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September 29, 1998 was a busy day for hip-hop. That Tuesday, an ascendant Jay-Z released Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life and a never-better Outkast dropped Aquemini. Brand Nubian reunited for Foundation while A Tribe Called Quest called it quits (for a time) with The Love Movement. Fighting for space on record store shelves and sales charts was the debut project by a pair of New York underground MCs. The pair had cultivated buzz through public park cyphers and college radio, culminating in a collaboration released on an enterprising indie label. 20 years ago today, the world learned Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star.
Black Star is a landmark album that introduced two indelible talents. Mos and Talib drop some of their finest verses, rapping about urban poverty, violence, jazz, literature, black pride, faith, love, and the state of hip-hop itself. They make all these themes sound thrilling through the sheer force of their rapping, their ceaseless flows of perfectly planned syllables.
Building off prior collaborations, the duo is perfectly in sync; Mos’ warm bellow matched with Talib’s raspy tenor. Even their solo cuts balance each other: Mos’ Slick Rick homage “Children’s Story” is a real life fairy tale mirrored by Talib’s philosophical parable “K.O.S. (Determination)”. Despite contributions from Midwesterners on the mic and behind the boards, it’s a quintessentially New York album, capturing an era before 9/11 but after Biggie.
The production on Black Star blends heavy hip-hop grooves with soulful jazz and R&B samples. In the waning days of the millennium, before the Internet made working remotely an option, the rappers and producers met up in studios face to face. Up-and-coming crate diggers dropped kicks into cuts from Minnie Riperton and Don Randi, Gil-Scott Heron and Wild Style. The project was named after a shipping line started by early 20th century pro-Black activist Marcus Garvey. With this album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli sought to deliver nothing less than a document of “the whole canon of Black musical experience,” as Kweli put it this summer.
The album’s acclaim has endured for two decades. When the rappers played Taste of Chicago this July, the audience packed Grant Park. The artist now known as Yasiin Bey sang top-line harmonies while Kweli led the crowd in soul claps. “Definition” and “Brown Skin Lady” were huge sing-alongs. Despite the 93 degree heat, when Kweli shouted “Hands up if we in this together,” the sky was filled with open palms.
“What’s interesting to me is Black Star is not my highest-selling album, but it’s my most popular album,” Kweli said. “This album has had a cultural impact that can’t be denied.” Kanye West went from producing “Get By” for Kweli to featuring Bey on Kids See Ghosts. J. Cole emerged from the audience in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party to drop five #1 albums of his own. You can hear Black Star in the jazz of Saba and Noname, and anywhere young black creatives rhyme about the search for something bigger than themselves.
This is the oral history of Black Star, as told by the rappers and producers who created the classic 20 years ago. — Jack Riedy
Talib Kweli – rapper
Mos Def – rapper
Mr. Walt – half of Da Beatminerz, producer (“Astronomy (8th Light)”)
DJ Evil Dee – half of Da Beatminerz, scratches (“Astronomy (8th Light)”)
Hi-Tek – producer (“Intro”, “Definition”, “Re: Definition”, “K.O.S. (Determination)”. “Respiration”, “Twice Inna Lifetime”)
Shawn J. Period – producer (“Children’s Story”, “Hater Players”)
Rawls – producer (“Brown Skin Lady”, “Yo Yeah”)
Ge-ology – producer (“B Boys Will B Boys”)
88-Keys – producer (“Thieves In The Night”)
Weldon Irvine – keyboardist (“Astronomy (8th Light)”)
Wordsworth – rapper (“Twice Inna Lifetime”)
Punchline – rapper (“Twice Inna Lifetime”)
Jane Doe – rapper (“Twice Inna Lifetime”)
Kendrick Lamar – rapper
Talib Kweli: I first met Mos Def through Mr. Man from Da Bush Babees in Washington Square Park. I had to be 15 or 16. When I met him, I was already a fan of his because he had Urban Thermodynamics out with DCQ, his brother, and Ces, and their videos were getting played on The Music Box. He was also on television, so he was like a local boy made good. The mothers of our children became friendly and then I started hanging out at his house. My family would hang out with his family. I was just happy to know Mos Def as a fan of his. I didn’t have any idea that I was gonna make an album with him.
