The Brooklyn-based rapper known as Mos Def represents the next stage of the hip-hop MC. His intelligent rhyming skills are coveted by underground musicians who struggle with putting social observations into lyrical form. His effervescent charisma and playful scatting gives him a kind of transcendent appeal that translates into cross-demographic appeal. Peter Relic asserts that by marrying these traits, Mos Def sports both underground credibility and a potentially limitless mainstream appeal. As he intuits, “I’m inspired not just by black art, but good art, representations of art that are sincere and genuine.
” Born Dante Terrell Smith in 1973, Mos Def began his performing career as an actor, making appearances on various television sitcoms and made for TV movies, with his most notable early gig playing a teenage sidekick to Bill Cosby on the non-violent detective show, The Cosby Mysteries. His music career began in 1994 when he formed the short-lived Urban Thermo Dynamics with his siblings. With male and female vocals that mesh intermittent crooning and lyrical grit, UTD carried a vibe that was comparable to New Jersey based alterno-rap group The Fugees but with significantly more rugged sensibilities.
The sing-song nature of UTD foreshadows much of Mos Def’s later work. However, it was not until after ‘cameo’ appearances on the albums of such performers of da Bush Babees and De La Soul, where he picked up some of the latter’s West Indian flavor that Mos began to broaden his sensibilities. Mos formed an alliance with another Brooklyn-based MC, Talib Kweli, to produce the album Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, named after the first black owned shipping line.
Black Star was not only a clever and lyrically conscious production, but featured an eclectic combination of jazz sounds and astounding drum work in the service of a socially conscious perspective of hip hop that took into account its cultural relevance outside of the United States. Prior to this, rap and hip hop’s image was largely predicated on gangsta aesthetic. Expanding the topical range of rap and hip hop, Mos and Talib began to actualize its artistic potential that had heretofore been stunted by an ethos of “keepin’ it real. ”
In 1999, Mos Def released the deep and introspective Black on Both Sides, which brings much of his social consciousness to fore with the meticulously crafted political criticism of “Mathematics” and his continuously increasing lyrical cleverness in tracks like “Speed Law. ” Black on Both Sides also dissects the history of white appropriation of black musical forms in “Rock n Roll. ” His follow-up albums, 2004’s The New Danger and 2006’s True Magic were not as well received, but this is largely due to his increasingly eclectic embrace of a diverse range of influences which makes such a mixed reception hardly surprising.
With much of his cultural cache having been fully affirmed by such music critical institutions as Pitchfork Media and Rolling Stone, Mos Def has become largely celebrated as the great black hope of hip hop’s potential for diversity in appeal and style, but without compromising artistic merit. As such, he has been recently dubbed as an “alternative rapper. ” Alternative forms of rap or hip hop are often dismissed by purists as compromising the aesthetics and ideology of rap & hip hop in favor of broadening their appeal. But it would be difficult to deny that without it both genres would remain largely stagnant.
Thanks to proponents of an all-encompassing view of the inter-relatedness of music like Mos Def, the picture of rap & hip hop as a largely hedonistic field concerned only with gangsta chic and armchair resistance is becoming rapidly obsolete.
Relic, Peter. “Mos Def. ” The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, 4th Edition. Ed. Nathan Brackett. New York: Fireside, 2004. This is an encyclopedia style entry which briefly summarizes the accomplishments of Mos Def while highlighting his strengths and talents within the context of a larger picture of hip hop and rap in general.
Also incorporated into the entry are brief critical appraisals of his work, giving positive lip service to much of his work with the exception of his involvement in Black Jack Johnson. “Mos Def. ” Hip Hop and Social Change at the Field Museum. Retrieved May 4, 2008 from: http://www. fieldmuseum. org/hiphop/bio_mosdef. html. Citing press release details from Rawkus Records, this entry from promotional material for a cultural critique conference at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois details many of the influences which inspire Mos Def’s work, in addition to presenting a brief summary of his forays into acting.
Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme. Retrieved May 4, 2008 from: http://www. organicfilms. com/bios. htm. Incorporating many quotes derived from interviews with Mos Def, this piece details the ways in which he has strayed away from many of the stereotypes and conventions which have become a staple of rap and hip hop culture, as well as framing those qualities within discussions about art and social consciousness in general.