When I was 13 years old I was enrolled in Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. To get to school every day I would take a dollar van from Flatbush Ave and Avenue K to the “junction” train station at Flatbush & Nostrand Ave. I’d hop the turnstile and take the number 2 or 5 train to Atlantic Ave. From there I would walk to Brooklyn Tech, check in for homeroom, leave out a side door and head to the McDonald's on Flatbush and Fulton St. This is where my real education began.
Rather than attend classes, my crew and I would sit in that McDonald's for hours, banging on the tables and rapping. If we did head back to school, it was only for the lunch periods so that we could battle other MC’s in the cafeteria. We didn’t limit ourselves to Brooklyn Tech either, we would travel to high schools all over the city like John Dewey, George Westinghouse and Martin Luther King High just to sharpen our lyrical swords. Actually, it was to meet girls, but the sharpening of our skills happened as well. We were serious about our craft and we compared ourselves not to amateurs, but to successful MC’s who were doing it for a living.
We had long, intense conversations about all things hip-hop. Why doesn’t Ice Cube get more props for his writing? Is Sweet Tee really dating Special Ed? Did you hear about KRS throwing Prince Be off stage for making remarks about MC’s who “think they’re teachers” in Details magazine? Hip-hop was an underground club, a family. You had to be down by law to know the language and the personalities. No group of artists made me feel more a part of the hip-hop family than the Native Tongues crew. At a time when even the realest hip-hop personalities seemed like caricatures of themselves at best, the Native Tongues crew came through and made me feel like it was okay to just be myself.
The Native Tongues crew boasted an original core membership of Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. The second wave included Black Sheep, Chi Ali, The Beatnuts, Queen Latifah and Monie Love. Acts that were affiliated through the years included Brand Nubian, Pete Rock, Leaders Of the New School, Resident Alien, Kid Hood, Shorty No Mas and years later Common and Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey. The core, original members of Native Tongues — JB, De La and Tribe — shared a common vision when it came to music and fashion. They all had late 80s, downtown New York City afrocentric sensibilities that permeated both the music that they made and the clothes that they wore. As they brought in more artists, it became clear that it wasn’t mandatory to dress like De La Soul were to be in the Native Tongues, you just had to be true to yourself. The bond that this incredible group of artists had was a musical one and it inspired me to no end. To see Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest talk about “banging on the tables” at Murray Bergtraum High in Michael Rapaport’s documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life was a full circle moment for me.
In1997, I was making a name for myself as a young up and coming MC in the underground scene in New York City. My main goal at the time was to prove myself to Danny Castro and Anthony Marshall, two hip-hop heads with entrepreneurial spirit that started a roaming event called Lyricist Lounge. Artists who performed well at the Lyricist Lounge often went on to secure record deals, and I felt that I was at least as good as many of the artists who performed regularly. After months of slaying open mics, I finally got my shot, and once I performed at the Lounge, they asked me to keep coming back. Danny and Anthony would always have an established artist hosting each event, and it was often a member of the Native Tongues crew. The moments that established my career trajectory were overseen by Q-Tip and De La Soul.
My debut album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, is soaked in the influence of the Native Tongues crew. It is quite literally our take on what De La, Tribe and Jungle Brothers were doing years before us, with a little Big Daddy Kane/Slick Rick/Rakim-esque lyricism thrown in for good measure. It is widely hailed as a hip-hop classic and even though it came out in 1998, it is, to this day, the album I am most asked about and associated with. It doesn’t matter that both Yasiin Bey and I have put out several albums that have all outsold the Black Star album, it continues to resonate the most in the hearts of the fans, regardless of record sales. Black Star was released on Rawkus Entertainment, a company that became famous for putting out records that celebrated the underground, independent hip hop aesthetic. When Black Star succeeded, Rawkus made money. Its founders — Jarret Myer and Brian Brater — began to reach out to their favorite MC’s looking for other albums to press up. One of the first MC’s that was signed to Rawkus after the success of Black Star was legendary Queens MC Pharoahe Monch.
Pharoahe Monch and I are close in age, but he was already a vet when I met him. He dropped two stellar albums with his group Organized Konfusion and by 1999 he was technically the most lyrically talented MC, in my opinion. There are not many that I feel have the ability to possibly best me when it comes to writing lyrics; the list is short, maybe 5 people. Pharaoh is on that list. However Pharoahe is also a producer and his Rawkus debut, Internal Affairs, boasts one of the best produced songs ever created, “Simon Says.” Riding a Godzilla sample like a demon steed through hell, Pharoahe Monch made the first underground Rawkus-era song to go mainstream. To this day, “Simon Says” will rock any club, at any time. Last year I saw Tommy Lee of Motley Crue performing his solo over “Simon Says” during their farewell tour. Yeah.