Mos Def - Biography
By Paul Glanting
While Mos Def has several acclaimed albums under his belt, the the Brooklyn-bred MC’s artistic contributions extend much further than the dexterous rhymes he’s spat over jazz-centric beats. Mos Def has lent his vast abilities to acting, poetry and even activism. However, Mos Def’s side-projects haven’t detracted a bit from this renaissance man lyrical prowess; Mighty Mos remains a true-blooded B-boy who''ll forever push Hip Hop into progressive territory.
Coined in the eighties, the term “def” was used to label things which were nothing short of fantastic. Most importantly, however, “def” was short for definitive. Perhaps it was written in the stars that hover over Brooklyn that a young MC from the BK would indeed become one of Hip Hop’s most definitive artists.
Dante Smith was born the oldest of four siblings in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, a hotbed of emerging Hip Hop culture. Being that Smith and his siblings grew up amidst the lionized “golden-age of Hip Hop” a vast enthusiasm for Hip Hop culture quickly developed among Smith and his siblings. Smith created and eventually fulfilled a prophecy pertaining to his soon-to-be artistic legacy, when he dubbed himself, Mos Def--short for Most Definitive. Along with his younger brother DCQ and younger sister Ces, Mos Def formed the group Urban Thermo Dynamics. While the trio disbanded soon after its formation, they managed to release two singles and their full-length Manifest Destiny (Illusion Media-2004), has since surfaced.
When Urban Thermo Dynamics split up, Mos Def ventured out on his own. Soon, Mos Def began to find his lyrical stride, making appearances on albums like Bush Babees’ Gravity (Warner Bros.-1996) and De La Soul’s Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy-1996). The latter were catalysts of a movement within Hip Hop called “Native Tongues”, which was an upbeat and afro-centric collective of Hip Hop artists, which also included the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers. While Stakes Is High is hailed as a staple within the Native Tongues movement, it became apparent that De La Soul was ready to pass the torch to a new generation of visionary MCs. Mos Def proved himself worthy of the task on his first solo venture “Universal Magnetic”, wich found a considerable amount of attention from underground Hip Hop DJs.
Meanwhile, Mos Def found musical companionship from another emerging Brooklyn MC named Talib Kweli. While the pair were like-minded in terms of their sociopolitical views, their rhyme deliveries varied--Talib Kweli spat a buttery-smooth flow while his partner in rhyme Mos Def, manifested an energetic flow with witty yet fierce lyrical punch-ins. Collectively calling themselves Black Star, the duo released Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (Rawkus-1998). Powered by up-and-coming producers like Hi-Tek and 88 Keys, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star was a wildly progressive album, which addressed a plethora of issues with miraculous efficiency; “Black” and “Brown Skin Lady” were explorations of racial identity, while "Definition" was a response to the violence within Hip Hop, specifically the song addressed the recent deaths of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.
In the late nineties, the sociopolitical Hip Hop, which had been predominantly famous within underground circles, began to acquire more mainstream recognition. This ascension of underground Hip Hop came with the rise of one-time underground mainstays like Mos Def as well as artists like Common, Talib Kweli, The Roots and Pharoahe Monch. Almost immediately after Black Star yielded their classic, Mos Def released what is arguably the most important classic of the mainstream’s embrace of the underground with his solo debut Black on Both Sides (Rawkus-1999). Black on Both Sides, on its surface, was an immensely intelligent and self-aware Hip Hop album. Songs like “Ms. Fat Booty” and the Busta Rhymes-supplemented “Do It Now” were roaringly proud black-pride rally calls, while “Hip Hop” was a plain and simple celebration of the genre’s globally universal reach. Mos Def began to show flashes of his artistic versatility on “Rock N’ Roll”, where Mos actually plays bass and drums, while lyrically chipping away at what he feels is an erroneous amount of credit steeped onto white rock n’ roll musicians’ feet. The crispy rhyme traversing proved that Mos Def’s lyrical style was also at its peak. Musically, Black on Both Sides’' jazzy-feel was crafted by a prestigious class of respected Hip Hop producers, including Ali Shaheed Muhammad(of A Tribe Called Quest), Psycho Les (of Beatnuts) as well as legends like Diamond D and DJ Premiere. The album was critically hailed as a classic and remains one of the genre’s most respected albums.
