The last half of the 1990s was a period of major transition in hip-hop.
The game’s two biggest stars were gunned down and the genre’s mightiest record label crumbled.
From the ashes rose the shiny suit era, but there was something else bubbling underground. A cadre of small, independent record labels began releasing all types of rap as an entire new class of young, hungry artists burst onto the scene.
One of those labels was Rawkus Records and its roster included one of those artists, Mos Def.
After its founding in 1995, Rawkus “signed some of the top underground talent from the New York area,” whose sounds “helped initiate a resurgence in the New York/East Coast sound. Many of these are considered classics among hip-hop aficionados. During the mid to late 1990s, Rawkus became a dominant label in the underground hip-hop scene, producing a string of gold albums and a platinum album.”
The label’s pinnacle came in 1999, a time when fans didn’t use net worth to define an artist’s skill and many still considered selling out to be a sin. Six months after Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star and six months before Mos’s own debut, Black on Both Sides (the only platinum release in the label’s history), Rawkus released its classic compilation, Soundbombing II. The LP climbed all the way to number 30 on the Billboard 200, thanks to featuring a lineup of soon-to-be household names like Eminem, Common, Company Flow, Mad Skillz, and Mos Def.
Right after Eminem’s “Any Man,” comes “B-Boy Document ‘99,” by The High & Mighty, a duo from Philly and featuring two guest lyricists that would eventually change their names – Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Skillz, who was known as Mad Skillz at the time.
Taking its name from the Krown Rulers’ 1987 classic of the same name, “B-Boy Document ‘99” was featured on both Soundbombing II and The High & Mighty’s debut, Home Field Advantage, but it reached a wider – and different – audience than many Rawkus releases by being featured on the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 soundtrack.
While it’s a High & Mighty track and Skillz has some incredible lines (“For you lame cats trying to put your hit out/Try rocking back and forth: It might be easier to get your shit out”), Mos Def owns, devours, and buries the track before anyone else can even have a chance to touch the microphone.
He kicks it off with a classic verse featuring a breathless flow that changes speed, pitch and cadence, beginning first with densely packed staccato rhymes:
“It’s the high power original, b-boy traditional/Raw bass material, Brooklyn individual/True grand imperial you’re hearing on your stereo”
before transitioning into an in-and-out flow that weaves through the track effortlessly:
“Mentally and physical/Strength is indivisible, crews be coming pitiful/Speech be sounding typical, downfall habitual/Akh, I’m not feeling you!”
before returning to stacked internal rhymes that incorporate wordplay and morph words that shouldn’t really rhyme:
“I can flow/You can’t though/Example/Of a cat who’s just a modern day Sambo/Who be bitching out to A&R demands, so/You can collect your little petty cash advance, ho”
and finishing with a tongue-twister that spelled out his position on the commercial versus underground divide:
“You knock-kneed and sloppy, but not me/I’m I-N-D, E-P-E, N-D-E-N-T.”
If he had stopped there, Mos Def’s performance would’ve been memorable, but he then decided to cap off it off with a hook that somehow managed to match his verse:
“It was a jam at the center and the party was shaking/And the poppers was popping and the breakers was breaking/And it won’t be long ’til everybody knows that/B-boys rock the document”
Skillz and Mr. Eon both do their best, but neither had a realistic chance to outshine Mos.
It’s not his most famous song or performance and it doesn’t even appear on any of his own releases, but Mos Def’s performance on “B-Boy Document ’99” is still astounding more than two decades later.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Connect on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.