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Lyric Analysis – “Hip Hop”, by Mos Def

Mos Def, Black on Both Sides‘Black on Both Sides’, from the artist formerly known as Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey, is one of my top-10 all-time albums, an absolute Hip Hop classic, without a single wasted track. It is a long album full of energy, character, and truth, with two distinct halves, in my opinion, that divide at “Umi Says”. The second half deepens what is laid out in the first half, with songs like “New World Water”, “Rock N Roll”, and “Mathematics” presenting themes of real substance (Water scarcity, racial cooptation, and (music) business numbers) while tracks like the music suite “Brooklyn” display Bey’s creative breadth. I’ve long been a fan of both his music (he’s one of my top 5 favorite emcees despite a relatively small catalog of work) and his acting career with great roles in movies like The Italian Job, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Something the Lord Made. In honor of the 15th anniversary of the album’s release this Sunday I’ll be laying out a lyric analysis of the its second track called simply “Hip Hop”. So hit the play button below and transport yourself back to October of 1999 as you follow along.

You say one for the treble, two for the time
Come on, y’all let’s rock this
You say one for the treble, two for the time
Come on

Speech is my hammer, bang the world into shape
Now let it fall
My restlessness is my nemesis
It’s hard to really chill and sit still
Committed to page, I write a rhyme
Sometimes won’t finish for days
Scrutinize my literature, from the large to the miniature
I mathematically add-minister, subtract the wack,
Selector, wheel it back, I’m feelin’ that
Ha, ha, ha, from the core to the perimeter black
You know the motto: stay fluid even in staccato
Mos Def, full-blooded, full throttle
Breathe deep inside the drum hollow
There’s the hum, young man where you from?
Brooklyn number one
Native son, speakin’ in the native tongue
I got my eyes on tomorrow, (there it is)
While you still try to follow where it is
I’m on the Ave where it lives and dies
Violently, silently
Shine so vibrantly that eyes squint to catch a glimpse
Embrace the bass with my dark ink fingertips
Used to speak the king’s Eng-a-lish
But caught a rash on my lips
So now my chat just like dis
Long range from the base line (swish!)
Move like an apparition
Float to the ground with ammunition
Chi, chi, chi, pow
Move from the gate, voice cued on your tape
Puttin’ food on your plate, many crews can relate
Who choosin’ your fate? yo,
We went from pickin’ cotton
To chain gang line choppin’, to Beboppin’, to Hip Hoppin’
Blues people got the blue chip stock option
Invisible man, got the whole world watchin’
Where ya at?
I’m high, low, east, west, all over your map
I’m gettin’ big props, with this thing called hip hop
Where you can either get paid or get shot
When your product in stock the fair weather friends flock
When your chart position drop then the phone calls
Chill for a minute, let’s see who else hot
Snatch your shelf spot, don’t gas yourself ock
The industry just a better built cell block
A long way from the shell tops
And the bells that L rocked, rock, rock
Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock
Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock

After the introductory “Fear Not of Man” sets up a narrative exploring the progress of the art form that we love so much (“We are Hip Hop – me, you everybody. So next time you ask yourself where Hip Hop is going, ask yourself where am I going, how am I doing.”), Yasiin jumps into this two-verse, no hook exploration of Hip Hop’s identity. Over a jumping beat from Diamond D, led by a sample of David Axelrod’s “The Warning Part II”, Bey creates a song filled and layered with references to novels, public figures and other rap songs. As an introductory lead-in, he kicks things off by stealing a line from Spoonie G’s “Spooning Rap”, a line so often used that it’s become part of Hip Hop vernacular, exactly the point that Yasiin is making with the reference.

One for the treble, two for the time
Come on y’all, let’s rock this
One for the treble, two for the time
Come on y’all, let’s rock this

He then drops one of my favorite opening lines ever.

Speech is my hammer
Bang the world into shape, then let it fall (hungh!)

