Best Of '99: Black Star Heat Up Fans At Dry Concert

Rising Brooklyn, N.Y., hip-hop group requests no alcohol be served at club show, but delights crowd anyway.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, Feb. 3.]

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite the wintry chill outside, the climate inside the

Justice League Sunday night was strictly tropical for the second of two local shows by

rising rappers Black Star. Fueled by hundreds of bodies and little ventilation, the League

gets hot, wet and sticky, but on this night, the bar was fully dry.

A hip-hop show in a nightclub with no alcohol is like a Grateful Dead concert with no

weed, but a force mightier than liquor-driven profits transported the Justice League back

to the days of Prohibition.

'Twas the mighty Mos Def of Black Star who apologized for his request. But as both a

devout Muslim and concerned hip-hop mentor, he explained that they wanted a rap

audience that was "clear-headed."

While some may have grumbled that they couldn't get any gin with their juice, the bulk of

the crowd was appreciative, even amazed, that Mos Def convinced the League to forgo

its alcohol revenue. Of course, Black Star's sellout crowd Saturday — and near-capacity

crowd Sunday — helped ease the club's financial pain.

Black Star began the night with a shout out to their home borough, Brooklyn, N.Y.,

though Mos Def's partner, Talib Kweli, quickly gained favor with the crowd by

proclaiming, "I feel good, real good. Hella good!"

Then, while the group's DJ Hi Tek set up some beats on his turntables, Def and Kweli

started trading off freestyle rhymes that had the crowd cheering along with each clever

punchline.

In contrast to rappers who overwhelm their audiences with a flood of lyrics, Black Star

are far more informal, personal and playful. The two rappers include harmonized chants

in their performance while Mos Def is known for his rap scat. These variations did much

to avoid monotony as Black Star regularly surprised the crowd with sudden breaks and

colorful jokes.

Although Black Star have released only one album — Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are ...

Black Star — and a handful of singles, the crowd was well-versed in their repertoire.

The evidence came during Sunday night's version of "Astronomy" (RealAudio

excerpt) — the album's opening number. When Def and Kweli

hit the chorus, the crowd recited the hook, "We be shinin' and shinin'

when we rhymin' and rhymin'."

From there, Black Star quickly shifted into material spotlighting the vocal talents of each

rapper. Kweli took the lead on "Once In A Lifetime," and Mos Def handled "Universal

Magnetic B-Boy." During the latter, Mos Def kept stopping the song at the beginning,

building anticipation by repeating key phrases until he launched full-force into the

verses. The audience members closest to the stage responded by leaping in a frenzy to

the beat.

The group played much of the album, including the single, "Definition," its sequel,

"Redefinition" and the sublime "Respiration." Then, Mos Def took a tongue-in-cheek

break to give a quick lesson in tidal forces during a full moon, one having risen over the

club that night. The set also included a new song that began with a chant to "Free

Mumia," referring to activist and convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal — hip-hop's

current cause célèbre. Abu-Jamal's name was mentioned

throughout the night.

When the duo wrapped up "Brown-Skinned Lady" (RealAudio

excerpt), their ode to black women, the show seemed finished. But

they returned for an encore, bringing on De La Soul's Posdnous as a

surprise cameo.

A seminal force behind the positive, intelligent style of hip-hop that Black Star practice,

Pos was the perfect guest. Those fans wise enough to have stayed for the encore were

treated to two new songs featuring Pos and Black Star.

During an all-out freestyle session between the three rappers, Kweli won bonus points

for his line, "I never lose respect/ Like Jews never forget." The night ended — for real this

time — at 1:30 a.m. with Mos Def chanting "L-O-V-E."