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The Making of Mos Def's 'Black on Both Sides'

An oral history of the legendary record, 20 years later.

by Jaelani Turner-Williams
14 October 2019, 6:08am

'Black on Both Sides' cover / composite image by VICE staff

This article originally appeared on VICE US

A year after releasing Black Star, his debut with Talib Kweli, a pre-Yasiin Bey Mos Def dropped another legendary record: 1999 solo effort Black on Both Sides. It was a tribute to his native Brooklyn that was in many ways the last great record of hip-hop's golden age, at a time when the genre was becoming increasingly commercialized. Def focused on creating a nuanced portrait of life on the streets, one that saw him contemplating his own hip-hop dreams ("Love"), the vulnerabilities of being jacked in plain sight ("Got"), and government and water supply corruption ("New World Water"). Black on Both Sides was an act of reverence for home, from a Black perspective—one simultaneously privy to issues of appropriation and the blurring of genre lines in pop music, such as on guitar-tinged standout "Rock n Roll."

Over soul-driven samples and hard-hitting beats courtesy of the New York-centric production team Def had curated, Def's verbal dynamism still resonates 20 years later. VICE caught up with a few key players from Black on Both Sides—co-producer David Kennedy, engineer John Wydrycs, and song producers Psycho Les and Ge-ologyto tell the story of its creation and reflect on its lasting influence.

David Kennedy (Co-producer): We started recording at Sony Studios, where I had done The Love Movement [for A Tribe Called Quest]. We were taking tracks from producers like Etch-a-Sketch, Ayatollah, and Diamond D. Then, when we moved to Chung King Studios [to continue recording], Ge-ology, 88 Keys, Ali Shaheed, and Psycho Les started bringing more heat. Some producers never made it to the recording sessions but just submitted the beats and we finished the production ourselves. Others, like Etch and Diamond D, were there nearly every day for the first half, then Yasiin stepped up and started creating his own tracks.

John Wydrycs (Engineer): If I remember correctly, when I started working with [Mos], there was some confusion with some of the tapes we had gotten since they had "Black Star" written on them. I believe he had already written songs that didn't make the cut on that album, which in turn helped in the quick turnaround to Black on Both Sides. Whatever he didn't say on the Black Star album, he saved for his solo effort.

Psycho Les of The Beatnuts (Producer of "New World Water" and "Rock n Roll"): [Mos] was always a fan of [The Beatnuts], and we were fans of him too. [In 1999], we were also working on our album, Musical Massacre. We were all working at Chung King, and he would always come in just to hear what we were doing. One day, he was like, 'Yo! If you got beats—boom, just bring 'em through.'

Ge-ology (Co-producer of "Brooklyn"): It was a very pure synergy of how everything came together. We used to hang out in a lot of different spots. [producer] Overtime had a [personal] studio on Clinton Avenue, [and] we all would be there: Mos, Mr. Man Khaliyl from Da Bush Babees, Jean Grae back when she was still known as What? What?, Maseo from De La Soul. A lot of what was really happening in Brooklyn at that time was bubbling at O.T.'s spot. Shawn J. Period lived around the corner from me, and Mos would be at Shawn J.'s house all the time. 88-Keys would come out from Long Island—everyone was very much connected.

Les: When we was doing it back then, we didn't imagine twenty years later, a classic. I can listen to it now, and Mos Def was super, super ahead of his time. Back then, we was just messing around, having fun. He's always on-point with his stuff, always aware of stuff going on in the world. Just to see Mos Def going crazy over my production, I was like, "Wow." Mos Def just had the crazy flow. The way he put his words together was incredible.

Kennedy: There's so much more to production than just composition. It's putting all those elements together and getting them to work. As the engineer on a project like that, there are lots of decisions to be made beyond the scope of just engineering. We would basically knock out a track every two days, if not daily. It took nearly a year to finish the album. Recording and mixing with Yasiin proved challenging at times, as it's never easy comprehending what the artist's vision is. You can't get in their head, so you have to wait for the magic to manifest itself.

Wydrycs: I attribute the sound to the choices that Yasiin made with Psycho Les [and] the rest of the producers during production—and to David [Kennedy's] mixes. Whenever I recorded Yasiin's vocals, I tried to keep consistent to what I thought David was using, and for "Rock and Roll," I recorded the band with [a] punk aspect in mind, raw and energetic.

[Mos] had already recorded what would be the first two thirds of ["Rock n Roll"], and I guess he wanted to push the envelope a bit more. I walk into the studio, I see the drums being set up, and he explains to me what he wanted to do. Having played in rock clubs in the mid-to-late 80s, I offered to play the guitar. After a few minutes of him playing the lick he wanted, we did a couple of takes. The cherry on top, of course, was the line at the very end.

Kennedy: [During recording,] Yasiin started bringing in his crew of artists and musicians—like Weldon Irvine, Talib, Vinia Mojica, and Will.I.Am—to lend a hand. Weldon was a great source of inspiration and played on a number of tracks. John [Wydrycs] recorded and mixed when I wasn't needed. We had an extensive recording budget, and there was a constant flow of people coming in and out for various reasons. Some came to eat, hang, and play music, and others came to work, but it all lent to the flow of creative energies.

Ge-ology: "Brooklyn" was originally supposed to be a maxi single that Rawkus [Records] was gonna put out. It was just gonna be me and Mos. The way we recorded it [originally] and how it came out on the album—[it's] two different tracks, really. The original "Brooklyn" is Mos spitting three different verses on my beat. On the album, it's broken up into three different suites. My beat is the introduction beat, but that was not something that I approved of.

I was in DJ Spinna's house one day, and he had gotten the advance copy of the album. He was like, "Yo, your track is different. They did some changes to it." So, I listened to it and I was pissed off [laughs]. Mos was actually heading to [DJ Spinna's] house that day, so I basically ambushed Mos when he got there. Dante has been a friend of mine for a long time, so we used to hang tight. He could have easily told me, instead of me finding out that particular way. At the end of the day, he's an artist; it's his album. What he wants to happen with the song is gonna be the priority.

Kennedy: It came as a surprise to us that Yasiin wanted to merge the three different productions [on "Brooklyn"] into one composition, but you don't question genius. I just followed Yasiin's lead and made the edits. I was using Pro Tools at the time, so it was a simple one-two to piece together. I thought that Ge-ology's effort could have stood on its own, but it wasn't up to us, really.

Ge-ology: Sometimes people were classifying and putting Mos or Kweli in the "conscious rapper" category, not really understanding who these people were and what they were talking about. Often, people will try to put you in a box when they don't understand how diverse you are or how wide the range of your conversation can be. They were different from other cats, so people who weren't really understanding that conversation—they might have not been as receptive to it. In all art, anytime you're pushing the envelope forward or doing something different, sometimes it takes people to catch up to that.

Tagged:
Hip-Hop
Mos Def
yasiin bey
Oral History