In 2000, for The FADER's 3rd issue, we hung out with Mos Def—now known as Yasiin Bey—at New York's Empire Diner for his very first cover story.
Mos Def is missing the Grammys. Holed up for the past two hours in studio one of the Rocket Rehearsal Studios, and unassuming red-brick building in Manhattan’s Garment District, the Brooklyn-birthed MC has other priorities. Having just opened for Macy Gray at Roseland, Mos Def is devising a new set with his four-piece band and bassist Doug Wimpish (formerly of Living Colour and the Sugarhill Records session band)—for an upcoming show with D’Angelo at Radio City Music Hall.
The first time Mos Def emerged from the studio, he has an unexpected reunion with an old junior-high girlfriend he hasn’t seen since the days he was Dante Smith. Wearing a cardigan with khakis, loafers, and a Kangol-style cap, he embraces her, standing about six inches shorter than his former popcorn love. The second time he emerges, the Roots have just won a Grammy for “You Got Me.” Mos peers up at a mounted television screen, as Erykah Badu, Common, and the legendary Roots crew wild out onstage via satellite. He gives them their props as the dozen or so at Rocket Rehearsal loudly exalt the achievement and its symbolism: true hip-hop wins again...
The recent gold certification of Black on Both Sides shares the same moral. Mos Def's multifaceted debut was an intelligently nationalistic work, ringing true to the cultural values of hip-hop with musicality and topical range. Popular acceptance of both Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Mos Def's solo album means hope for those discouraged by hip-hop culture's displacement in the rap music industry. It shows that a fairly large segment of the masses haven't been blinded by the bling bling of rap's current platinum and ice fixation and are openly receptive to more challenging and progressive perspectives—spiritually and politically.
As the closing credits to the Grammy Awards begin to scroll, Mos Def bounds down the narrow stairway with a younger brother (Mos, at 26, is the oldest of nine), followed by his mother and a writer. The Empire Diner—the silver, trailer-shaped location of Madonna's 1992 "Bad Girl" video—is the final item on the night's itinerary, the spot for a midnight meal. En route in an SUV, he begins an analogy about the mice-ridden squalor of D&D Studios and the sheen of Sony Music Studios that extends to hip-hop's materialism, which segued into the following dialogue at this restaurant:
Are you worried about going over the heads of teenage rap listeners, given the golden-aged hip-hop nostalgia in some of your rhymes?
MOS DEF: That’s what we suffer from as a people on this continent jettisoned from our history. The present is a product of the past. If you’re living for now, today—without any relationship or respect for what happened yesterday—you put yourself at risk of repeating the same mistakes. I think people begin to wax nostalgic about things on that basis, especially for hip-hop. For the most part, there’s no real understanding of the history or the heritage or the tradition.
Do you expect a resurgence of graf or breakdancing, neglected elements of hip-hop culture?
I don’t think elements of culture really die or fade away; they relocate. They manifest themselves in other areas. Graf and breakdancing haven’t died. They just relocated. And that’s fine. However, they moved to a place that is not necessarily close to the residential district of urban black people today.
Most of the people who are into breakdancing and graf are either practitioners or enthusiasts. People who are into graf are generally graf artists themselves. And it used to not be like that. You could be into graf without necessarily being a graf aficionado or a graffiti artist. You could be into breakdancing without ever having done a windmill. And I think that’s where the art is most affected. I don’t have to play the violin to appreciate Bach or Brahms. It should be that way with all of the different elements of hip-hop culture. Most of the people who listen to people rhyme can’t rhyme.
Some people that rhyme can’t rhyme.
Word. Some people that rhyme can’t rhyme. Graf and that is still around, it’s just not…It seems like it’s been co-opted by a different generation that has a respect and admiration for that aspect of the culture, and has an academic awareness of the history, but they don’t come from the environment, and they’re not products of the climate that produced it. So as much love as they can have, at some point there’s a ceiling for how far those deep sentiments can go.
Do you think multi-platinum sales ruined the authenticity or the purity of hip-hop?
No. I think people’s perspective on the important of sales ruined hip-hop. There’s a very racist practice in the record industry around the sales issue, in my opinion. The emphasis is always put on performance when it comes to black folk. We have to perform quicker, stronger, and with less resources. And when we satisfy that criteria, we’re still under-appreciated. It seems like white artists do less and get more.