The concept of Yasiin’s speech being his hammer is a reference to the song from the 1950’s by Pete Seeger (and re-recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 60’s) “If I Had a Hammer”, a song of protest, support for the progressive movement and specifically support for the working man and labor unions. The hammer is a strong symbol, a tool of creation and construction and Bey’s hammer is his words.Sterling Brown's 'Southern Road', referenced by the mighty Mos Def
The “hungh!” adlib that punctuates the end of the line and is repeated periodically throughout the verse is a device of rhythm and a reference of its own to Sterling Brown’s poem “Southern Road”, with the “hungh”s there being the rhythmic punctuation of a broken man on a chain gang.

Write a rhyme, sometimes won’t finish for days
Scrutinize my literature, from the large to the miniature

These lines speak keenly to me as a writer/rapper who constantly edits. My style is a bit strange in that I’ll often leave a space in a line waiting for a particular word to strike me that fits correctly and a spot in a verse where I know a line or two will go and for which I have a general idea of shape but that may not come to me until days or weeks later. Somewhat sadly, it seems that writers of this nature are becoming more and more scarce in Hip Hop, even frowned upon in some circles as the genre’s perceived love for writing a verse in the studio and “one-taking it” has become the more prevalent goal.

Begun in the first verse and more concentrated in the second is the theme of polarities, presenting a vivid and complicated portrait of Hip Hop with their contrasts.

I mathematically add-minister
Subtract the wack, selector wheel it back, I’m feeling that
(Ha Ha ha) From the core to the perimeter, black, you know the motto
Stay fluid even in staccato

Great use of the math terms together and in contrast. It’s also a good spot to see the musical/beat touches that add a particular character to his songs. As he raps the “selector, wheel it back” line the beat does just that, emulating the sound of a dj spinning the record back. Small touches like this one and later on dropping out the beat on certain words for rhythmic emphasis, are a signature of this album and Yasiin’s early work in general. His contrasting math terms are the first in a string of polarities (“core to the permeter”, “fluid even in staccato”). The second verse really jumps on the contrast theme, expressing the complex nature of the Hip Hop music industry at the end of the 90’s.
“Stay fluid even in staccato” is one of my favorite Mos lines. He uses the musical terms to create a double entendre- the need to ride the beat and keep one’s artistic flow moving fluidly even (and I’d add especially) when the beat gets staccato translates well as a general life philosophy.  It’s a pretty awesome motto. Perhaps I’ll get it tattooed on my perimeter.

Young man, where you from?
Brooklyn Number One
Native Son, speaking in the native tongue
I got my eyes on tomorrow (there it is)

Yasiin is strongly Brooklyn (and really, can one not be strongly BK?) and he makes his first shout-out to his city before stringing together a pair of references to works focused on black disenfranchisement. First up is Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son”, the tale set in 1930’s Chicago of Bigger Thomas and the forces at play around him, followed quickly by ‘Eyes on Tomorrow’,  a 1991 album by singer Miriam Makeba of South Africa, the country where Bey now makes his home.Richard Wright's 'Native Son', referenced by the mighty Mos Def
There’s something I really like about the “there it is” dub.  Not sure why, maybe because of the immediacy of seeing tomorrow, like we’re perched on the edge of dawn, maybe it’s the crew-sounding chorus that gives it just the right feel for a reason I can’t pinpoint.  I’m telling you- taking nothing away from his lyrical prowess and proficiency, sometimes it is the small details that make just the right difference on his tracks.

HIP HOP UPDATE: (11/11/14) I just learned that the “there it is” lib is a derivation from Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper” (at about the 2:11 mark), which was then sampled on the Beastie Boys’ “The New Style”.  Sometimes these rivers run deeper than you think.

While you still try to follow where it is
I’m on the Ave where it lives and dies
Violently, silently

Whether he’s talking about “tomorrow” as the “it”, which would be the more literal translation given its mention in the line before, or “Hip Hop”, the song’s unspoken protagonist, or “Hip Hop’s tomorrow”, is there really all that much difference given the song’s themes?  He sets up another contrast between those only concerned with “where it is” and those, like himself, who are watching for how it grows, lives and dies, both violently and silently, another contrast of its own.

