Released just over 23 years ago, “Hip Hop” sits at the epicenter of Mos Def’s classic debut, Black On Both Sides. For our latest Behind the Beat, Thomas Hobbs spoke with Diamond D, the mastermind behind the classic track.
Diamond D headed to the Rawkus studio over on 676 Broadway. He was excited to work with Mos Def after sending him a beat he knew the rapper would be perfect on — a belief that was confirmed when D finally arrived and saw Mos (now known as Yasiin Bey) smiling from ear-to-ear. Mighty Mos wanted to call the song “Hip Hop” and had even laid down a bassline.
“His bass was so fucking funky,” the legendary Bronx producer and MC said during a late night phone call. “With ‘Hip Hop,’ I knew almost instantly we had something special. That’s not even talking about the raps.”
Released just over 23 years ago, “Hip Hop” sits at the epicenter of Mos Def’s classic debut, Black On Both Sides. It’s a hailing thunderstorm of intellect from Mos Def, powerfully articulating how hip-hop pulses through the dark veins of America: “We went from picking cotton to chain gang line chopping / to be-bopping, to hip-hopping.” A pledge to “bang the world into shape” with raps that carry the force of a hammer, the Black Star MC spits with the fiery clarity of a Stokely Carmichael speech. He’s a force of nature, moving like an apparition and warning his people of the pitfalls of late capitalism.
But while these raps reach transcendent heights, the song would be nothing without Diamond D’s pitch-perfect beat. By sampling a cross-section of rap classics from artists like Run DMC (“Peter Piper”), The Beastie Boys (“The New Style”), and the Wu Tang Clan (“C.R.E.A.M”), among others, D created a living, breathing monument that echoed the essence of hip-hop itself.
“The ‘Hip Hop’ beat was a history lesson that wasn’t boring,” D said, letting out a hoarse laugh. “I guess my beat inspired Mos Def to reflect a little on hip-hop’s journey.”
To truly understand what led to Diamond D crafting the best beat on Black On Both Sides, it’s important to retrace his own steps into the game. Raised in the Bronx’s Forest Houses projects, an early love of music kept D out of trouble. From the age of six, he could be found at his grandma’s house, combing through an extensive soul, funk and jazz record collection, transfixed by all of the artwork. As he got older, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of hip-hop pioneers (and fellow Forest Houses natives) Grand Wizard Theodore and Lovebug Starski, as well as others like Melle Mel.
“Music kept me on the straight and narrow, shifting my focus from negative activities to positive ones,” he said.
Going to a catholic school meant D encountered a lot of discipline, even being put into detention if he was only a minute late to class. But hip-hop became his true religion. When he wasn’t in class, a teenage D would sneak off to block parties, where he’d break dance and do the electric boogie, as well as study the break beats DJs used.
“The early rap records were using break beats from ‘The Mexican’ by Babe Ruth, and ‘Scratching’ by Magic Disco Machine,” he recalled. “They were taking from all genres of music, so I knew I needed to dig even deeper into the crates.”
Soaking up lessons from mentor Jazzy Jay, D continued to dig deep. If his peers were sampling James Brown, he’d try and find something that separated himself from the pack. Such was the case with his 1989 beat for Ultimate Force’s “I’m Not Playing,” which channeled the smoky nonchalance of blues guitar maestro Albert King’s “Cold Feet.”
“I was the first producer to make the marriage between blues and hip-hop, and show they carried the same attitude and pain as one another,” he said. “After I did that Ultimate Force record, Chubb Rock and Howie Tee used the same Albert King sample. It gave me the confidence that I was onto something good and could really turn people’s heads.”
Although he primarily saw himself as a producer, D was encouraged to start rapping by friends. He subsequently cemented his rapping ability with an eternally wise guest appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Show Business,” as well as his own classic major label debut, Stunts, Blunts, and Hip Hop, which included some of the very first appearances of future legends like Fat Joe, Big L, and Showbiz and A.G. (all fellow members of the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew crew).
D proved to be the effective rapper-producer archetype that so many others would emulate. He balanced socially conscious ghetto fables (“Sally Got A One Track Mind”) with a wicked sense of humor — his line “‘cause like a fly I’m on some other shit” from “What You Seek” will never not be funny — that was delivered in a naturally laidback flow, all atop infectiously raw beats that deftly combined samples of forgotten funk b-sides with cartoon theme songs.
The excellent 1997 follow-up, Hatred, Passions and Infidelity, saw D continue to innovate with the boom bap sound. He also continued to be a formidable rapper, making good on the pledge to be “the best producer on the mic,” as he declared on his show-stealing guest verse for The Fugees’ “The Score.” This is a stance he maintains to this day.
“If you don’t write your rhymes, you are out of the equation, period,” he said. “That cancels out a lot of your favorite people who claim to be rappers/producers.”
