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The Many Faces of Mos Def

‘I’m a pirate on an island seeking treasure known as silence’ – ‘Habitat’, Black On Both Sides

Like the seafarer talked of in his lyrics, Dante Smith is an individual made up of many guises, a person subject to the mysterious, prone to the ecstatic. Musician, activist, actor, icon – one of the most critically acclaimed rappers of his generation, Smith is a man of multiple parts, a hip hop hybrid, and as the artist we still prefer to call Mos Def turns 40 later this year, we attempt to unearth the man behind the Boogie Mask.

On the surface Mos Def is simply hip hop’s man of style. The kid from Brooklyn who rocked the head-to-toe dashiki and kente in the 1990’s to the classic gent style threads worn by the rap superstar today – Def is the genre’s discerning fashionista. A bohemian blend of styles and looks over the years have seen the man now known as Yasiin Bey become something of the poster boy for an alternative hip hop aesthetic. For Def though, all this is just a surface philosophy, the exterior guises that can barely begin to tell the story of hip hop’s most introspective MC.

From starting out with little known hip hop trio Urban Thermo Dynamics and connecting with Talib Kweli as one half of Black Star, to the evolution as a solo artist and the transformation to Yasiin Bey, his is a career as eclectic as it is successful. Socially conscious and lyrically unique, Def’s classic rap roots sit alongside anthemic and experimental sounds that define more recent work, as old school inspirations blend with new school thinking.

We all got a home, a place where we come from
This place that we come from is called home
And even though we may love, this place on the map
Said it ain’t where you from, it’s where ya at
Habitat, Black on Both Sides

The above lyrics, taken off the track Habitat, are typical examples of the Brooklyn native’s ability to merge the struggles of ghetto life with higher thought. Now trademark themes, such ideas permeate throughout his discography, but back in the early nineties socially conscious rap was in short supply. Emerging at a time when artists like N.W.A, Public Enemy and Eric B & Rakim had come to define the industry and did little to stop the archetypal view of rap as merely a glorification of gang life, narcotics, violence and money among its critics, Mos Def came along and offered an alternative to the gladiatorial styled boasting and bravado.

At 23, Def released Manifest Destiny in 1996, a 14 track album with rappers DCQ and Ces under the name Urban Thermo Dynamics. Showcasing his raspy delivery and unique flow, the record also reveal his contempt for such dated rap stereotypes, seen none more so than on the underground classic My Kung Fu. It was the only record the trio would produce and for the young Mos Def, UTD proved not the right guise, but that would come soon enough.

And now my time has come
And now hip-hop’s an industry polluted by bums
Posin’ with guns they’re puffin mad blunts
Aiyo, brothers just started rhymin’ last month
They getting fat deals on any major label
When they only see other people hold the mic cable
‘My Kung Fu’, Manifest Destiny

The formation of hip hop collective the Native Tongues in 1988 was to provide the perfect platform for the lyrically dexterous twenty-something. Founded by the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the former two having attended the same high school in New York, the Native Tongues presented an alternative approach to rap and more profoundly, hip hop culture.

Positive beats coupled with socially aware and entertaining rhymes elevated the New York troupe to a different musical level; notions of identity, heritage and politics seeped from their records and their Afrocentric musings were to strike a chord with the budding rapper.

This is a station, identi-fi-cation
For the entire nation
Come to bring sensation, oh yes!
It’s Da Bush Babee clan
Come to make you understand
That we get love all over the land
‘The Love Song’, Da Bush Babees

Collaborations with De La Soul and Da Bush Babees in 1996 gave Def the opportunity to present his own, similarly hybrid style to a wider audience. Whilst his lyrics on Da Bush Babees, ‘The Love Song’ (above) revealed a growing sense of empowerment and identity, the rhymes espoused on De La Soul’s ‘Big Brother Beat’ are comical and original, ‘Native Tongues come through to make you say yes yes/This is the mighty Mos Def style fresh like baby breath.’

