On this day, October 12, in hip-hop history…
1999: In the late 1990s, there was a growing sentiment amongst hip-hop fans that the genre was becoming so outwardly commercial that it had begun to lose its spirit. A quarter century after hip-hop’s founding, hip-hop had climbed to the height of cultural relevancy. The music had begun to rule the pop charts and the culture’s slang, fashion and discourse had become the dominant mode of youthful expression of the day. However, the overt commercialization of the genre through a combination of perceived sub-par music on the radio and exploitative co-option of the culture by big corporations had created a vacuum for some fans who longed for hip-hop’s roots. Enter Mos Def and his seminal 1999 underground masterpiece, Black On Both Sides, an album that satisfied the cravings of fans for old school simplicity.
One year earlier, Mos Def had made a large name for himself as one of hip-hop’s per-eminent underground artists with the release of the brilliant Black Star, Mos’ collaborative album with fellow old school disciple Talib Kweli. Anticipation was high for Mos’ solo debut and on October 12, 1999, Black On Both Sides was released on Rawkus Records. Black On Both Sides was consciously designed as an appeal to rap’s roots, serving as a tonic to rap fans who had grown tired of commercial hip-hop’s gangster obsession. The album had an eclectic feel combining old school rap with a sonic playfulness and Mos’ intricate flow and complex wordplay. Mos tackled social topics with deft and intelligence earning a reputation as perhaps hip-hop’s greatest socially “conscious” rapper. Meanwhile, songs like “Umi Says,” “Mathematics” and “Ms. Fat Booty” are some of the most revered underground hip-hop songs ever.
Despite the album’s anti-commercial bent, the album was a surprising sales success for a small, independent album, selling over 500,000 copes on it’s way to being certified Gold by the RIAA in February 2000. Fourteen years later, Black On Both Sides serves both as fitting tribute to rap’s old school roots and a testament to Mos’ visionary talents.