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Just Awake, Dog

Mos Def and Talib Kweli speak from the shadows

By Karl Byrn

Chart-topping rapper Missy Elliott's terrific string of recent hits are catchy because they're weird, with sideways bleats and beats that are unlike anything else on hit radio. Up-and-coming Definitive Jux rapper Murs works both on an indie label and with P. Diddy. The most acclaimed new rappers this year are British: Dizzee Rascal, who's as much techno-hybrid as rap, and the Streets' Mike Skinner, who's white and loopy.

Just when did alternative hip-hop start straddling the status quo of mainstream hip-hop success?

The dateline for underground hip-hop's shift isn't a decisively marked point like alternative rock's moment of acceptance into the mainstream. Alt-rock thrived in the margins in the '80s, hosted by indie record labels, college radio and punks touring in vans. Nirvana's megaselling Nevermind blew alt-rock's options open in the early '90s with an indie-to-mainstream point from which major labels pushed middle-of-the-road acts like Matchbox Twenty and Third Eye Blind as some sort of "alternative."

Indie/underground hip-hop has similarly thrived with small labels, college radio and artists' self-distributed mix-tapes. But without a single Nevermind to pinpoint, a phenomenon similar to alt-rock's shift is finding indie and "conscious" rappers in the forefront of current hip-hop. Alt-hip-hop has lately found itself with not only bestsellers but also an unclear new direction.

What is alternative hip-hop? For the genre's 20-plus years, that idea has encompassed a broad counterpoint to brutal gangsta gruffness and lap-of-luxury bling-bling hits. Alt-hip-hop has included the self-awareness preaching of KRS-1, the collegiate giddiness of De La Soul, the surrealism of DJs like Kool Keith and El-P, the biting black-power politics of Dead Prez and the expert scratching of Rob Swift. If it's not what the average teen hip-hopper knows, it's alt-hip-hop.

Like many current rappers, Mos Def and Talib Kweli find themselves with one foot in the underground and one foot in the mainstream. Hailing from the late '90s New York indie duo Black Star, Def and Kweli have both just released their sophomore discs. As of the last week in October, Def had debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, with Kweli holding strong at No. 41 after three weeks. Less than a handful of household-name rappers like LL Cool J and Queen Latifah are sandwiched in between.

Def's market presence as a film actor surely helped his disc The New Danger (Geffen) sell well, but the album seems built to confuse and confound.

He flirts with ugly irony in the work's central image--that of himself donning blackface. Stretching into murky, uncentered cracks like stoned jazz, sludgy rap-metal and fair-to-middlin' blues, the tracks seem marked by a deliberate absence of strong wordplay. When Def realizes that rock guitar and jazz vocals are not his calling card, he returns to his deft rhyming skills; cuts like "Sunshine" and "Grown Man Business" ring and flow with the soft and dirty soul of the projects. The New Danger is frustrating and incomplete, but in its haziness, there's still Mos Def asserting his right to play with the boundaries of his identity.

Talib Kweli is more assured of his angle. He's one of hip-hop's top go-to guys for guest-rapper credibility. He wants the mainstream, and he doesn't need to alter himself for it. But like Def, he wants to be seen as a serious artist. On his latest, The Beautiful Struggle (Rawkus), Kweli notes, "If lyrics sold, then truth be told / I'd probably be just as rich and famous as Jay-Z," as if knowing that his skills at wordplay and social commentary are impeccable. So he sticks with those strengths while also crafting an album built for pop consumption; from two duets with soulstress Mary J. Blige to pop-rock dance showstoppers like "We Got the Beat," The Beautiful Struggle is both snappy and topical.

If Kweli has found pop suitable to the manic verbosity of Black Star, and Def has found himself adrift, then both may still be on a path to alt-hip-hop's next move. They both hint at dissatisfaction with being cornered as alt-heroes--as Def says, "Stop with the nonsense, like 'He conscious' / I'm just awake, dog." But their connection in a conscious community is deeper.

Both artists purposefully reference Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's classic song "The Message" (Kweli's "Broken Glass" and Def's "Close Edge"), an uneasy slice of ghetto realism that brought hip-hop into pop awareness. For the rap duo formerly known as Black Star, "The Message" is a reminder that hip-hop's success is still hip-hop's struggle, that the loudest voices still come from the shadows.

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From the November 10-16, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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