Black Star Shoot For Hip-Hop Higher Ground

Duo of Mos Def and Talib Kweli looks to keep its street credibility while finding mass appeal.

Few underground hip-hop groups manage to reach the pop limelight without losing the street credibility that got them there in the first place.

Rising rap duo Black Star know that.

And duo member Mos Def, at least, has an idea of what to do about it.

"I'd like to think of us as the modern-day hip-hop equivalent of Steely Dan," Mos Def said, referring to the popular '70s jazz-tinged rock act. "Our music is a little more challenging and has a little more texture and structure to it -- but it's still accessible."

As their visibility increases rapidly, thanks in part to their debut album Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are ... Black Star, Black Star are all too aware that their core identity -- smart, socially conscious, politically aware rap artists -- could get lost in the glare of mass acceptance. "It's good to have people appreciate what you do," Mos Def said, "[but] it's hard to see whether people are interested in you or just interested in what they think you are."

So, because they want to do two things -- reach a lot of people and retain their undiluted message -- Black Star face the challenge of making their music both commercially viable and artistically honest, he added.

The rappers' first attempts are audible on their debut, which mixes accessible music with insightful commentary on black art and politics.

Just a scant six months ago, Black Star were critically acclaimed but commercially unknown.

Both longtime residents of Brooklyn, N.Y., Mos Def (born Dante Beze), 25, and Talib Kweli, 25, came upon their musical chemistry by accident. A demo tape of Kweli came into Mos Def's possession, but was lost until the latter's young son found it one day and started to listen to it.

"I realized it was Kweli," Mos Def said. "I was immediately impressed. I had heard his stuff before, and I always thought he was a great lyricist. But I had seen how he just expanded by leaps and bounds."

Kweli is somewhat surprised by the duo's recent popularity. In an era when most rap has stormed pop's main stage only through lowest-common-denominator content, Black Star take an intelligent, articulate approach, reflecting more of the barbed poetics of influential black writers Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones) and Langston Hughes than standard hip-hop calls to "get jiggy with it."

Black Star describe their new album, which includes such thoughtful raps as "Brown Skin Lady" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Twice Inna Lifetime" (RealAudio excerpt), as "conscious music." And historically, Kweli said, "the problem that people associate with conscious music is that it's too over people's heads and everything, and that nobody wants to hear that."

The Black Star album is a celebration of black art, politics and community, drawing sustenance from the '60s Black Power era and its trailblazers. On their opening song, "Astronomy" (RealAudio excerpt), Kweli and Mos Def run through a short litany of African-American cultural and religious icons, reflecting the group's spiritual and intellectual heritage: "I love rockin' beats like Coltrane loved Naima/ Like the student love the teacher/ Like the Prophet loved Khadija/ Like I love my baby's features/ Like the Creator loves all creatures."

"It's clear that they're well versed in black-nationalist and black-culturalist positions on art," said Jeff "Zen" Chang, respected music critic and editor of Colorlines, a critical race-and-culture magazine. "But they don't necessarily try to make like they're smarter than anybody else with this stuff. They're very coy and very direct about the politics they are playing for."

Kweli complains that it's been difficult for hip-hop to achieve a balance of accessibility and artistic integrity. "One of the weird ways that they always control music, especially black music, is to separate it into different categories," he said. "You place one music against another." The solution, Kweli added, is to "make music that can't be fronted on. I think Lauryn [Hill] achieved that, which is why she's such a great example. I think hip-hop can achieve that too, and that's what we struggle for."

Like Hill, Black Star exude a down-to-earth congeniality that belies their growing celebrity status. While they may be treated as hip-hop superheroes, they don't act like them.

"I liked working with them because we created songs together, we worked as a team. They don't direct their producers or anything," said J-Rawls, who's produced for Black Star and is slated to work on Mos Def's upcoming solo LP. "Plus, in the studio, it was real laid-back, having fun, laughing, cracking on each other, just chillin'."

But to Black Star, starting a committed career in the music business is serious business. "It's almost as if you've got to be careful of what you ask for," Kweli said. "I used to have idle days when I would just sit there and wish 'I wanna rhyme every day of my life ... I just wanna rhyme and be in the studio.' And now God was like, 'A'ight, bet. Let's see!'"