The Native Tongues movement inspired a shift in hip hop towards greater lyrical awareness, but sonically they were innovative too and Mos Def was to bring those elements together as he teamed up with Talib Kweli in 1998 to produce the self-titled Black Star album. Named after the boat of Pan-African political leader Marcus Garvey, Black Star transcended the vanity projects of its hip hop peers; eloquent musings on black history and empowerment, calls for a freedom of the mind, a greater knowledge of self and critiques on rap’s spiritual malaise combined to create arguably the album of the year.

So many emcees focusin’ on black people extermination
We keep it balanced with that knowledge of self, determination
It’s hot, we be blowin the spots, with conversations
C’mon let’s smooth it out like Soul Sensation
Talib Kweli, ‘K.O.S (Determination)’

The childhood friends, who would later open an African American learning centre together, sewed their intricate wordplay and rhymes over 12 memorable tracks showcasing their own alternative to hip hop stereotypes. Spirituality punctuated the record too with Mos Def now transformed from pupil to educator, ‘This life is temporary but the soul is eternal/Separate the real from the lie let me learn you’.

Following the acclaim garnered as Black Star, there were lofty expectations of the debut solo release, Black on Both Sides. The album’s use of Jazz infused beats, Gil Scott-Heron and Aretha Franklin samples and blending-up of genres made it an instant success. By confronting themes of race in ‘Mr Nigga’, social inequality in ‘Know That’, power in ‘Fear Not of Men’ and even environmental struggles in the cut ‘New World Water’, the articulate street poet instigated a sea-change in perceptions of modern hip hop and laid bare the harsh realities of life in modern America.

Born into the urban jungle of 1970’s inner city New York, Def had grown up accustomed to a society besotted by division and disharmony. A panorama of projects, poverty, crime and hustlers filled his child eyes as from the Roosevelt projects on Lewis Avenue the young artist witnessed the societal imbalance first-hand. Racial unrest in the city was a near daily occurrence during his teenage years, the Tompkins Square riot had occurred in 1988 and the Crown Heights riots when Mos was only 17 in 1991, and such incidents had created an environment of fear in many African-American neighbourhoods and Def used his debut as the canvas to reveal a landscape where survival was the order of the day.

In the Brooklyn-inspired Habitat, Def recalls a childhood spent avoiding the ‘jungle cats, lions and tigers, leopards and cheetahs’ that roamed his block while trying to survive where there was ‘Less space cause the projects laced with more flaws/Less sleep cause the nights ain’t peace, it’s more war’.

Black on Both Sides was a musical tour de force but it also represented a vehicle for protest. As an artist, Def is not only concerned with instigating musical change but using the art form to educate and inspire universally, ‘There are place where TB is common as TV/Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy/The type of cats who go and pollute the whole shore line/Have it purified sell it for a dollar twenty-five’.

The monikers of activism and use of social realism on the record firmly mark Black on Both Sides as a piece of protest art. While references to African-American protest novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison on the track Hip-Hop further this notion, Mos Def the musician was beginning to morph into Mos Def the activist.

Listen, homie, it’s Dollar Day in New Orleans
It’s water, water everywhere and people dead in the streets
“And Mister President is a natural ass,
He out treating niggaz worse than they treat the trash
And if you poor, you black, I laugh and laugh,
You better off on crack, dead or in jail, or with a gun in Iraq.”
‘Katrina Clap/Dollar Day’, The New Danger

A fierce critic of the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, and US foreign policy generally, in a 2009 interview Def remarked, ‘America should deal with cleaning up its own house, and stop fucking with people, and stop pursuing its international interests with such disregard for how these people live, their cultural ties. It’s some crazy colonial invader.’ Criticisms on the country’s electoral system, police corruption and appearances on US political programme Real Time With Bill Maher in recent years have emphasised the Brooklynite’s activist presence, but it was his reaction to Hurricane Katrina that would affirm him as hip hop’s foremost activist.

