For most of us readers, prison would be considered rock bottom. But for two inspired men, this was just the beginning. Senim Silla and One Be Lo (a.k.a. OneManArmy) both grew up on the harsh streets of Pontiac, Michigan. With minimal supervision, they were permitted to roam the streets, and as black males living in the ’70s, were eventually incarcerated, each for charges of armed robbery. Here, at the Hiawatha Correctional Facility is where the future duo met and formed a hip-hop group. In 1999, after being released on parole, with a budget of a measly $500, Binary Star signed with Terrorists records, and produced their first album together, Waterworld LP, which sold a rare 1,000 copies. A year later, the group recorded a second album with many of the same songs, but under the label of Subterraneous Records (One Be Lo’s label). Despite still selling a shallow 20,000 copies, this revamped album came to be known as Masters of the Universe, and is recognized not only as one of our favorite albums of all time, but also as one of hip-hop’s most influential records.
Binary Star is quite unique from most hip-hop groups. Instead of rhyming about money, chains, and other materialistic items, they take the listener into memorable scenes of their lives. One of my favorite cuts from the album, “Glen Close” (deriving its name from the late 80s horror film, Fatal Attraction (Yes, I know her name has 2 n’s)), is a thrilling journey that transports us back to a party where “OneManArmy” has a one-night-stand with a model who cannot accept no for an answer. What makes this song so remarkable is the correlation the music has with the lyrics. It’s not just a simple beat to back the rhymes but a down tempo jazzy sample that suddenly changes dynamics to an exciting double time piano in a higher register at the apex of the adventure. It’s almost like a John Williams movie soundtrack. Another dope track is “Honest Expression“, which delves into the world of popular rap music. It is introduced by a short quote from my personal hero, and the very articulate, Bruce Lee, defining the distinction between honest expression and the fabricated self-image, the latter of which he says is the easiest, and I think the most common, for a lot of us to front today. In this, both rappers share their frustration with artists who maintain a fictitious image in order to keep the masses entertained…
Everytime you listen to the radio, all you hear is
They never play the bomb shit
Everything that glitters ain’t gold
And every gold record don’t glitter that’s for damn
sure – OneManArmy
These lames run around like mice in a maze
Tryin’ to get up on cheese, its just a rat race – Senim Silla
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Parts 1+2) are solo tracks that discuss each of their lives in prison. OneManArmy is much more penitent in his verses, thinking back upon the crimes he committed, the life he used to live, and his newfound devotion to Allah. Meanwhile, Silla appears to takes on a more victimized perspective…
No get-away cuz life goes on and tomorrows just another day of the same
routine ain’t a damn thing new
Either I grind, watch the tube with the phone, or get a view
So much time and so little to do
Just waiting on a court date so I can get through
Caught between a rock in a hard place
Prosecution had a hard case
So I’d have to plead or escape
It’s no wonder that 5 years later, after the release of MotU, Silla was arrested once again for armed robbery with four other men, while at the same time, OneManArmy was debuting his first solo album, S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. (Sounds Of Nahshid Originate Good Rhymes And Music).
At the end of the day, this duo is/was the real deal. The duo’s voices and styles perfectly mesh and complement one another to produce a fantastic sound that brings you back to the golden age of hip hop with classic names like Guru, Big L, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, and Pete Rock. Usually when we see a 24-track CD, we assume that there are bound to be some filler tracks. In Masters of the Universe, this is simply not the case. Every track was written and produced for its own unique purpose, each containing its respective message. So to all you hip-hop lovers, to all those who were down with the golden era, I highly recommend Binary Star’s Masters of the Universe. You will not be disappointed. And if you like this stuff, then you should definitely check out One Be Lo’s S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. and his equally dope L.A.B.O.R. LP which was released in 2011. As well as Senim Silla’s acclaimed album The Name The Motto The Outcome.
- Larry Mac