia Mojica’s voice on “Climb” is *chef’s kiss*. There aren’t a lot of features, but they’re a super solid few. And then the production is perfection. There’s a jazzy undertone that moves throughout the project, but there are moments where that gets topped with something more hip hop leaning or rock-influenced – like on “Rock N Roll.” And there’s just nothing like some ~real~ instrumentation on a song. The grooooovy bass and drums that back a lot of the tracks on this are sooooo good. There was something in me that wanted this project to end with an instrumental track, and guess what happened??? Such a perfect ending; it felt like the end of a concert. The whole thing feels like a live album. And you can bet your sweet head that I’m buying this project for my record player. Like….it’s been found at a online record store and is currently in the cart lol.
I haven’t saved a full project to my Spotify library since After Hours (2020). Black on Both Sides has been both saved and downloaded to my library, and I’ve been listening to it the whole time I’ve been writing (edit: it’s now 12:50pm, and I’m still listening). It’s definitely one of those projects that I wish I had listened to earlier, though. Like…I’ve gone all my life not having “UMI Says” or “Got” in my life. But it’s there now, and you can catch me listening to this in between all the other First Listens this week. Very happy to add this to my list of favorite albums. I……..I love this project lol. I hope the whole week is like this!!!
Featured Image Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/394557617324994215/
(listen to Black on Both Sides on spotify by clicking the image below)
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