Outside of these solo albums, D amassed a fascinating production discography across the ‘90s. Big Pun threatened to “snatch the moon out the sky” over the cursed drums of Fat Joe’s “Watch Out.” Big L taunted rivals who had never carried out bank heists over a hypnotic, shivery piano on D.I.T.C’s “Day One.” And Ras Kass eviscerated rap’s excesses by “pissing in your crystal bottles” over the spooked out, Hitchcockian theatrics of the “Soul on Ice Remix.” Although these are just three examples, they reflect the fact that MCs tended to produce their very best performances over Diamond D’s beats.
This brings it back to Mos Def. D had already met Mos Def back when he was a rookie and part of the underground group Urban Thermo Dynamics. By the time the rapper was readying his debut at the tail end of the ‘90s, he was seen as the new emperor of conscious rap — and D wanted to be a part of the story. For the “Hip Hop” beat, he sampled the late David Axelrod’s “The Warnings Part II,” a psychedelic conceptual rock opera that dealt in apocalyptic themes, and howls of ancient gods pointing out the broken foundations of our world.
D had long been obsessed with a certain part of the song. At the 1:22 mark, the saxophone and piano fuse in a way that is rousing and electrifying. It’s the sound of triumph over adversity, David standing up to Goliath. When D looped it up, he knew Mos Def would sound emboldened over the top.
“‘Hip Hop’ is a special beat because it solidified me and David Anxlrod becoming close friends,” D shared. “He liked the way I manipulated his music, and that really blew me away. David would phone me up and we would just talk about music.”
Aside from his production, D said “Hip Hop” retains such a powerful punch today because of the harsh truths that Mos shared about inequality in America. When he isn’t referencing Ralph Ellison novels, the MC is presciently talking about rap lyrics being used to prosecute rappers in court, and the music industry being “just a better built cell block.” The lyrics serve as a manual to stop Black artists from being screwed over by the major label system and falling into its trap doors of snitches, bloodsuckers, and dreaded 360-deals.
“It was like Mos Def had a crystal ball, because so much of what he said on that song is still happening today,” D said. “He knew the industry wasn’t created to benefit the artists, and also that rappers were being tricked into snitching on themselves.
“If you look at rap right now, the game is fucked up,” D added. “You got rappers showing guns on Instagram. I got shot in my head, but you never heard about it in a Diamond D song. I’ve been stabbed, I did my share of dirt. But why should that be glorified? Me and Mos came from the school of thought that you shouldn’t put all that out into the music. If you keep telling the world what a big cocaine dealer and gangster you are, then the people from that lifestyle are going to try to test you at your shows.”
“Hip Hop” is one of those foundational songs that tend to get outsiders interested in rap music. Just like how D highlighted the ties between rap and the blues back in 1989, the song’s power can be found in the way it taps into jazz in such a beautiful way, showing the connection between jazz improvisation and hip-hop freestyling.
“Dizzy and Thelonious [two artists referenced by Mos in “Hip Hop”] would improvise, right? In hip-hop, that technique continued as freestyling,” D said.
D is happy for “Hip Hop” to be remembered as one of his very best beats. But it’s also clear that reflecting can sometimes be tiresome for the veteran, especially when he’s so convinced that this year’s THE REARVIEW is among his greatest albums. On the new record, which is his sixth solo album, D’s world weary vocals take center stage, giving off the vibe of an OG writing their memoirs over a glass of well-cured vintage red wine, from inside a palatial private estate.
“THE REARVIEW is about respecting your past, but ultimately moving onto a new sound,” D said. “After hearing this album, I don’t think there will be any more debates over who the best rapper/producer is.”
On THE REARVIEW’s intro, comedian Chris Rock talks about how underrated D is. In truth, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the project is overlooked critically, just like 2008’s The Hugh Hefner Chronicles, which experimented with more of an avant garde rap sound from outside producers. After all, Diamond D doesn’t call himself “the best kept secret” for nothing.
Still, it’s nice to hear him still bending samples out of shape in such interesting ways, as well as reflecting on past moments that have occurred in his career, like when he smoked blunts with the late J Dilla (see: “Godly”). “I loved Dilla,” he said. “We respected one another; iron sharpens iron. He told me that without Diamond D and Pete Rock, there would be no J Dilla.”
Before wrapping up we revisit “Hip Hop” one last time, and the role the song plays in D’s storied legacy.
“I guess that beat showed I could be at home on conscious records. It led me to having a relationship with Pharoahe Monch,” he concluded. “I mean, if you look back on my discography, it’s hard to narrow it down to one golden beat — we would be here all day. If ‘Hip Hop’ can inspire people to listen to more Diamond D records, then that’s alright with me.”
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno