Two of Brooklyn’s finest emcees, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli reunited as the prolific Black Star, backed up by DJ Hi-Tek for a night of pure, uncut hip hop at Boston’s newest music venue.

11/29/19 – Big Night Live

You could still smell the fresh paint as you walked up the plush and not-yet-beer-soaked carpet entering Boston’s newest concert venue, Big Night Live. Inside, Bruce Lee movies played on big screens, DJs spun Nas, 2Pac and Biggie vinyl and a reunited Black Star were about to rock the mic. This was a night hip hop die hards were waiting for. Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) emerged in red leather pants and a black and silver leather jacket. Talib Kweli was in his signature camo jacket along with a blue fitted Red Sox hat, even though his Brooklyn roots made him a die-hard Yankees fan. As iconic DJ Hi-Tek laid down his signature beats, they started tagging his DJ booth with spray paint. 

Individually, Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli are often included in many a hip hop nerd’s top five greatest emcees lists, but when they came together on Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star for one prolific album in 1998, they built what is still considered one of the greatest albums in the history of hip hop music, and the high water mark of the neo-soul, conscious hip hop era from which they emerged.  

The crowd erupted when they heard Bey yell out “Loooord have mercy,” the unforgettable first line before the beat drops on “Definition,” a high-energy Brooklyn anthem centered around Flatbush Avenue. But it wasn’t until their most historic song, “Respiration ft. Common,” that the crowd really coalesced. The song’s melody is ominous, done that way to make the experience more immersive. Kweli and Bey paint detailed pictures of how they can “feel the city breathing.” Black Star wrote extremely complex, layered rhymes about the ills of poverty in the city during the 1990’s: “where you could get murdered over a glare / but everything is fair / it’s a paradox we call reality / so keepin’ it real will make you a product of abnormal normality.” As the song progressed, Bey and Kweli started to battle rap the verses back and forth, getting into an old, familiar rhythm and flow. It looked like they were having fun together as friends—and made the fans in the room feel like Black Star was really back.

Ironically, the high points of the performance were when they played songs they recorded individually, like “Sex, Love and Money” off Bey’s The New Danger. The bass drum thundered on the venue’s stacked house system.  The audience was also very much caught by the groove of Kweli’s “The Blast” from his Reflection Eternal album with DJ Hi-Tek.  But the jam that really got the crowd hyped was “Get By” by Kweli, with beats by Kanye from his mid-2000’s “chop up the soul” glory days. The unforgettable piano chorus rang through the house speakers, engaging the audience to sing along. “Get By” has been called “Talib’s Freebird” and easily got the biggest applause that night, particularly when they went into the remix version with notable versus by Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), Kanye, Busta Rhymes, and Jay Z. Bey brought the audience even higher by yelling out his memorable remix intro line, “Brooklyn wins again!”

To a young, socially-conscious hip hop fan in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, Black Star was like Bob Dylan. This was a renaissance era for conscious hip hop music where artists with something to say got a platform to say it. It was a time when flow and substance were king and politically-minded, poetic rap tracks with smooth, jazzy beats were getting heavy spins. Along with Black Star on the famed Rawkus Records, artists like Common, Erykah Badu, The Roots and Gangstarr were pumping out critically acclaimed albums with a message and getting attention on mainstream platforms like MTV’s Lyricist Lounge Show, HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and the generations’ youth culture capital, Chappelle’s Show.  

Recent industry blog posts have hinted that Black Star is now returning with a new album produced by jazz-beat veteran, Madlib. However, this has been a constant tease for hip hop fans throughout the 20 years since the group’s first and only album. Fans remain cautiously optimistic. In the meantime, Kweli is finding additional ways to contribute to the culture through his “People’s Party Podcast,” comprised of rich conversations with key contributors to hip hop culture. This new project is full of some incredibly thought provoking ideas, similar to the music of Black Star, which can be encapsulated through Kweli’s rhyme that night: “They ask me what we writin’ for / we writin’ to show you what we fightin’ for.”

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