The record industry resents hip-hop because hip-hop brings up so many old beefs: the social beef, the economic beef, the political beef. [But] it makes money. I mean, there are many instances where people do business with each other and the business is lucrative but they can’t stand each other. So the labels put the emphasis on sales, they put the pressure on artists to perform quickly and strongly, then the artists put that pressure on themselves. And what happens is that the music suffers and then the audience suffers, and it’s a domino effect.
Sales is not putting any damper on artists like Moby’s career. He went gold after I don’t know how long his record was out. Two Grammy nominations, he ain’t have a gold record. Now, how many [rap] artists been gold over their singles? I mean, my record is gold. But in hip-hop it’s like, “So what, your record is gold? So?” You almost gotta break a record historically to even go beyond the sales mark of what hip-hop has established in the last five years. Sales is not the problem.
The bottom line is that if hip-hop was not selling records, they would not be putting it out. These labels, they could care less bout the historical relationship or the cultural relationship. They don’t have any social, cultural, economic, or political sensitivity to hip-hop, from what I could see, at all. It’s all about dollars and money, and it’s not like that with other artists. C’mon, Jakob Dylan comes out with the Wallflowers, and from what I heard, their first album sold 50,000 records. But they kept making albums on them. C’mon, you sell 50,000 records in hip-hop, you don’t have a deal no more. If it’s gonna be that way, it should be that way for everybody. If the emphasis is on sales—what your performance is—then it should be this way for everybody, and it's not.
A Tribe Called Quest once subtlety brought attention to the likes of South African political prisoner Steven Biko and jazz bassist Ron Carter in their music, while simultaneously mastering the art of moving butts. Mos Def, who came to fame on De La Soul’s “Big Brother Beat” off the 1996 release Stakes is High, is logically acknowledged as an extended family member of the Native Tongues bloodline. But Q-Tip’s current solo path seems strangely divergent from Mos Def’s, embracing Hype Williams flash in the name of artistic growth with his own Amplified debut.
Question number seven on my list is related to their potential aesthetic differences and, as if on cue, Q-Tip enters the Empire Diner wearing a faux fur with two females in town. He makes a bee line to Mos Def, mentions rehearsing a live band and directing his first film short, then joins in.
“[Mos Def has a] willingness to be liberated,” Tip begins. “To not really have anything bar him from his expression is something that’s just brave, and not a lot of artists have that. It’s one thing that I had to kind of learn, but with him, it’s something that’s kinda innate. It’s allowed him to go to different idioms; not just rap, but film or writing and things of that nature. He just has a beautiful spirit, a very even-keeled person. And i think those are the things that points him in genius. But I just think he doesn’t realize how genius he is. But he’ll realize it soon.”
One of the common threads that links Mos Def to Q-Tip and the Native Tongues legacy is nationalism. It prompted Tribe’s affiliation to the Universal Zulu Nation, and spurred Black Star to spearhead Hip-Hop For Respect, the Amadou Diallo-Inspired benefit EP for victims of police brutality. Q-Tip doesn’t see it quite that way, however.
“I don’t think his thing is nationalistic at all,” he says, after trading Henny Youngman jokes with Mos. “If you look at it, it’s quite humanistic. I think that hip-hop is a way of life. His whole thing, he just happens to be an artist doing hip-hop. If he was singing, it would be the same thing, or playing. So, hip-hop should be lucky to have that expression, to be able to claim it. I think it’s important, not only to just hip-hop, [but] just to music, to art. Because it opens it up. I was happy when I heard him ‘cause I knew I was doing the right thing. It’s not even about whether anybody feels it, or you feel it, or a fan feels it. He feels it, which is the most important thing.”
Mos Def doesn’t want to hold Q-Tip any longer, and humbly apologizes. Tip says, “You’re not holding me—you’re all the way over there!” Mos replies, “I flew in this morning all the way from Chicago—and boy are my arms tired!” And so it goes.
Do you think it’s non-progressive to be on a rap label, in this new age of the internet and independently-owned labels?