Now at the forefront of a movement within Hip Hop, which manifested a lyric-centric aesthetic, Mos Def appeared on several compilations, which had the intent of showcasing superb lyrical talent, including the lauded Soundbombing II (Rawkus-1999), which was also graced by appearances from Eminem, Dilated Peoples and El-P. Mos Def also collaborated with label-mate MC Pharoahe Monch and West Coast crooner Nate Dogg for the track “Oh No” from Lyricist Lounge 2 (Rawkus-2000), a track which saw one of the finest interlocking moments between the mainstream and the underground.
Mos Def also re-ignited an old itch for acting. A one time theater student at New York University, Mos Def appears in films such as Spike Lee’s Bamboozled as well as Monster Ball and the remake of the classic hesit-filmThe Italian Job. Mos Def also received a positive response for his work on Broadway in the Tony-winning Topdog/Underdog. And, taking his bent for rhymes into consideration, Mos Def was an easy choice to host HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.
Having established himself as a champion of Hip Hop’s intelligentsia, Mos Def released his long-awaited follow-up to Black On Both Sides, The New Danger (Geffen-2004). Along with the expected enlightening lyrical content, Mos Def also incorporated elements of rock, blues and funk into The New Danger, perhaps building on the expository rapping that he began on Black On Both Sides’ “Rock N Roll.” Assisting Mos Def’s lessons on the African American contribution to popular music, is his band Black Jack Johnson, which is comprised of Bernie Worrell, Dr. Know, Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun, who were from predominantly African American bands, Parliament, Living Colour and Bad Brains, respectively. The New Danger was even more fierce in terms of its political commentary; “The Rape Over”, which was a take on Jay-Z’s “The Takeover”, controversially took shots at Def Jam head Lyor Cohen’s Israeli heritage. On subsequent pressings, this song is left off. Perhaps not as widely lauded as Black On Both Sides, The New Danger’s “Ghetto Rock” snagged several Grammy nominations. While Mos Def was praised for his musical explorations, many Hip Hop-purists weren’t pleased with the infusions of non-Hip Hop styles, which many felt forced Mos Def’s rapping to the back burner.
In true guerilla-fashion, Mos Def released his third album True Magic (Geffen-2006) inconspicuously in a plain plastic case, without any linear notes or album art. Although True Magic went largely unnoticed by the general public, it contained skilled productions by prominent producers like The Neptunes (“Murder of a Teenage Life”), Rich Harrison (“Undeniable”) and The Wu Tang Clan’s RZA (“Crime & Medicine) and it received fairly decent reviews.
Mos Def appeared in several more films including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Be Kind Rewind and regularly lent his vocals to the cartoonThe Boondocks.
Never straying from his grassroots, Mos Def recorded Mos Definite (Frequent M-2007) for the independent Frequent M/Groove Attack label. Consequently however, Mos Definite is significantly difficult to attain and sought-after by collectors.
The Brooklyn MC continues his harsh political criticisms through his activism and music. Although not scheduled to do so, Mos Def famously began performing his single “Katrina Clap” in front of Radio City Music Hall, while the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards were being taped. “Katrina Clap” took swipes at the Bush administration for their tardy response to Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Mos was arrested for disorderly conduct.
Having kept his name warm by collaborating with the likes of Kanye West, Spank Rock, The Roots and Stephan Marley, Mos Def’s long awaited The Estatic shall be his first album on his new label Downtown Records, whose roster boasts a hefty amount of integrity.
Mos Def is indeed a definitive force within Hip Hop. Brooklyn's son couples his stellar rhyme delivery with a sublime sense of self and community to be one of Hip Hop's most forward thinking innovators.