Tag Archive: Mos Def


Hypnotic Brass Ensemble are eight brass playing brothers (and an unrelated drummer) from Chicago who are all the sons the jazz music legend Kelan Phillip Cohran who played in the original line-up of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in the 1950’s. The band grew up practicing their instruments from 6am every morning as children, when they reached their teens they all got into hip-hop spending their nights secretly listening to their new heroes Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and NWA. Eventually these two musical genres would be combined by the brothers when they decided to making a living busking in Chicago. Having honed their sound they moved to New York and soon caused a stir with the mesmerising live performances, which lead to performing alongside Mos Def and Erykah Badu. The songs played as part of those live sets became their self-titled debut album released in 2009, swiftly followed by guest appearances on ‘Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach’ and ‘Sweepstakes’ by Gorillaz. The band then went on the Gorillaz and their own world tour, emerging with two new releases in 2012, one a collaborative album with Cohran, the other a mini album called ‘Bulletproof Brass’.

All through their career to date Hypnotic Brass Ensemble have combined multiple musical genres and always experimented within said genres, ‘Fly’ is no different in this respect throwing guitars, synths, rapping, sung vocals and Latin drums and percussion into the mix. The album opens with ‘P.O.T.A.’, there’s a quick drum roll that brings in a parping horn riff that plays counterpoint to an ascending horn melody, it’s all underpinned with a head nodding hip-hop beat. Around two minutes in the trumpet breaks away from the other instruments to play an expressive solo, it provides a nice contrast to the mournful and strict parts of the track that preceded it. Next up is ‘Rebel Rousin’ which opens with a staccato horn riff playing over the slippery minimal bass line and drum break, a trumpet plays a staccato solo over the top.  There’s a great build up that reminds me of ‘Jungle Boogie’ by Kool and the Gang. The title track is the first of the three vocal tracks on album and features Aquilla Sadallah, it kicks off with a drum break put through a cool reverb, a Latin sounding trumpet riff and ‘la la la’ backing vocals. Then Sadallah drops in for his first rap verse which gives way to the laidback and smooth vocal lead chorus.

Next up its ‘Baggae Claim’ with its combination of hard head nodding beat, lilting rhythm guitar and bright interweaving brass riffs that up the track. Then the guitar falls away and the drums, sousaphone bass line and a staccato trumpet riff take over. There’s a little change up on the brass and the original section kicks in again. The saxophone takes a solo over the sousaphone, drums and guitar around one minute in. It’s a great example of how the band mix up hard and light sounds to stunning effect. ‘Navigator’ utilises a blunt beat and deep minimal sub bass to back the sharp attack of the brass section, then things back down to an 8 bit synth riff and deep voiced rap verse that are a complete stylistic change for the band. Next up is Exchange Rate’ that opens with a spoken word sample over subdued trumpet, then the rest of the brass section and beat drop in. All the instruments drop except drums, piano and a guitar which plays a solo. The brass returns with the sax playing its own solo.  It’s another departure for the band that hadn’t used guitar or piano on any of their track before this album. ‘Favela Funk’ is the second of the two Latin influenced tracks (the other one being ‘Fly’) and combines a fast percussion pattern play behind spritely trumpet and trombone riffs another trumpet solos over the top.

The addition of the Latin rhythms to the band’s sound works as they’re previous work suggested and the same can be said of adding the raps to their hip-hop influenced tracks. However, I’m totally convinced that the rappers and rapping feature on this album always gels well with the band’s tracks and though ‘Navigator’ would have been a solid track on many a hip-hop album the band don’t quite pull off the electronic organic hybrid. Despite these missteps “Fly” is an excellent addition to an impressive back catalogue.

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Mos Def – ‘Black on Both Sides’ (Rawkus Records, 1999)

This month we return to the (hip-hop) arena with Mos Def’s ‘Black on Both Sides’, an album that carried forth hip-hop’s legacy of social consciousness heralded by Gang Starr, Public Enemy and the Native Tongues collective and while it acknowledges its predecessors it is no mere retread. Ahead of the curve by half a decade ‘Black on Both Sides’’ organic soul-inflected sound points to the future of hip-hop, predating the style that Kanye West would make popular in 2004, and Jay Dilla’s involvement in the album’s production (though none of his tracks made the final cut) is significant to its sound and style, which overshadowed his own work until his untimely death in February 2006.

Though ‘Black on Both Sides’ features DJ Premier, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest), Ayatollah, Psycho Les (The Beatnuts), Diamond D, 88 Keys and contributions from jazz legend Weldon Irvine it is, compared to most hip-hop albums, an artist-focused release with Mos Def producing ‘Fear Not of Men’, co-producing ‘Umi Says’, ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘May-December’, providing additional production on ‘Hip Hop’, ‘Rock N Roll’, ‘Climb’ and ‘Mr. Nigga’ and contributing bass guitar on four tracks, percussion on two and keyboards, congas, sung vocals and drums elsewhere. Samples are expertly woven into the live instrumentation so there is no sign of where one begins and the other ends. Whether they be Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, David Axelrod’s jazz stylings, Eric B and Rakim classics, obscure Aretha Franklin a cappellas or James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ all are manipulated and shaped into the songs, creating a unified work. This and Mos Def’s level of involvement supplies a naturally expressive feel and raises the album above the imitations that followed, the most apparent being Kanye West’s appropriation. West also uses live instrumentation and sings and has made a point of speaking of his dedication to learning and improving his musical skills, particularly the piano in interviews. During the releases of his quartet of college themed albums West was praised for creating a new style of hip-hop but in retrospect this acclaim appears to be due to press hyperbole than truth. It is arguable that Kanye West, who, like Mos Def, inspired a wave of impersonators, created a similar sound to the one pioneered on ‘Black on Both Sides’ and by pitching his soul samples and adding his story it was endowed with critical and commercial successful.

