The Story Behind Yasiin Bey’s Spanish-Language Rap Beginnings, As Told By Tony Touch

Muddled in the midst of Kanye West’s sporadic and lengthy tweets from earlier this year was a single message from Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def).

In it, Bey threw in his own remix to “No More Parties In L.A.,” talked about deportation threats from the South African authorities for using a “world passport,” and shared that the country’s government is making false claims against him.

Yes, the Brooklyn-born emcee had been living in South Africa for the past few years, but his telenovela (he really said this) ordeal is not what got our attention. At the 6:40-minute mark, he flipped the hip-hop world upside down with just 19 words: “I’m retiring from the music recording industry as it is currently assembled today, and also from Hollywood, effective immediately.”

“It’s an honor to be able to present real hip-hop music that the Latino community can embrace.”

Yasiin Bey, born Dante Terrell Smith, hasn’t put out a studio album since the 2009 Grammy-nominated The Ecstatic. Nor has he starred in a film role since 2013’s Life of Crime with Jennifer Aniston. He did release a few tracks during his time touring and living abroad, but nothing that came close to a full-length project featuring new material.

Back when he was Mos Def and churning out tracks left and right, Bey openly expressed his appreciation for the Spanish language. On the Black Star track “Respiration,” a woman whispers, “Escúchela, la ciudad respirando.” It’s Bey’s way of paying homage the diverse sounds and communities he was exposed to growing up in New York City. On The Ecstatic, he recorded an entire track in Spanish titled “No Hay Nada Mas.” Growing up in New York definitely played its part, but it all started 16 years ago, when one of his earliest bilingual wordplays was caught on wax in Nuyorican DJ Tony Touch’s album The Piece Maker.

On “What’s That? (Que Eso?),” Bey set out to prove that his four years in “Spanish 1” were not spent in vain. He confidently spit, “Y’all niggas wack in one language son/I’m nice in two.” “I was definitely blown away,” Tony Touch told Remezcla over email.

“I guess I bring it out of them since the rap community views me as a Latino icon.”

According to Touch (né Joseph Anthony Hernández), the song was only going to feature De La Soul and not Bey, but it all “came together at the last minute” at the legendary D&D Studios in NYC. “I knew I wanted [Yasiin] on the album, but I wasn’t sure where to place him. Being that he was a Native Tongues affiliate, it all made sense,” he reveals.

Pretty Flacko (one of Yasiin Bey’s 10 nicknames, and the inspiration for A$AP Rocky’s nom de plume) weaved in and out of Spanish and English for almost a minute on the Maseo-produced track – again, another unplanned event. Touch explains that “[Yasiin] laid his verse before anyone and we just went in that direction.” Bey wrote his Spanglish verse alone, and the Nuyorican DJ attributes part of the inspiration to Bey’s then marriage to Maria Yepes. He adds that his Spanish was “on point.” Tony does note that Bey isn’t the first non-Latino emcee to rap in Spanish, but understands how he may have inspired the rhyme scheme. He wrote, “I guess I bring it out of them since the rap community views me as a Latino icon.”

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Skimming through the overload of comments on the song’s YouTube video, you’ll see the enthusiasm beaming from Spanish and Spanglish speakers around the world. User jaaa3334 writes, “Oooooo shit!!! Mos Def con Tony Flaco en el idioma que yo hablo,” a direct quote from Bey’s verse.

Touch understands his role in bridging two languages. “It’s an honor to be able to present real hip-hop music that the Latino community can embrace.” It was also a testament to an artist sharing his everyday reality in a city that’s viewed as America’s melting pot.

Bey’s retirement announcement might have felt right for him in the heat of the moment. But judging from some of his contemporaries who have tried to step back from the mic (we’re looking at you, HOV), it may just be the beginning of a new chapter. “He’ll be back. Emceeing is his nature,” writes Touch. Either way, Yasiin Bey still owes us one more album. As he told fans in his message on Kanye West’s website, “I am releasing my final album this year.” We’ll just have to wait and see what happens on March 24, when the rapper is slated to attend a rescheduled hearing in Cape Town.