Swirling grey, the ominous night sky became scattered with light drizzle that drifted gently to the earth shortly before Black Star made their way on stage for the final act of the Paid Dues hip-hop festival. Was it foreshadowing for misfortune or a deliberate celestial intervention for the return of two of hip-hop’s greatest MC’s?
Talib Kweli and Mos Def required no introduction. The two hip-hop legends walked humbly toward center stage in rhythmic gait and floated to the top of a bass heavy hit with easy confidence. Or rather, a confidence that was seeded in both MC’s over ten years ago when they released their one and only collaborative album under the name Black Star.
Signed to Rawkus Records, Black Star released their debut album in 1998. They quickly gained attention in the underground and their music has become more widely appreciated since. Both Mos Def and Talib Kweli have gone on to have solo careers, capturing a style and following each their own, but the energy put forth as a duo is like digging up buried treasure. Their music represents a by gone era. Two MC’s stuck in amber.
After performing the first song, neither wasted time to acknowledge the crowd and raised the energy immediately with their hard-hitting “Supreme, Supreme.” With a flow to match the lyrics, “Ghetto people it’s time to ride/ baby get involved go side to side,” the throng of loyal listeners were more than willing to sway left to right.
Where Mos Def is apt to use his upper register for melodies, you can expect Talib Kweli to rap with tact and precision. But just when you think you know what to expect, the two switch roles.
Black Star has a relationship where one will pick up where the other left off, giving listeners a continuous thread of head-bobbing hip hop alongside strong messages. To emphasize their roles in the group, in hand, Kweli had a black microphone while Mos Def had a red one. Kweli channeled the bass with reserved movement while Mos Def seemed to savor the attention a little more than Kweli, adding unique dance step to his lyrics.
A highlight of the set was when Talib Kweli’s “Get By” clattered through the speakers and settled like a thin cloud over the bursting crowd. “Get By” is an anthem that is immediately intoxicating. It is no wonder then that the beat was originally produced by a young Kanye West who sampled Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman to find resonance and power in a yearning chorus.
At one point in between songs, Mos Def asked the crowd if it would be okay if he did an acapella verse; as if the answer would be anything but a resounding yes. The crowd hollered back immediately and Mos Def began. The first lines found Mos using a slant rhyme to make the word ‘endorphins’ sound like ‘dolphins,’ a phenomenon he appropriately stopped to clarify before continuing. Not wanting to miss a word, the crowd fell silent and hung to every nuanced phrase and locked themselves into the rhythm of Mos Def’s genius use of cadence.
The set list wasn’t limited to music created under the name Black Star, but included highlights from the solo careers of both. At points, Mos Def would take a verse from a Talib Kweli song and Talib would make a Mos Def verse his own, showing that their knowledge of each other went beyond their time spent together as Black Star. The set also included several snippets of songs yet to come on what is rumored to be a second Black Star album that will be produced by underground hip-hop legend Madlib.
In the middle of Mos Def’s ‘Auditorium,’ Mos had the DJ cut the music so he could adjust his levels. “Pardon me for being a perfectionist” he pleaded to the crowd. All were patient while Mos Def and Talib Kweli adjusted for what would be a memorable performance that carried on into the night.
The Paid Dues festival, which took place at the National Orange Show Events Center in San Bernadino on Saturday night saw a myriad of big names in hip hop perform including Immortal Technique, Murs, Dead Prez, and Black Star who filled the headlining role. Black Star’s performance was the climax of a long day of hip-hop and seemed to encapsulate the shared sentiments of the festival, which was one of deep appreciation.