I think it all depends on what people are trying to do. If people are trying to be famous, then they’ll do one thing. If people are just trying to support themselves and put their music out and do so in a way where they control what they create—they control how it’s presented, they control the bulk of the money that they get—and that’s what they wanna do, they’re gonna do another thing. Some people wanna achieve notoriety so they can use whatever acclaim or light that they have to shine it on broader issues, donate to something other than themselves. At the end of the day, it’s all based on people’s intentions on what people are trying to do.
I wouldn’t say it’s non-progressive. I think it’s non-progressive to tolerate being confined to anything just for the sake of being recognized; I think that’s what’s non-progressive. I’m not necessarily attached to any aesthetic, and I always say this. I’m not about the underground or the guerrilla route. I respect the good elements of that. There’s negative elements to that as well, just like there’s negative elements to…everything that’s not measured properly. People will progress based on their intentions.
How does being a practicing Muslim inform your sensibilities as an artist?
Well, and I say this all the time, if anybody sees any good from me, it comes from Allah. If anybody hears anything that’s useful from me, or sees me doing something positive or productive, it’s from Allah. And if people see me falling short, or they see my deficits, then that’s from my own shortcomings. And I hope that Allah will make it easy for me, have mercy, and give me the strength and encouragement to do what’s right.
How do you think things have changed for kids who had their wonder years in the ‘90s, compared to those who were teenagers in the ‘80s?
Well, they don’t have a relationship with hip-hop as being a subculture. Their relationship with hip-hop is the dominant culture [“Hip-hop hip-hop, culture shmulture…,” Q-Tip says from tables away. Mos replies, “Security!”] Nah, their relationship with hip-hop is, it’s everywhere. We didn’t have that relationship. When I was coming up, hip-hop was neighborhood music. [Now] it’s mainstream culture. So their relationship to it is completely different. Their expectations of it are completely different. I don’t think they have any awareness about it being a subculture.
Have you read The Prophet by Khalil Gibran?
It’s one of the first books I ever got. My mother gave it to me.
To the degree that there’s a spiritual renaissance going on, how do you expect that to impact hip-hop?
Hip-hop, art, is only going to do what the people are doing. Art doesn’t imitate life. Art is the expression of life. So art and life are never separate. Whatever people are going through is gonna be in their music, their paintings, their books. And people are gonna respond to whatever is happening around them. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote novels about his generation, his time, about what was going on. His own personal perspective.
Jack Kerouac did the same thing for the Beat Generation.
Jack Kerouac did the same thing. You gonna find that everywhere. People that ain’t in any kind of artistic endeavor, people that are in straight-up get-money kinda business endeavors are feeling that there’s more of an emphasis now on the spirit than may have been before. I mean, all of this is written anyway, so it’s on time, it’s on schedule.
Tell me all about Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, starring you and Jada Pinkett.
Spike is on some Muhammed Ali shit with this movie, man. People thought Do the Right Thing was controversial. Do the Right Thing is after-school-special shit in comparison, in terms of controversy. I just really have so much respect for Spike for even having the balls to make this type of movie. It’s mad funny, too, but what he’s talking about is not funny at all!
White folks been dealing with black folks in America… Everything is designed to keep you from being a human being. ‘Cause if they have to look at you and deal with you as a human being, then they gotta start sharing the pie. They gotta start divvying up the pot equally. There’s a parable, it says, “you want for your brother what you want for yourself.” And that’s the measure of brotherhood. If somebody’s really down with you, and they sitting at the table and there’s a pie, they gonna give you an equal piece. They may want the last piece and waiting to see if you want it. It’s not like that with black people. We not viewed as human.
Some people contest that, but it’s like, they shoot Amadou Diallo 41 times. He was unarmed, and now the argument is, “well, they didn’t mean it.” Which is just like, that’s sorta besides the point—whether they were defensive or not is not the argument. The argument is that they did it, and it was completely unjustified. They was completely unjustified in doing so [and] niggas is getting pats on the wrist. Like, if you that type of police officer that could just shoot an unarmed man 41 times, not responding to any sort of distress call on his block or anything, you don’t need to be a police officer. You should also spend some time in prison to think about what you did.
So that’s what the movie is dealing with, to me, that’s the philosophy of the movie: white folks paradigm about black people’s humanity. Some people in America is racist and they don’t have any idea about how racist they are. And that is deep.