Rapper Mos Def’s brand of hip-hop music is a socially conscious departure from image-driven gangsta rap. Def came up in Brooklyn, New York, during hip-hop’s golden years and emerged a multi-talented and celebrated hip-hop artist, actor, and activist. “The last few years have witnessed the transformation of Brooklyn rapper Mos Def from underground icon to overground star,” Richard Harrington wrote in the Washington Post in 2002. According to Jonathan Perry in the Boston Globe, Def has earned his “reputation as an outspoken, politically minded rapper whose positivist messages of unity, freedom, and self-knowledge found their way” onto his 1998 album Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are … Black Star and his 1999 album Black on Both Sides, two of the most acclaimed hip-hop releases of the 1990s. His lyrics also earned Def international renown as a champion for human rights and equality. As an actor, he has appeared in such films as Bamboozled, Monster’s Ball, and Brown Sugar, and in 2002 he performed on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Top Dog/Underdog.
Mos Def’s given name is Dante Terrell Smith. He was born December 11, 1973, and he was raised, the eldest of 12 children, in the projects of the Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn. He grew up listening to pioneering hip-hop artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Eric B and Rakim. At age nine Def started writing rhymes that echoed the socially and politically conscious lyrics of these artists. He was a gifted student, and he interned for a year with the human rights organization Amnesty International.
The talented hip-hop artist actually started in entertainment as an actor, not a rapper. His first turn on stage was in a production of Free to Be You and Me in fifth grade. As a teen, he acted in school plays, off-Broadway, and in community theater. He was credited as Dante Terrell Smith after high school on television. He appeared as Richard in God Bless the Child in 1988 and played Raymond Kirkland on You Take the Kids in 1990. He also appeared in episodes of NYPD Blue, The Cosby Mysteries, and Spin City. MTV developed a spin-off series called Lyricist Lounge, on which Mos Def made guest appearances. He played the villainous Lt. Miller in an updated version of the classic opera Carmen called Carmen: A Hip Hopera on MTV in 2001, and he hosted HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in 2002.
While he was working as an actor in the late 1980s, Def would wander to Washington Square Park in New York, where he could hone his skills among the aspiring young rappers there. Mos Def’s first musical effort was a family affair. Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), the group he formed with his brother and sister, released a single, “My King Fu,” in 1994. He then joined seminal hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa’s Native Tongues collective, which included the hip-hop groups A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. His work with Native Tongues parlayed into cameo appearances on the De La Soul song “Big Brother Beat” and the Bush Babees’
Born Dante Terrell Smith on December 11, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY.
Began rhyming at age nine; formed his first group, Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), with his brother and sister; appeared as Richard in God Bless the Child on television, 1988; played Raymond Kirkland on TV’s You Take the Kids, 1990; appeared in NYPD Blue and The Cosby Mysteries, 1994; released UTD single, “My King Fu,” 1994; joined the Native Tongues collective founded by Afrika Bambaataa, which included A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; made cameo appearances on De La Soul’s “Big Brother Beat” and the Bush Babees’ “Love Song”; appeared on television’s Spin City, 1996; released debut single “The Universal Magnetic,” on Rawkus Records, 1996; released “Body Rock,” featuring Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, 1998; with Talib Kweli, released debut album, Black Star, 1998; released Black on Both Sides, 1999; played Julius in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, 2000; headlined the Lyricist Lounge Tour, 2000; made guest appearances on MTV’s spin-off show, Lyricist Lounge, 2000; appeared in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, on television, 2001; made Broadway debut in Topdog/Underdog, 2002; appeared in film Brown Sugar, 2002.
“Love Song.” Mos Def’s own debut single, “The Universal Magnetic,” was released on the independent hip-hop label Rawkus Records in 1996. His follow-up, 1998’s “Body Rock,” featured Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest.
After standing in the shadows of other acts, Mos Def came into his own as a duo with fellow hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, whom he met in their Washington Square Park days. Their full-length 1998 release, Mos Defand Talib Kweli Are… Black Star, was lauded by critics and fans and set a new standard for serious, socially conscious hip-hop. “I was in L.A. right after the album came out and I’m on stage performing and I’m lookin’ at people reciting words of the songs off the album. And I’m like, ‘Am I seein’ this right? I know this record has not been out that long.’ The record came out in October and by January it was gold. Everything changed,” he recalled in a 2002 interview with Entertainment Weekly. “My creative possibilities just started to explode.”
In addition to his politically aware music, Mos Def also gets behind activist causes. He was heavily involved in two projects to protest the 1999 shooting death of Haitian immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers. He put together the Hip-Hop for Respect EP, which targeted the issue of police brutality, and appeared on The Price of Freedom… Is Truth (The Amadou Project). He was invited to speak and perform at a United Nations peace conference. Def and Kweli also own an Afrocentric bookstore in Brooklyn.
When Def made the jump to the big screen, some saw him as just another in a line of hip-hop artists to try their hand at acting—rappers Will Smith, Ice Cube, and Queen Latifah all had made names for themselves in Hollywood—but Def had to remind critics that he had been acting for years. “When I started doing films, they thought it was just a clever publicity scheme,” he told the New York Times Magazine in a 2002 interview. “But I had been long doing both.” He played Julius, the leader of a radical rap group called the Mau Maus, who changes his name to Big Black Africa, in Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, which satirizes television. He appeared in the controversial 2001 film Monster’s Ball and in the 2002 romantic comedy Brown Sugar. His music is featured on the soundtrack of The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington.
Mos Def’s 1999 full-length solo recording debut, Black on Both Sides, lived up to expectations. In addition to gold certification for sales, it was celebrated by critics and fans. The album “is a tightrope walk across diverse hip-hop styles,” wrote critic Matt Diehl in Entertainment Weekly. “Merging old-school bravado with new-school poetics, the Brooklyn legend spouts incisive Afrocentric reality that takes all sides into account.” Arguments with his label, MCA, stalled any further releases. “I’m not sure they know whether or not slavery is over,” he said in a 2002 interview with Robin Finn of the New York Times. He headlined the popular 18-city Lyricist Lounge Tour 2000 with Talib Kweli, Punch & Words, Master Fuel, Ali Vegas, Jus, Reks, Akrobatic, Swiss Chris, and others.
Def made his Broadway debut in 2002 in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Top Dog/Underdog. Def played a con man named Booth who has a difficult relationship with his older brother, Lincoln, also a con man, played by Jeffrey Wright. “It’s a very real human play about two brothers and their relationship to each other, their rivalry, their need for each other, their history,” Def told Richard Harrington in the Washington Post. “It’s a modern play about two young black men in modern times and the universal issues of family and abandonment, the human condition.” Both the play and Mos Def’s performance were well received. “The acclaim for Topdog seems destined to vault Mos Def’s acting career to a new level,” Mark Binelli wrote in Rolling Stone in a 2002 article. Def’s song “3-Card” appears on the stage play’s soundtrack, which features jazz, blues, R&B, and hip-hop music.
In addition to eight performances a week during his run in Top Dog/Underdog, Def also led a rock-rap band, the Black Jack Johnson Project. Named after the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, the group is made up of Def on vocals, Living Colour’s Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish on drums and bass, respectively, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and Dr. Know, the former guitarist for the punk-reggae band the Bad Brains, of which Def was a longtime fan. Def referred to the Bad Brains and Fishbone in his 1999 song “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Def’s artistic goal with the Project was to create a true blend of rock and rap, which he did not hear in existing so-called fusion projects. Most rock-influenced hip-hop acts are “not taking advantage of either genre, not for my tastes as either a hip-hop fan or a rock fan. I’m not hearing a true fusion,” he told Harrington in the Washington Post. “I wanted to do something where the rock ’n’ roll fans don’t feel neglected or patronized and the hip-hop fans don’t feel that way, either. This could be like a real exchange … and show that hip-hop is an extension of that rock ‘n’ roll and blues tradition…” Def’s effort was apparent to listeners, according to music critic Craig Smith in the Washington Post: “While the band has been categorized as rock and roll, it utilized blues elements, reggae refrains, and even gospel phrasings.” The group debuted at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California in April of 2001.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are … Black Star, Rawkus, 1998.
Black on Both Star, Rawkus, 1998.
Billboard, August 3, 2002, p. 16.
Boston Globe, September 29, 2000, p. C9.
Entertainment Weekly, November 5, 1999, p. 82; April 12, 2002, p. 32.
Essence, July 2002, p. 74.
Jet, May 6, 2002, p. 46.
New York Times, April 19, 2002, p. B2; October 11, 2002, p. 26.
New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002.
Rolling Stone, May 10, 2001, p. 97; May 23, 2002, p. 51.
Time, December 6, 1999, p. 96.
Washington Post, January 11, 2002, p. WW6; January 14, 2002, p. C3.
“Mos Def,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 29, 2002).
“Mos Def,” Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (October 29, 2002).
"Mos Def." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mos-def
"Mos Def." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mos-def
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Mos Def 1973–
Mos Def 1973–
Hip-hop artist, activist, actor
Rapper, activist, and actor Mos Def found a vehicle for his socially conscious beliefs in hip-hop music. The Brooklyn native grew up in the “golden age” of hip-hop and became such a powerful voice that the United Nations invited him to speak and perform at the so-called peace conference of the century. Jonathan Perry in the Boston Globe called Mos Def an “outspoken, politically minded rapper whose positivist messages of unity, freedom, and self-knowledge found their way onto seminal hip-hop albums” like Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are… Black Star in 1998 and Mos Def’s debut solo release, 1999’s Black on Both Sides.
Mos Def was born Dante Terrell Beze (some sources say his last name is Smith) on December 11, 1973, and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York. He started rhyming at age nine. He grew up in the Brooklyn projects during the “golden age” of hip-hop, a time of seminal hip-hop artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Eric B. and Rakim. “It was as if the Black Panthers had been a musical group,” he said of these musicians in an interview with Black Book, “generating very serious social criticism, and not just criticism absent of solution.” Mos Def excelled in schools for the gifted and in a year-long internship with the human rights organization Amnesty International. Mos Def pursued his talent for hip-hop, which he described in Black Book as “this generation’s fire and passion applied to sound.”
Mos Def got his start in acting as a teenager. He first appeared on television as “Richard” in God Bless the Child in 1988 and played “Raymond Kirkland” on You Take the Kids in 1990. He also appeared in episodes of NYPD Blue, The Cosby Mysteries, and Spin City. MTV developed a spin-off series called Lyricist Lounge, which Mos Def made a number of guest appearances. He also appeared in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, on television in 2001. On the big screen, Mos Def appeared in Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled, which satirized television. In it, he played Julius, the leader of a radical rap group called the Mau Maus, who changes his name to Big Black Africa. He also contributed to the soundtrack of Hurricane, which stars Denzel Washington.
Mos Def formed his first group, Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), with his brother and sister, and released a UTD single, “My Kung Fu,” in 1994. He was invited to join the Native Tongues collective founded by Afrika Bambaataa, which included A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. He then made cameo appearances on De La Soul’s single “Big Brother Beat” and the Bush Babees’s “Love Song.” He released his own debut single “The Universal Magnetic,” on the seminal independent hip-hop label Rawkus Records in 1996. Another Rawkus single, “Body Rock,” featuring Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, followed in 1998. Mos Def began working with like-minded community activist Talib Kweli, and the two recorded a full-length release called Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are …Black Star. Out in 1998, the album became one of the hottest hip-hop releases of the year.
In 1999 Time magazine reported that three acts, including the Roots, Q-Tip, and Mos Def, were leading
Born Dante Terrell Beze on December 11, 1973, Brooklyn, NY.
Career: Formed his first group, Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), with his brother and sister; appeared as “Richard” in God Bless the Child on television, 1988; played “Raymond Kirkland” on TV’s You Take the Kids, 1990; appeared in NYPD Blue and The Cosby Mysteries, 1994; released UTD single, “My Kung Fu,” 1994; joined the Native Tongues collective founded by Afrika Bambaataa, which included A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; made cameo appearances on De La Soul’s “Big Brother Beat” and the Bush Babees’s “Love Song”; appeared on TV’s Spin City, 1996; released debut single “The Universal Magnetic,” on Rawkus Records, 1996; released “Body Rock,” featuring Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, 1998; released debut album (with Talib Kweli), Black Star, 1998; released Black on Both Sides, 1999; played “Julius” in Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled, 2000; headlined the Lyricist Lounge Tour, 2000; made guest appearances on MTV’s spin-off show, Lyricist Lounge, 2000; appeared in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, MTV, 2001.