Mos Def: Me and Kweli were hanging pretty tough. He was working at [Brooklyn bookstore] Nkiru, doing open mics, and he was dope. He had this whole crew, and they were super scientifical. Their rhymes were dense, talking about Egyptology, these guys had the big brains! *
Talib Kweli: Mos’ style is impressive because he’s able to take high-minded concepts and break them down in very simplistic ways. He makes music that’s very easy on the ears, it feels good when you hear it, like the tone of his voice, his flow. It’s not too complex, like “lyrical miracle spiritual,” overkilling them with words. His concepts are very astute and very complex. When you add the fact that he can also sing, it brings a different melody and rhythm to his raps.
Mr. Walt: I always knew them. Mos went to school with me.
Shawn J. Period: I was doing a song with Da Bush Babees in the studio. Mos and Mister Man are friends, so Mos ended up doing the intro and outro, some poetry type stuff, over the top of my beat for that album, and that was my first time meeting him. Then Mister Man brought him around my house in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Ge-ology: When I moved back to New York, I was literally living up the street and around the corner from Shawn J. Period. Everyone kind of lived in the area. Mos introduced me to Shawn, and then eventually that’s I how I met 88-Keys.
Wordsworth: I met Talib from being on the scene, going to a lot of the same open mic places. Performing at different venues: Wetlands, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Lyricist Lounge events. Rapping wherever we could around New York. Similar way I met Mos as well. Ironically, I actually knew Mos’ brother DCQ years before I knew Mos, but I didn’t know that was his brother. One day rapping outside in the cypher, I said my name, and that’s how we put it together.
DJ Evil Dee: I met Mos at a De La show in New York. He was rocking with them, and we was introduced. I don’t think he had a deal at the time so he said he was getting ready to do what he gon’ do. I was like “Yo, no doubt. Definitely good luck with that. Watch out for the snakes.”
Wordsworth: In those years, everyone was running around rhyming on everything that you could get paid to rhyme on. You were rhyming with people you had never met, you would just come to the studio and do singles. A record gets played on a college radio station, and then that’s how you would make your claim to fame.
Shawn J. Period: Mos and I did the single “Universal Magnetic” and “If You Can Huh, You Can Hear.” Rawkus actually signed him to just a single deal. They were an up and coming label at the time.
Ge-ology: Mos and Shawn J. Period dropped this “Universal Magnetic” single and the shit was dope. That kinda kick started this movement starting to go into a new gear. Following that was the Reflection Eternal single.
Talib Kweli: Me and Hi-Tek had a little Reflection Eternal EP that we were giving out to people. The way Mos tells it is that his son Elijah played one of my cassette tapes that I left over there. He overheard it. He let me know that it was dope, and I asked him to get on a song. That song was “Fortified Live” with Mr. Man. That’s why Hi-Tek got so many beats on the Black Star album because Mos Def’s first encounter with me musically is what me and Hi-Tek were doing.
Hi-Tek: I was going back and forth to New York, catching the Greyhound. And our goal was to try to put together an album.
Talib Kweli: Mos was the one who suggested that I take the tape up to Rawkus. He was like, “You know Rawkus is giving out money for rap. If you have a hot single, if you have a good song, they’ll give you money.” I was more trying to be independent, but when Mos, who I highly respected, suggested that I go check them out, I set up a meeting and played them the songs.
Punchline: It was right after Mos dropped “Universal Magnetic” and Kweli put out the “Fortified Live” record. Even though they had solo records, they was always onstage rocking together.
Wordsworth: They had a lot of buzz and was hustling and getting around the city. For them to get a record deal at that time and create music and still be on the hustle at the open mics? It was cool to see that despite getting the record deal, it didn’t change their hustle and grind mentality.
Talib Kweli: We were doing shows together so often. Our camaraderie onstage and our relationship onstage was so great that Rawkus offered us a deal to do an album together. We had been talking about doing a project called Black Star because of how much we enjoyed performing together.
Mos Def: They gave us, like, $80,000, $90,000 to record, which was more money than we’d ever seen at one time. I’d just had my first child, and the goal wasn’t about trying to become a star, it was to become a real working artist. *
Talib Kweli: That’s why it’s called Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. We were always planning on striking out and doing our own thing. We didn’t go into Black Star like “Okay, we’re about to be a group.” It was “Let’s do a project together.” Like how jazz artists used to do. Like Ellington and Coltrane.
