12 October 1999
Black on Both Sides
As the cornerstone of the once-mighty underground hip-hop empire that was Rawkus Records, Mos Def’s wildly diverse yet smoothly cohesive full-length debut truly lived up to the Brooklyn-born MC’s immense build-up in the hip-hop underground. Expectations ran high following his formidable cameos on tracks by Common, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest throughout the mid-‘90s as a junior member of the legendary Native Tongues crew. Released on the heels of his incredibly successful collaborative LP with longtime partner in rhyme Talib Kweli as Black Star, Black on Both Sides set out to prove not only Mos Def’s worth as one of the prolific and insightful MCs on the scene, but also as a top-notch producer who shows a depth of musical knowledge far beyond his own genre, and a talented multi-instrumentalist who can rock the bass, drums, congas, vibraphone, and keyboards as well as he does the microphone.
Elements of Roy Ayers-style soul jazz, Max Romeo-esque reggae, Maggot Brain-quoting funk, and even pummeling guitar licks a la Bad Brains are all factored into the sonic gumbo Mos Def cooked up, creating a masterpiece that signified the apex of hip-hop’s most productive and innovative decade, the 1990s. And while his two albums from the 2000s have failed to live up to the promise of Black on Both Sides, there is talk that his upcoming fourth joint, The Ecstatic (out June 30), promises to find Mos Def back in top form after his emancipation from an ugly contract dispute with Geffen Records. Ron Hart
19 October 1999
Handsome Boy Modeling School
So… How’s Your Girl?
Rock music—by which I mean all of the last half-century’s American pop music, including hip-hop—has always suffered from a severe case of self-seriousness. Both classic rock and hip-hop have fetishized “authenticity”, making it almost impossible for the likes of Bruce Springsteen or Kanye West to demonstrate humor or to play with the artistic pose of intelligent self-consciousness. Whimsy be damned.
Which is why De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising—hip hop that dared to be light, funny, tuneful, yet still artistically serious—made such a breezy impression in 1989. The producer, Prince Paul, would team up a decade later with producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura under the moniker Handsome Boy Modeling School to create a logical successor, So… How’s Your Girl?. This 1999 classic was outwardly nuts, loosely based on an episode of the short-lived Chris Eliot sitcom Get a Life in which Eliot’s idiot character gets duped into attending the bogus “Handsome Boy Modeling School”. A first listen suggests that these two invincibly creative producers were out for a high-toned goof, sitting in the studio cooking up grooves from unlikely sources (jazz, drips of water, trumpeting elephants, new age), then interpolating opera, self-help tapes, and guest spots from across the musical spectrum (Mike D, DJ Shadow, Sean Lennon, even comedian Father Guido Sarducci). Paul and Dan “play” at being the proprietors of a modeling school, and their songs—kind of—tell the story of this miraculous/fraudulent enterprise. There is even a track consisting of Prince Paul calling up rapper Biz Markie and convincing him to “sing like the Bee Gees, ‘Night Fever’”, the whole thing backed by old-timey organ music.
A decade later, So… How’s Your Girl? seems more vital than ever. Hip-hop is more monochromatic today, having perfected a commercially successful (that is: endlessly repeatable) groove, and its sense of ebullient discovery—not to mention humor—is sagging. The “story” part of So… How’s Your Girl? never really mattered, but the ingenuity of its execution, the depth of its grooves, and its attitude of high-tone play remains triumphant. Handsome Boy Modeling School comes off today as a collection of hugely varied grooves, but each one deep as a canyon. The glorious variety of the rapping is articulate and literary, but not precious, with Del the Funkee Homosapien, Grand Puba, Trugoy, Sensational, and others locking into the beats with such joy that there is virtually no need for cheap sing-along choruses or other obvious devices.
Paul and Dan are not being presumptuous when they sample Beethoven (as Chris Eliot shrieks, “I’m a male model not a male prostitute!”). Hip-hop like this—dazzlingly assembled collages of sounds that resemble orchestral music in their complexity of texture, form, and reference, but with the sensuous groove of blues music—makes the case just as well as Pet Sounds or What’s Going On that American pop music is, for whatever it’s worth, its own kind of classicism. Will Layman
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More