Pervading throughout its sound and aesthetic ‘soulful’ is a key adjective for ‘Black on Both Sides’. ‘Fear Not of Men’ sees Mos Def philosophising about the state of hip-hop and society and in the final verse he discusses his religious beliefs while praising Allah. He continues this theme with a tribute to his mother ‘Umi Says’ and musing on death on ‘Mathematics’ (“Yo it is 6 Million Ways to Die from the seven deadly thrills/Eight-year olds gettin’ found with 9 mills”). It is as if his Islamic faith allows him to objectively deal with issues even when discussing controversial subjects: economics ‘New World Water’ and race ‘Mr. Nigga’ (“Some folks get on a plane go as they please/But I go over seas and I get over-seized, London Heathrow, me and my people/They think that illegal’s a synonym for negro/Far away places, customs agents flagrant/They think the dark face is smuggle weight in they cases/Bags inspected, now we arrested”). He sees no colour or nationalities and the human race is all one. Most rappers pre and post Mos Def have not managed to achieve or maintain this balance, often falling into the trap of creating a one-sided or overly aggressive stance to make a point and not wanting to be viewed as unable to hold his/her own. The wordy style he has been criticised for is integral to his individuality and the album. The complex subject matter of death, religion, race and politics needs an expansive lyrical approach yet such is his skill the verses never seem overcrowded.

Since its release the album’s influence on socially conscious hip-hop has been telling. In addition to Kanye West’s appropriation and expansion on Mos Def’s template, it led to greater success for his Black Star collaborator Talib Kweli and Kweli’s work with Mablib has garnered critical praise. Artists such as Wale, Lupe Fiasco and Kid Cudi have clearly been influenced by Mos Def and though not all of them have achieved similar commercial or critical acclaim they are evidence of Mos Def’s legacy and his ability to help sustain a thriving underground hip-hop scene.

Listen to the album on Grooveshark

February continued where January left off only upping the ante of quality releases.

Hot Chip proved yet again to be masters of studio and stage when they delivered their new album ‘One Life Stand’, which has been rightly hailed as their most consistent effort to date and features too many catchy tunes to count. Watching them perform at Leeds Academy I could see they had continued to exponentially improve their already impressive live shows. Hot Chip demonstrated they have gained the confidence to exhibit, without arrogance, a combination of songcraft, dynamics, performance and adaptation that hit the highest levels possible.

I also invested in a Rough Trade exclusive version of the Lindstrom and Christabelle album ‘Real Life is No Cool’, as mentioned in January’s post, and was delighted with the package that also included a second disc of six remixes and a third featuring Lindstrom’s (slightly over long and repetitive) version of the carol ‘Little Drummer Boy’. These New Puritans’ album is another essential purchase and has forced me to reassess this band and I will be revisiting their debut ‘Beat Pyramid’ on Spotify soon. I continued my spending spree on new music with Zombie Zombie member Etienne Jaumet’s album ‘Night Music’, which is a brilliant distillation of techno, krautrock and horror film music that spooks and thrills in equal measure.

I also caught up with couple of release from last year. The first being Mos Def’s ‘The Ecstatic’ which deserved a place on my ‘albums of 2009’ list. Though, like all of his albums, it has a New York feel, the key difference here is that it traverses from Bollywood to Nigeria and finds Mos eschewing his wordy rapping and long tangents for short, sharp bursts of sound. The second of these releases was ‘Inspiration Information Vol.3’ by Mulatu Astatke and The Heliocentrics, a combination of Astatke’s own genre Ethio-jazz (a fusion of jazz and traditional Ethiopian melodies and harmonies) and The Heliocentric’s blaxploitation style of funk. This is must for fans of African music, The Herbaliser and The Cinematic Orchestra. Astatke’s new album ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ is out on 29th March and features The Heliocentrics as guests. The quality present on ‘Inspiration Information Vol.3’ is at such high level, it’s another big recommendation.

Finally I rounded off the month with a couple of classic krautrock reissues in the form of Can’s ‘Tago Mago’, an incredible double album that veers from taut funk inspired rock to paranoid synths scapes over its duration. The other was ‘Pheadra’ by Tangerine Dream. An album that many credit as a major inspiration for ambient music and modern dance music producers including Lindstrom and Prins Thomas.

This months Spotify playlist:

February 2010 playlist

February 2010 playlist

To check out in March:

Errors – ‘Come Down with Me’ 1st March

Tuung – ‘And then we saw Land’  1st March

Gonjasufi – ‘A Sufi and a Killer’ 8th March

Gorillaz – ‘Plastic Beach’ 8thMarch

Liars – ‘Sisterworld’ 8th March

The Knife – ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ 8th March

Madlib – ‘Medicine Show Vol.3: Beat Konducta in Africa’ 22nd March

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh 29th March

Mulatu Astatke – ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ 29th March

Method Man/Ghostface/Raekwaon – ‘Wu Massacre’ 29th March.

Also plenty of posts to look forward to on this blog. I’ll be covering hip-hop culture, non-musicians and a new regular feature re-evaluating classic and cult albums of the past.

Albums of the Year 2009

  1. Animal Collective – ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’

  2. Moderat – ‘Moderat’

  3. Lindstrom and Prins Thomas – ‘II’

  4. NASA – ‘Spirit of Apollo’

  5. Black Moth Super Rainbow – ‘Eating Us’

  6. Mos Def – ‘The Ecstatic’

  7. Fuck Buttons – ‘Tarot Sport’

  8. Anti-Pop Consortium – ‘Flourescent Black’

  9. The XX – ‘The XX’

  10. Sunn O))) – ‘Monoliths and Dimensions’

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