Run That Back: J. Rawls on Black Star & the Creation of "Brown Skin Lady"

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With the rapid growth of streaming services, more and more labels are making their entire catalogs available to the market. Rare records you once had to scour local mom and pop shops for, even five to ten years ago, are now easily available at your digital fingertips.  That’s why we’re launching our new series, Run That Back.

We hope to make RTB your home for all things pre-digital (you know there was a time before the interwebs covered all things music, right?). Think of it as a trip down Memory Lane, perhaps an introduction to something before your time, or maybe just a place to just catch something you completely missed. RTB will not only discuss the actual music, but detail the stories behind those songs and albums, and shed some light on the people who helped bring it all to life. We'd like to try do our part to help restore some of the human element to the coverage of music and show the world how much goes into what we're all listening to.

With that said, let's jump into our first article on Yasiin Bey (f/k/a Mos Def) and Talib Kweli as Black Star.

It was the Spring of '98. Rawkus (Records) was beginning to establish themselves as one of the premier independent labels for quality Hip-Hop. Mos and Kweli were fresh off a string of successful 12-inch vinyl singles (“Universal Magnetic”, “Fortified Live” b/w “2000 Seasons”, “Body Rock” b/w “Manifesto”) from the Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1 releases and the two emcees had decided to join forces for an LP before launching into their solo careers. Like many great things, the album was created with the purest of intentions. Their mission was simple, to make music they thought was dope. The album ultimately became one of the most acclaimed releases from the late '90s independent movement.

We recently caught up with J Rawls, producer of the standout record “Brown Skin Lady”, and got some insight into his involvement on the Black Star LP and how it all came to fruition.

In the '90s, many would have considered being from the Midwest a hindrance to your musical career. The media and labels focused their attentions primarily on the East and West coasts.  As fate would have it, Rawls (an Ohio native) was able beat the odds. He heard that Mos and Kwe were working on some new material and was able to parlay his Cincinnati connections with Hi-Tek and Dante (of Mood) to pass along a beat tape (yes, an actual cassette - remember those?) to Kweli.  At the time, his lone production credit was Doseone’s Untitled LP (released in 1997). He patiently waited for any word if they liked anything they heard - then came the call.

Rawls recounted the first convo with Kweli; they had heard the tape from Tek and were into a few joints. It was on. He knew it was about to be something special when he heard Mos in the background repeatedly crooning those three words to the beat, "brown skin lady." The irony in it all was that Rawls had only included that beat on the tape as a short interlude. He couldn’t believe that Gil Scott Heron joint he made on his trusty Ensoniq ASR-10 was the one that caught their ears. Funny how things play out sometimes, right? Shortly thereafter, he was on a flight to L.A. where Mos and Kwe had booked some recording sessions and, as they say, the rest is history.  

One last little nugget - “Brown Skin Lady” and “Definition” were recorded during the same session, which is why Mos shouts out J Rawls at the beginning of “Definition”. Alright, OK. I’m feeling you © Mos Def.  

For those who would like to read more about Mos and Kwe’s early years, and the story of the label (Rawkus) that put them on the map, check out this amazing, in-depth article written by Phillip Mlynar.

Editor's Note: Rawls was also kind enough to send along a pic of Mos' hand-written lyrics to "Definition", which should make the rap nerd in you absolutely freak out. Enjoy: 

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[Keenan "DJ K.O." Ormsby is a hip-hop writer, lover and the founder and co-owner of Elementality Productions. Be sure to hit him up @RTB_DJBooth]

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