Over guttural pianos and vocal sample chops, the duo introduce themselves as “real life documentarians”.
Talib Kweli: We were documenting the whole canon of black musical experience.
Hi-Tek: I was always deep into the jazz records like Cannonball Adderley. They always spoke their inner missions with these sayings, and it just matched the whole concept of the album.
Talib Kweli: Hip-hop of course led me to jazz, especially Native Tongues and Pete Rock and Premier sampling jazz records so often. My father had a lot of jazz records in the house, and when I read these hip-hop samples, most likely my father had that record. All of our fathers had those records. That’s why Pete Rock and Q-Tip were able to find them samples. When they first started their career, they were going through their parents’ collection. They didn’t start crate digging ‘til they made money.
“Astronomy (8th Light)”
Mos and Talib trade bars to dissect different meanings of blackness. The duo enlisted legendary keyboardist and composer Weldon Irvine to perform on the song, starting a relationship that continued on Mos’ solo work until Irvine’s tragic death in 2002.
Mr. Walt: I originally made the beat that eventually became “8th Light” for Lauryn Hill for The Miseducation. I gave it to Commissioner Gordon, her engineer. The producer game, we hustle. We have to keep all our cards face down. This beat is for you, but if you don’t get back to us by a certain time, we got to keep the hustle going. I never heard back from Lauryn Hill, and I played the beat for Talib and Mos.
DJ Evil Dee: Walt made the beat and we went into the studio. And when we went into the studio that day, god bless the dead, Weldon Irvine was there. It was me, Walt, Weldon Irvine, Mos, and Talib. And Mos was like “Yo, we need to do this like a freestyle. Everybody just do what they do.” Weldon Irvine’s playing keys live on the track, Walt programmed the SP1200, and I did scratches live. I was scratching from the tones from Fab 5 Freddy’s “Change The Beat”.
Weldon Irvine: [Mos’] sense of social consciousness as well as to call a group Black Star and to have knowledge of Marcus Garvey and be twenty five years old and be co-owner of Nkiru Bookstore and not to be afraid to tell it like it is in an era of fluff and frontin’ is extraordinary. **
Mr. Walt: It was an honor to work with Weldon Irvine. We all knew him from buying records. Just being in the studio with him was an inspiration.
DJ Evil Dee: That dude was ill. To see Weldon Irvine at a hip hop event was so dope because it showed us that there’s older cats out there who didn’t do hip hop per se, that cared about the music. Like he wanted to learn. He wasn’t one of those people that was mad because people were sampling his stuff, he was happy because it was breathing new life into his catalog.
The album gets a jolt of energy on the high-tempo lead single. Mos warns on the hook that “it’s kind of dangerous to be an MC,” but he and Kweli are the “best alliance in hip-hop, Y-O.”
Talib Kweli: The first Black Star session was in Los Angeles. Mos was working on a movie called Where’s Marlowe and he was staying at the Beverly Laurel Hotel. Rawkus gave us money and we flew me, Hi-Tek, Rich Mason, a friend of mine, and J Rawls out. That’s why “Definition” starts with “Hi-Tek, yes you’re ruling hip-hop, J Rawls.” J Rawls was standing right there when we did the song. Producers were such a part of the sonic landscape, that’s just what we felt like you were supposed to do. You were supposed to shout out the producer.
Hi-Tek: Mos had the idea of me chopping up the BDP sample.
Talib Kweli: I remember the day that he said to Hi-Tek, “You should remake this ‘P Is Still Free’ beat from Boogie Down Productions, and me and Kweli should do the ‘Stop The Violence’ hook over that.” That literally just came from his brain. It definitely speaks to the fact that a large part of our focus was paying tribute to that era.
Mos Def: I’m not gonna dis my history by trying to recreate it. Nobody is going to make another ‘It’s Like That.” But I respect it and apply it to what’s going on today. That’s what Black Star is about: bridging yesterday and today without compromising either. ***
Talib Kweli: Losing Big, for Brooklyn in particular, was a huge blow. Losing Tupac was a blow for all of hip-hop, and we definitely felt it in Brooklyn. But losing Tupac and Big, man? For Brooklyn? That was really fresh in our heads. Mos, to his credit, has always been focused on respecting the dead and uplifting our ancestors who are passed. He’s always been on that. When we do shows, he’s always talking about Tupac or Phife Dawg or Eazy-E or whoever. It could be Mr. Cheeks from Lost Boys, he’s always about uplifting people who are passed on.
*** SPIN, Nov. 1998.
The hook from “Definition” maintains, but the beat and the flows are mutated like a minor key variation of a fanfare. Talib dresses down a biter “trying to compete with reality like Xerox.”
Hi-Tek: I asked Mos could I expand on it, and that’s how we got “Re:Definition” cut. I was trying to prove my talent and my versatility, and I just wasn’t content with the BDP version. So they, as writers, named it “Re:Definition” because it was a continuation of “Definition”. And I just went crazy on the second version.
Talib Kweli: It was very important to us to not look like we were biting. I remember there was a whole discussion about “Well damn, this can’t be it, because we just re-did Boogie Down Productions.” Hi-Tek was like “I’ve gotta flip the beat at the end so it can still be something forward fresh.” When Hi-Tek flipped the beat at the end, we were like “Okay, we gotta do more fresh verses.”
Mos re-imagines Slick Rick’s classic for the booming music industry of the late ‘90s on this solo cut. He narrates a bedtime story about a vulture getting paid by “jacking old beats and making the dash” and cautions that “life is more than what your hands can grasp.”
Mos Def: “I was just centimeters away from Slick Rick and didn’t know how to behave. I told him ‘You’re my hero in this shit.’ He was the first rapper that I [said] ‘I want to be like him.’” ****
Shawn J. Period: That particular beat was an intro. The beat came on with the bassline, then it ended like eight bars later and the actual beat came on and he was like, “I like the intro, but the beat, I think it’s okay. So, I wanna use the intro.” I was around him enough to know, if he’s really on it, he’s on it.
Talib Kweli: Diddy came through and he came and wanted to talk to me and Mos about he felt a way about the record, about what Mos was sayin’ onstage. Mos told him, “It wasn’t directed at you personally. It’s directed at everything that’s going on in the business.” That was one of the illest conversations that I ever seen. *****
Hi-Tek: I remember being in New York and hearing about Puff stepping to Mos about “Children’s Story”! He thought Mos was talking about him.
Talib Kweli: We reclaimed hip-hop for a lot of people who felt like if you couldn’t pop a bottle of champagne, if you couldn’t get past the velvet rope at the club, then you weren’t invited to the hip-hop party. With all due respect to what Puff and all them was doing, there’s a lot of fallout to that.
“Brown Skin Lady”
Black Star tries to pick up a fine lady on this ode to women of color. Mos calls her “the nectar the bee get close to,” while Talib says she makes him “want to ride a Coltrane to A Love Supreme.”
Rawls: I was going to the University of Cincinnati. I was a junior in college. Kweli mentioned they were doing a project and asked me for a beat tape. One day he called me back on the phone and he had Mos Def singing “Brown Skin Lady” in the background. I was a little caught off guard because the beat for “Brown Skin Lady” was only an interlude. I never meant for it to be a song because it had all those changes that you hear. That’s what attracted them, that’s what they liked. I used a bunch of chops but I couldn’t see anybody rapping over it. I was ecstatic, it was incredible.
Talib Kweli: The original idea for “Brown Skin Lady” was to just be like a quick little interlude beat, but Mos started singing that hook over it. I could tell when he said that, that’s something he already had in his mind as a song. Back then, we used to just write songs without beats. That was just a song he had and it fit over that.
Rawls: There wasn’t no “remotely” back in ‘97. We recorded it in LA. It was the very first song we recorded, “Brown Skin Lady” then “Definition.”
“B Boys Will B Boys”
Mos and Talib take it back to the golden age of hip-hop, complete with shout-outs to their producers, their Rawkus labelmates, and all four elements.
Ge-ology: That “B Boys Will B Boys” track was something I had just recently made. It was just one of many on this tape that I gave them.
Talib Kweli: When you hear songs like “B Boys Will B Boys,” and you hear a lot of references to back in the day and how things used to be, we wanted to firmly establish ourselves in the culture. And give back to the people who influenced us, from Rakim to KRS-One to Crazy Legs and all them. Native Tongues, all that. It’s us doing our version of that.
Ge-ology: We had a day for a mix session. I needed to go pick up reels, the two-track tape that had my beat on it and their lyrics and everything. I picked it up from Battery Studios, and then I was gonna drive over to do the mix session in Electric Lady. They just gave me the bag with some reels in it.I just grabbed the bag and started going out of the building. I said “Let me just check this,” and I realized that it wasn’t my reel, it was a D’Angelo reel. They gave me one of the reels from fucking Voodoo. Whoever fucked up, they’re lucky that I was the honest guy.
Talib’s solo track is about the demands of being an Black man in the city. He raps about knowledge of self as means to persevere through “inner-city concentration camps where no one pays attention.”
Talib Kweli: My style developed from trying to fit my words on the beat. “K.O.S.” was something that I actually wrote to music. Hi-Tek had made a beat off the sample of “In The Ghetto” by 24-Carat Black. We recorded that a year or two before we did the Black Star album. When we decided to put “K.O.S.” on the Black Star album, Hi-Tek had been sick of listening to that beat.
Hi-Tek: Q-Tip had used the Minnie Riperton song, but I felt like nobody had really expanded on it, so I did my version. That’s the nature of the producer world. They wouldn’t respect me if I just straight up looped it, but the way I chopped it and gave it, expanded it, and I had Vinia Mojica sing the hook, it was just paying homage to what, the foundation that Q-Tip had already laid.
Talib Kweli: That was a brave bold choice because “Check The Rhime” is a hip-hop classic staple. You could play it at a nightclub right now. That was a bold choice for him to attempt that, and I think he did a good job.
The duo show off the prowess of underground MCs. Talib stops a rival’s flow like “shot clocks, interstate cops, and blood clots.”
Talib Kweli: Not just Black Star, a lot of the people who were around us at the time, the people who were getting signed to Rawkus, the people who were in the parks freestyling, our focus was preservation of hip-hop culture. That’s sort of always been a ubiquitous mainstay in underground hip-hop: the idea that the culture is escaping us, the culture is being taken advantage of.
Shawn J. Period: Lauryn Hill was working on her album. I wanted to submit some stuff, and I knew she was doing “Fu-Gee-La” and all the stuff with Salaam Remi, that vibe. I did it totally on a SP1200. It started out with a beat that I wanted to submit, and then Mos and Talib heard it and liked it.
Talib Kweli: Mos’ “Hater Players” verse is real visual, he’s like Rakim’s “Follow The Leader.” Going off to outer space and shit, it’s real dope.
This meditative interlude is a collage of vocal samples: a young girl reciting a poem about Blackness, a woman describing a tribal ritual, and a Norman Jordan poem about criticizing the brainwashed while sitting idle at a traffic light “with not a soul in sight”.
Rawls: “Yo Yeah” came about later because I was listening to those 12 inches. Kweli said “Yeah Hi-Tek” on “2000 Season” and Mos says “Yo, it’s Mos.” I was into chopping and doing stuff like that. I did it for fun, and then Kweli had found that vocal sample he wanted to put over it.
Talib Kweli: I really wanted to make a connection to literature and poetry with this Black Star album. I really wanted to show that what we were doing comes from grios, it comes from people who were before us. And to sort of break up the flow. I didn’t want it to be just straight rapping.
The duo depicts the petty crimes and hustles necessary to stay afloat in New York, while the city itself breathes under the moonlight. Common guests to rap about gentrifiers “tearing down the ‘jects creating plush homes” in his native Chicago.
Talib Kweli: The Midwest is integral to Black Star: Common, J Rawls, Hi-Tek.
Rawls: Kweli knew about the Midwest, he was always coming out to Cincinnati because he was working with Hi-Tek, so he respected us, he knew. We showed that the Midwest got flavor.
Talib Kweli: Common was my favorite rapper back then. I was chasing Common. I kept ending up in the city where Common was at, and I would go to the show. Common would always recognize me, show me love, like “You’re the guy working with Mos Def.” This happened for months, me showing up backstage. I had this song “Sharpshooters” with Dead Prez that Hi-Tek did the beat for, that’s the beat I wanted Common to rap on. I would play him this beat and I told him “You have to be on this Black Star album.” And he said “Yeah, let’s do it,” but it would never happen. So I trapped him at that show in Chicago.
