When Mos Def and Talib Kweli dropped their Black Star project in ‘98 on Rawkus, the album became one of several that reignited my interest in hip hop and saw me take the first baby steps towards becoming the geeky blogger that I am today. For a lot of people reading this I imagine that this album was celebrated for its return to b boy values and a more socially conscious outlook, but for me at that time it was simply some dope hip hop shit the likes of which I hadn’t heard before. References to BDP and Slick Rick were lost on my sixteen year old ears, but I knew that I had found something that felt creative, honest and musically engaging. As the years have passed by, my passion for the album has actually decreased, but it endures as a work that played a seminal role in my engagement with hip hop culture and as such will always maintain a special place in my heart.
According to the liner notes, ‘Brown Skin Lady’ was in fact the first song that Mos and Kweli recorded as Black Star, a beautiful ode to the ‘kind of girl you meet at a 4th of July backyard cookout and she’s wearing like a real pretty floral dress and she’s just real real nice’. Although this experience unfortunately passed me by as a North London dwelling teenager, it’s a fitting image to accompany the song and it encapsulates the easy, laid back vibe of the track which seems to drip with a sense of warm ghetto nostalgia. One of the two J Rawls’ contributions to the LP, ‘Brown Skin Lady’ remains one of my favourite songs from the album for it embodies the aesthetic that the Brooklyn duo tried to capture on the album: it’s what Mos Def and Talib Kweli aresupposed to sound like.
J Rawls does a fantastic job with the beat, sampling Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’ to devastating effect. The song comes from his album with long time collaborator Brian Jackson entitled Bridges, an infectiously cool track laced with lilting guitar riffs and some subtle electronic twists. As I’ve mentioned before, my knowledge of Scott-Heron’s body of work is relatively limited, but what I do know is that every time I come across a song like this it makes me wonder why the hell I haven’t already submerged myself in his full discography. I gotta get my act together on this one…
Back to the beat. Taking various chops from the opening of the first verse (check for the sample around the half minute mark), J Rawls successfully rearranges the guitar track to create a suitably nostalgic feeling beat that acts as the perfect accompaniment to Mos’ and Kweli’s musings on a particular brand of ghetto hotty. His use of the electronic sounds that open the Gill Scott-Heron original are well placed and add another layer of interest that slips cohesively into the mix, thus demonstrating that this is much more than a simple drums and loop composition. To add to this, the numerous changes in the groove throughout help maintain a steady pace and keep the beat feeling pleasingly organic.
Even in the depths of the British winter, ‘Brown Skin Lady’ makes me feel like the sun is setting on a warm summer’s night as I take a slug from a nice cold beer. With temperatures now hovering around freezing that’s no mean feat, and it’s a testament to the easy mood created by the song. Imagine it’s still August and ignore the winter: ‘Brown Skin Lady’ will help get you there.