Shine so vibrantly that eyes squint to catch a glimpse

This is simply a great line. I imagine I’ll be stealing it at some point for a verse or as advice to my future children.  And it sets up the rhyme pattern that comes out in “fingertips”, “King’s En-ga-lish”, and “just like this/dis”.  He then also carries the one line farther through the use of “swish” in the dub.  And how can we ignore yet more contrasts, of shining so vibrantly with “dark ink fingertips”, and of making the move from the King’s English to Patois?

ch-ch-Pow!
Move from the gate
Voiced cued on your tape
Putting food on your plate

Here Bey snatches the final line of Raekwon’s verse in “C.R.E.A.M.” Rae is talking about his life as a drug dealer pre-Rap and “Move from the gate” means moving beyond the traphouse and moving on from the lifestyle. When Mos uses it he is making the same point of moving on from “the gate” to the music industry (“voice cued on your tape”), not himself but the art form as a whole moving from drug dealing as primary income to rapping (“putting food on your plate”). “Many crews can relate,” he says and then quickly calls into question the new ground on which so many are making their new home.

Who choosin’ your fate? yo,
We went from pickin’ cotton
To chain gang line choppin’, to Beboppin’, to Hip Hoppin’

These next four phrases are a concise snapshot of an evolution of black people in America – “picking cotton”, “chain gang”, “be-bopping” with jazz and then “hiphopping” – that sees them never in charge of their own fate and positing that the Hip Hop music industry is no different, “a better built cell block” he later calls it.

Blues people got the blue chip stock option
Invisible man, got the whole world watchin’

These two lines build on the two before them, adding a layer of complexity to the narrative through references to two seminal African-American works of literature.  ‘Blues People’ is a 1963 work by LaRoi Jones (real name Amiri Baraka) that closely links the evolution of black folks in America and their music, and studies the grand effect that music has had in shaping American culture and ‘Invisible Man‘ is the 1953 National Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man', referenced by the mighty Mos DefBook Award winner by Ralph Ellison.  Bey uses these earlier works to call into question the present condition- with Hip Hop the Blues People now have “blue chip stock options” and “got the whole world watching” but does that equate to actual social advancement or is it cooptation veiled as a recording contract?  This slightly ironic tone is continued as he asks,

Where you at?
I’m high, low, east, west, all over your map
Getting big props with this thing called Hip Hop

The amped-up feeling of these lines is in direct opposition to the “don’t gas yourself, ock” below and the reason for the change is the lines in between.

Where you can either get paid or get shot
When your product’s in stock the fair-weather friends flock
When your chart position drop then the phone calls (chiiiiill)
Chill for a minute, let’s see who else hot
Snatch your shelf spot

Coupled with a well-placed beat drop out that allows the rhythm in these finely crafted lines to be accentuated, Yasiin here presents the contrast that is central to the rapper-as-commodity critique, an often fickle industry that can quickly take an artist from one extreme to another in terms of success and with little degree of control on their behalf.  It’s this disposable nature that leads to his deepest indictment of the industry labelling it a “better-built cell block”.

A long way from the shelltops and the bells that L rocked, rock rock rock

He ends the verse with a three old school references in one line- Run DMC with the shelltops, LL Cool J with “Rock the Bells” and Afrika Bamabataa’s “Planet Rock” as the influence for the closing repeated “rock”s.  In a short time (13 years since “Rock the Bells”) Hip Hop has traveled “a long way”, says Mos, and not necessarily always in the best of directions.  And while it would seem then that this track is a statement on the things wrong with Hip Hop, that would be inaccurate.  In both tone and lyric, it speaks in admiration of our beloved art form while simultaneously raising questions about where it has gotten to and where it has yet to go.  The second verse continues the contrasting conceptualizations of what Hip Hop is and the role(s) it serves and is well worth an exploration of its own.  But this opening verse not only sets up the album as a whole but lays out themes and issues that would be part of Bey’s artistic expression long after his debut release.  While his three later albums are less well-known, with ‘Black on Both Sides’ specifically Bey has left an edible mark on Hip Hop while continuously championing its evolution.

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