Hi-Tek: We were in Chicago, and we was trying to find a beat to record with Common on, and I didn’t really like the beat. I was like, “Man, let me get busy on it a little more”.
Talib Kweli: I remember I was upset by it because I was like “Man, I been playing you this beat for a year.” I had to learn how to let go at that point because they were right.
Common: When I wrote the verse for “Respiration,” one of my close buddies had just died, so I’m talking about that situation, and really coming to grips with that. I also was living in Chicago, seeing what was going on with the shorties. I was the observer and also wanted to give some kind of hope. This is what I see going on, and we can get out of here. (VIII)
(VIII) Life + Times, Dec. 2011.
“Thieves In The Night”
Mos and Talib rap about the importance of Black pride in the face of societal stereotypes, with a chorus inspired by author Toni Morrison.
88-Keys: Kweli already had his verse written, and I had a four-track recorder with a little BS microphone, so I recorded the joint, and after Kweli laid his verse, he explained to Mos what the song was about, and his inspiration for the song was a book called The Bluest Eye. Mos did a complete 180—I don’t even know if he liked the beat at that time still, but he liked Kweli’s rap and how the whole joint came together—so not only did Mos write his verse, but he wrote a 44-bar verse that he was pretty adamant about not shortening it. Me and Kweli are looking at him like, “He’s buggin’. That’s not a 16, Rawkus ain’t havin’ that.” Mos was like, “I don’t care. All this is staying.”
Talib Kweli: We’re a long way from achieving anywhere close to the type of justice we’re demanding on songs like “Thieves in the Night.” We’re nowhere near it. I’m not saying that to discourage anyone because you don’t fight for justice based on a system of reward, you fight for justice because it’s the right thing to do. What’s interesting to me now is in this Trump era, this shit is worse than it was a few years ago. That’s hard for me to say because I’m an optimist. I guess the silver lining in this situation, if there is one, is that more people are getting woken up to how insidious white supremacy can be, and how close we were to fascist ideals. We have kids that are in these camps, “Build the Wall,” all this nationalist pride. This is scary stuff. While we were back in the days complaining about George Bush and whoever else, these things were real, and these things led up to where we’re at. I feel like I’m very consistent subject-wise, content-wise, theme-wise. From Black Star, I feel my message has been the same regardless of who’s president.
88-Keys: Once they laid their joints down, I retracked the beat. Man, I really ****ed everybody’s heads up in the studio. They’re like, “Aw man, that sounds like a live band! With all the change-ups and stuff!” I got paid for the track, and I was on top of the world when that happened. * (IX)
“Twice Inna Lifetime”
With a title inspired by a line from Mos and Kweli’s first collaboration, this braggadocious posse cut closes out the album. Guests Punchline, Wordsworth, and Jane Doe spit sweet sixteens, and Talib warns he’s “transforming from rookie of the year to veteran”.
Talib Kweli: At that point, Q-Tip had put together a group that was Punch, Words, Jane Doe, Mos, and Q-Tip. They were doing a group thing. If you listen to A Tribe Called Quest “The Love Movement,” which I believe came out the same exact day as the Black Star album, there’s a song on it at the end with Punch, Words, Mos, and Jane Doe. Mos was like “Being that I’m doing this group thing with Q-Tip, we have a song that’s at the end with these artists, can we have a song that’s at the end of this album?” Our song was like a sister song to the one that’s on A Tribe Called Quest’s album.
Wordsworth Knowing we were all in those circles trying to get on and work on music, it was dope to see artists at that level reaching back to bring others on. Because we all were trying to get on. It was iconic to be on a project with people you was running around town, rapping with.
Talib Kweli: I was definitely trying to out-rap everybody on that song. I was very impressed. Words, Punch, Jane- I got to hear their verses before I did mine. I was like “Fuck, these verses are dope.”
Hi-Tek: I made that “Twice Inna Lifetime” beat on the spot. Took about an hour.
Punchline: Originally it was just supposed to have been a remix for “Fortified Live.” That’s how it all sparked off. I might have referenced it once or twice in my verse. It was just a matter of going in and spitting bars and showing off.
Wordsworth: You’re rhyming on the remix, there’s a reason you’re on the remix.
Hi-Tek: We cherished studio time, and that hour of studio time was expensive. And we had to do our best within that one hour time frame. I think it actually created a hunger because you had to really cherish that time you had.