Addresses: Record Company —Rawkus Records, 676 Broadway, Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10012. Website —Official Rawkus Records Website, http://www.rawkus.com. Official Mos Def Website, http://www.mightymosdef.com.
a “new movement” in hip-hop. “All three are creating hip-hop that’s more personal, political, and spiritual,” wrote Christopher John Farley in Time, “than the bulk of what passes for Top-40 rap today.” Mos Def fit this new movement because his lyrics were socially conscious and his music was considered among the best in hip-hop. His voice became so powerful the United Nations invited him to The Hague to speak and perform at what was deemed the peace conference of the century. He accepted the invitation but insisted on paying his own way. Acts like his are rare, he said, because the music industry stifles them. “There is a community of artists in hip-hop who have made politically and socially conscious music,” he told Black Book, “but the corporate structure does whatever it can to frustrate the efforts of these artists.”
Mos Def has never been completely comfortable being labeled a socially conscious artist. He felt it alienated him somewhat from the hip-hop community as a whole. “So often, artists like myself… are referred to as alternative or conscious,” Mos Def was quoted as saying in his bio. “To me, that’s like another code word to diminish your attachments to the community, to black people. You’re sort of like this foreign, distant element that people may admire from a distance but they don’t have any real closeness to, it’s not intimate to them, it’s not of them.”
Mos Def’s highly anticipated debut full-length album came out in 1999. Black on Both Sides “is a tightrope walk across diverse hip-hop styles,” wrote critic Matt Diehl in Entertainment Weekly. “Merging old-school bravado with new-school poetics, the Brooklyn legend spouts incisive Afrocentric reality that takes all sides into account.” According to a critic in CMJ New Music Report, Black on Both Sides “is a poignant celebration of black culture through masterful lyricism and advanced sonic knowledge.” Another CMJ critic wrote the album “is simply one of the most unhindered and aesthetically ambitious hip-hop records in recent memory…. Free of the self-imposed limitations that often hinder other rap acts.” Black on Both Sides was certified gold.
In 2000 Mos Def headlined the 18-city Lyricist Lounge Tour 2000 with Talib Kweli, Punch & Words, Master Fuel, Ali Vegas, Jus, Reks, Akrobatic, Swiss Chris, and others. He took the stage with an all-star band which included Sugarhill Gang/Living Colour assist Doug Wimbish, Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know, and Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell. The rapper incorporated a variety of styles into his set, including the Temptations’ classic, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and Bob Marley’s reggae song, “Waiting in Vain.” The hour-long set was “by turns celebratory… devotional… and scathing,” wrote Boston Globe correspondent Jonathan Perry in a review of a Lyricist Lounge performance. Mos Def “demonstrated that his skills as an artist don’t merely begin and end with hip-hop,” Perry wrote. “… Mos Def’s turn at the mike was marvelously unpredictable and satisfyingly self-assured.”
Mos Def has always been outspoken on the state of contemporary culture and media. “In terms of what certain media outlets show you, it’s very one-dimensional,” he told Newsweek. “It’s not just hip-hop music—TV and movies in general are very narrow. Sex, violence, the underbelly, with junkies, prostitutes, alcoholics, gamblers. The new trend today is depravity.” He has been equally critical of the music industry and the repetitious, uninspired product it cranks out. “If all you make available is acorns,” he continued, “people will eat the… acorns.” He believes that violence in music is a reflection of the violence in culture, rather than an inspiration for it. “Artists,” he continued, “are only going to repeat what the climate is saying. America is extremely violent and oppressive to a lot of different folks. It’s very hostile to youth, only treating them like consumers—or addicts. It’s terminal consumerism. What’s going on in media is just a symptom of the real sickness.”
Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are …Black Star, Rawkus, 1998.
Black on Both Sides, Rawkus, 1999.
Black Book, Spring 2000, p. 169.
Boston Globe, September 29, 2000, p. C9.
Entertainment Weekly, November 5, 1999, p. 82.
Newsweek, October 9, 2000, p. 58.
Time, December 6, 1999, p. 96.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 10, 2001).
Bamboozled, http://www.bamboozledmovie.com/film/mdef.html (July 16, 2001).
CD Now, http://www.cdnow.com (July 16, 2001).
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (July 16, 2001).
Rawkus Records, http://www.rawkus.com (July 10, 2001).
"Mos Def 1973–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mos-def-1973
"Mos Def 1973–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mos-def-1973