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Mos Def

Encyclopedia of Popular Music: An Excerpt
Mos Def

I was walking to the office this morning, listening to my I-pod when one of my favorite songs came on. Suddenly, instead of being caffeine-deprived and grumpy I was bouncing along and singing with Mos Def. “Once upon a time not long ago/ When people wore adidas and lived life slow/ When laws were stern and justice stood/ And people was behavin like hip-hop was good…” Anyways, I got a couple stares on the street. (You should be glad you weren’t walking next to me, people say I’m tone deaf.) Luckily though, Mondays are Encyclopedia of Popular Music days on the OUPblog, so I can share my love of Mos Def with you. Without further ado, I present the Mos Def entry from the EPM.

Mos Def b. Dante Terrell Smith, 11 December 1973, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA.

‘I’m not just inspired by black art’, says Mos Def, ‘but good art, representations of art that are sincere and genuine.’

Drawing on illuminati such as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and De La Soul for influence, Def began rapping at the age of nine. Sixteen years later, as one half of Black Star, alongside Talib Kweli, he created one of the most acclaimed albums in hip-hop history. Black On Both Sides, his 1999 debut under his own name was eloquent and sophisticated, provocative and funky, smart and poignant, mixing old school bravado with new school consciousness. The album included eulogies to Mos Def’s home town, a warning against conspicuous materialism (‘Got’) and, seemingly, a plea to conserve water (‘New World Water’). The delicious ‘Ms. Fat Booty’ intricately wove a love/lust story that name checked Gregory Isaacs and Sade around a well deployed Aretha Franklin sample while on ‘Rock N Roll’, Mos Def rejected the accepted (white) canon of music: ‘Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul/Chuck Berry is rock ‘n’ roll/You may dig the Rolling Stones/But they ain’t come up with that style on their own’ he maintained.

Although he rejects the tag of a ‘conscious’ artist, Mos Def is articulate, motivated and necessarily political. Following the release of his debut album, he wrote an open letter to his ‘fellow artists’ about Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant with no prior criminal record who was shot and killed by police in the USA. Diallo was shot 41 times despite being unarmed. ‘The only people in our community who have not responded to this incident are us’ wrote Mos Def, of his genre peers. ‘We are the Senators and the Congressmen of our communities. We represent them. We must speak out against the injustices that they suffer.’

Since Black On Both Sides, Mos Def has, notably, collaborated with Massive Attack (on ‘I Against I’) and Diverse (on the Urban Renewal Program compilation). He inaugurated the rap-rock supergroup Black Jack Johnson with Bernie Worrell (keyboards), Dr. Know (guitar), William Calhoun (drums), and Doug Wimbish (bass). Mos Def has continued to balance his music projects with a long-term acting career, which has included notable roles in the movies Monster’s Ball and The Italian Job.


Want to learn more about the EPM? Read last week’s excerpt about Scofield. Check out what albums Colin Larkin, editor of the EPM, hates, and the pop-music quiz parts one, two and three. Or read Larkin’s take on CD cover design.

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