Punchline: First in the booth that day was Jane Doe. After we heard her verse, everybody was like “Yo, it’s getting serious, it’s actually going down right now.” She sparked it off really dope with the “Middle finger to the brother man”.
Jane Doe: The underground rappers then, it was so different the way they were treated. There’s no underground really no more. We were just like the backpackers. The female rappers were different then. We weren’t sexualised. I look like a little boy when I look at the pictures. Very different from what women are required and expected to do now. It was really just about the music then.
Wordsworth: We inspired each other to write and be better at writing rhymes. It kind of like, you’re playing ball and you hand it to Steph Curry, you know it’s going in.
Hi-Tek: if you hear the part where Mos’ voice went out, I was the one that was like, “Nah, keep it. The way it went out, you can come back in.” So he kept the mistake. It sounded like he choked on something. He says, “Excuse me, just ate another MC. Sometimes that’s just how it be.”
Punchline: True story, I was walking down the street and I heard the Black Star blasting out of somebody’s car. I pointed at the car, like “Ah that’s dope.” I don’t know if he didn’t pay attention that it was me. He’s like “Oh, you don’t know bout this. You ain’t up on this, this is that real stuff.” I’m like “Yo, that’s me.” Point to the album cover, look at the artwork, I’m in there. He’s like “Oh shit!”
Talib Kweli: What’s interesting to me is Black Star is not my highest-selling album, but it’s my most popular album. That tells me that sales don’t really matter. Cultural impact matters, and for some reason, this album has had a cultural impact that can’t be denied.
Wordsworth: The beauty of the album is the essence of creativity and hunger and lyricism and production and the innocence of it, without any forethought of “This is gonna make millions,” just it’s gonna be dope. I think that kept the integrity of the project to last this long and be a staple forever because the basis of going into it was to make something that was creative and art. It seems like when you go into being creative and have your heart in making music, what you don’t expect lives forever. Sometimes, you go in with expectations, and it never meets your expectations. As long as you put your heart into it, it embodies heart, creativity, lyricism, everything that hip-hop was meant to register when they listen to it, it will last forever because they can play it at any time.
Talib Kweli: I’m an optimist when it comes to music. Kendrick Lamar just won a Pulitzer. That’s a big deal. And he won a Pulitzer by doing what? Not because he’s imitating the debaucherous decadent rap. He won a Pulitzer and he’s winning Grammys and he’s the number one rapper everybody’s checking for, because he’s doing what we were doing on Black Star. He’s using jazz elements, he’s working with Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, people like that. He’s referencing black cultural themes and motifs. I love seeing it.
Kendrick Lamar: Mos gave a lot of game early on. A lot of game. (*X1)
Rawls: Working with Black Star on this project started my career, it’s probably the only reason I have a career to be honest. I respect that and I appreciate the opportunity to be on such a classic album. We didn’t know that it would be what it became. We were just trying to make good music. We were all just hip-hop heads and fans of each other. It came about so organically.
Talib Kweli: If you watch Block Party from 2004, you see a young J. Cole in the crowd nodding his head during the Black Star set. J. Cole is out here conscious and aware and making music that’s not trap music, music that’s paying homage to what he grew up listening to, and still finding an incredible amount of success doing it.
Punchline: It’s funny because in that moment, I guess we were making history and we didn’t know it. To watch them create and make that album, it’s unique, it has its own lane and its own sound. I didn’t know years later they would still perform the stuff. It meant something for those two dudes to come together.
Talib Kweli: I attribute my success and what I do as an artist partially to surrounding myself with a community of artists. I flourished being in an artistic community.
Ge-ology: You think about the Harlem Renaissance in a way. It was something really special happening in Brooklyn at that time.
Hi-Tek I’m blessed to be able to come up in a time where I was able to make something that’s considered timeless.
Talib Kweli: I’m sure we’ll get around to another album at some point. We haven’t recorded anything for it, but we are busy and we are doing a lot of shows, so God willing something can come out of those shows.
Jane Doe: I would love if they did another album together, wouldn’t that be dope? That would be amazing if that ever happens.
Talib Kweli: Through my career, I’ve been all kinds of things. Sung and done some rock stuff. I experiment. What I love about Black Star is it’s always a DJ, me and Mos Def, and beats and rhymes.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.