Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas on September, 1996. Six months later in March of the following year, Biggie Smalls was murdered in Los Angeles in an alleged retaliation for Tupac's murder. Both rappers were killed well-before their 30th birthdays.
By the time of that 1997 murder, hip-hop had a crisis in conscience. The damage done by this supposed "East Coast/West Coast beef" had taken the lives of two talented young men, both prominent practitioners of the still-new genre. Many fans and artists that year were having difficulty reconciling the music they loved with the fatal outcomes that the music and culture had produced. The hip-hop music of 1997 couldn't reflect the crisis because it was still too painful to directly contemplate. The biggest albums of that year were Biggie's Life After Death, Camp Lo's Uptown Saturday Night, Missy Elliot's Supa Dupa Fly and Wu Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever. Though all are stellar, ground-breaking works, none of them took on the challenge of examining hip-hop after it had, literally, killed two of its biggest stars.
Rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli formed Black Star in 1997, and released Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star in 1998. Of all the biggest albums released in 1998, including The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and Outkast's Aquemini, Black Star was the only group to directly address and examine the culture, capital, and climate that led to these fatal events. "Definition," the second track on the album, had Mos Def singing a refrain that was an homage to KRS-One's 1987 song, "Stop The Violence." It was an attempt to save hip-hop's soul:
"One-two-three/It's kinda dangerous/To be an emcee/They shot Tupac and Biggie/Too much violence in hip-hop."
Not only was this song the first to "break the seal" by mentioning the murders, but it did so in an almost-scholarly manner by pointing out how long this call to ending violence in the music had been around. Mos Def, in a small skit between songs, called himself and Kweli "real-life documentarians," and the album served as a chronicle of the state of hip-hop in 1998, and pointed to remedies for the imperiled genre after the specter of pure capitalism had claimed lives and derailed legacies.
One of the ways in which Black Star believed that hip-hop could be restored to its former glory was the use of what are now called "hip-hop-isms," or employing techniques and sounds from what many consider "the golden age of hip-hop." Where other groups had begun to integrate live instrumentation and original music, Black Star's album was sample-heavy, and the duo used techniques from the earliest days of the genre. This was most notable when they completed sentences with each of them saying a word in it, which created a cacophony in the exchange. The only other group to do this in 1998 was The Beastie Boys on its album Hello Nasty, best exemplified in its song "Intergalactic."
By using "old-school" hip-hop as a catalyst, both Def and Kweli took a "radical" stance by returning to the roots of hip-hop for both answers and more refined analysis. "Children's Story," another homage, this time to Slick Rick's 1987 song of the same name, found Mos saying, "He was out chasing cream and the American dream/Trying to pretend the ends justify the means/This ain't funny so don't you dare laugh/It's just what comes to pass when you sell your ass/Life is more than what your hands can grasp." A clear criticism of the "all about the Benjamins" ethos of the time before those dark days.
It wasn't until years later that many learned that this "East Coast/West Coast beef" was actually manufactured by hip-hop magazines like The Source and Vibe, or that the term "gangsta rap" was coined by record executives at major West Coast labels, and then prioritized over other forms of hip-hop, which created the "zero-sum" atmosphere that permeated the genre in the mid-90s. Black Star was the first group asking us all to step-back and take what it called "eternal reflection." Talib Kweli, for example, called to task the notion that thinking critically about the music and its intent was a form of "player-hating" in the song "Hater-Players," where he said, "Reverse psychology got 'em scared to say when shit is whack/Out of fear of being called a hater/imagine that?" As with saying the names of 'Pac and Big, Kweli's radical stance called out a mentality that had made it nearly impossible to speak on the ways that capital and greed had infiltrated the form.
Twenty-one years have passed since Black Star created this blue-print of concise criticism and homage to the excitement, innovation, and percussive force of hip-hop. And as the genre once again finds itself in clutches of both the mainstream and re-emerged stereotypes, now is the time to revisit, and reflect.
Since the release of their first and only album, Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli have become icons as history-making and history-preserving fire-brands with individual careers and discographies that still adhere to their initial visions. This Thursday, Black Star comes back together at Oakland's Fox Theater to re-visit the entire album track-for-track, interspersing it with commentary, hind-sight, and sonic updates. As they first asked, and as the question still remains, "How much have we grown and how far yet do we have to go?