It was the night of MTV’s Video Music Awards in New York City 2006 when Def made his impromptu protest against the government’s treatment of New Orleans residents in the wake of the natural disaster. Pulling up outside the venue on a flatbed truck, the musician proceeded to perform ‘Katrina Clap’ – a track he’d recorded in the aftermath of the super storm – as a direct challenge to US domestic policy. His act of militancy and defiance, which resulted in a police summons, was not one seeking musical acclaim but a naked expression by an individual who had transcended the realm of hip hop artist to that of an activist.

This ability to shape-shift between wordsmith to the street, musical innovator, politicised protester and guerrilla activist has positioned the 39-year-old among the most popular artists in an increasingly vacuous hip hop generation, and like any true artist, Def’s hunger for creativity is boundless.

An actor since the age of 15, Smith has forged a more successful, on-screen career than most musicians. Appearing in the 1988 film God Bless the Children as the son of a struggling single mother trying to transcend his social position (the sense of art imitating life is clear), Def’s first acting experience would lay the foundations for a succession of decorated on-screen performances.

From roles in the acclaimed Monster’s Ball and alongside Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job, to starring in indie comedy Be Kind Rewind with Jack Black and the 2005 fantasy classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is an unsurprisingly eclectic portfolio. His recent reincarnation as the reformed Brother Sam in smash-hit series Dexter received critical recognition in the industry too – and like the show’s protagonist, it was just another example of Def’s ease at moving from one guise to the next.

After the overwhelming success of Black on Both Sides, the musician somewhat jettisoned the Native Tongues inspired style on following releases. The New Danger, released in 2004, offered even greater musical diversity with the album heavily induced with blues, soul and rock & roll sounds – the record was performed with live rock band Black Jack Johnson. This penchant for creativity and newness is systemic on his later work, and although 2006’s True Magic missed the heights of earlier creations, the release of eagerly anticipated album number four would not disappoint.

I move in, and y’all must move on
‘Cause I move to strong
And I know what my feet move for (Let the sunshine in)
Made it go without a brand new car
Made it fresh without a brand new song
And give a fuck about what brand you are (The sun’s shinin’)
I’m concerned what type of man you are
‘Sunshine’, The New Danger

Incorporating his trademark social commentary with worldly musical influences and flawless production from the likes of J Dilla and Madlib, The Ecstatic symbolised the artist’s hybrid, universal nature. Skipping between the Latin infused ‘No Hay Nada Mas’ (the track is entirely in Spanish) and eastern influenced ‘Wahid’ to reverential musings with Talib Kweli on ‘History’, the record showed Def at his eccentric and mysterious best.

This commitment to his art and the desire to evolve as a musician is what places Def on his own hip hop island.  A refusal to adopt the typical materialist style which many of his contemporaries peddle was made acutely apparent on the tours which accompanied the release.

In a subversion of the mythical ‘Boogie Man’ character, a persona historically used to stigmatise African-American society, Def decided to don his own ‘Boogie Mask’ when performing – an ironic response to the racial overtones associated with the term. Recalling the masked figure on MF Doom’s 1993 album Madvillain, Def’s adoption of the disguise gave audiences a sensation of the unknown, the otherworldly.

It was a means for the self to avoid being defined by the aesthetic, (for others, the mask was a gimmick and only cemented their view of Def’s purposely built persona) but for Def, it offered the chance for the crowds to interpret the music and artist in their own image – who was this masked man in front of them? The Native Tongues Disciple? A political speaker? Genre-buster? Street poet? Rock & roll enthusiast? Preacher?

All of these reincarnations, guises and styles play into the Mos Def character, forming a kaleidoscopic identity no longer stranded by the physical and mental barriers that governed his childhood. And like the pirate peering through his lens, for Mos Def the possibilities are infinite. The release of single ‘Black Jesus’ in March this year, the artist’s first new work in almost three years, could be a sign of the innovation still to come, and with a new solo project planned for 2014 there’s no knowing which direction or disguise he will take next – we do know the title though, Yasiin Bey Presents… we’re just not sure what.

- Chris Matthews

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