Mos Def: Mushroom pants, Metallica, and the future

By Pete Beatty

On Saturday night after Mos Def’s Summer Breeze set, Voices emissaries Pete and Gabe sat down with for an all-too-brief interview with the artist.

Voices was understandably intimidated at the prospect of sitting down for a chat with the mind that brought you Black Star and Black on Both Sides, and we were a little nervous as we made our way into the bowels of Mandel Hall. Onstage, Mr. Def is a dynamo of blackness, equal parts rapping and singing, and in general just a snowballing brick of charisma. Mos in person is a soft-spoken, surprisingly slight, and imminently approachable guy clad in a cardigan, polo shirt, and slacks. He smiled upon our approach, and as we sat down it was evident that he didn’t mind talking to us one bit. He wasn’t sporting ice and platinum, but instead some really fucking nice turquoise-accented rings and watches. Credited, along with Talib Kweli, with aiding the revival of hip-hop from the foul-mouthed lost weekend that was gangsta rap with 1997’s Black Star LP, Mos Def is undeniably an MC of some import. But as he spoke to us, he willfully deflated his own image, and what we thought we knew about Mos Def faded from our minds. Mos Def is just a man. Just like everybody else. Yes, he has ideas about changing the world through music. It is hard to explain exactly how cool he was; let’s just say he radiated love. He uplifted our minds and made us doubly grateful to be missing Fuel. Bottom line, last Saturday we had the opportunity to chill with a good guy, never mind the fact that he might just be the future of American music.

Pete and Gabe: You’re playing on the South Side of Chicago, a very important place in terms of black culture, music particularly, jazz, blues. Yet you’re at the University of Chicago — an island of whiteness in terms of the rest of the South Side — and you’re playing in front of a mostly white and Asian crowd. Does it even matter to you? Do you not give two shits?

Mos Def: I don’t know, I mean I find in my audiences a little bit of everybody, a lot of different folks. You know you know cultural, a lot of black folks out there not just in terms of cultural stretching, a lot of generational spectrum too. You know you do a lot of shows, you see people. Teenagers, young teens, young adults, middle-aged people.

Pete: I saw like a 65-year old lady out there digging Run DMC.

Yeah. I think you just see that generally for a lot of different artists. I don’t think I’m the only one. I think hip-hop has cracked a lot of different social stratas. So you’re gonna see people from all different walks of life. Cultural persuasions — generations coming together.

Gabe: We’ve heard a lot about your bookstore in Brooklyn. I’ve heard different stories about how you came into that venture, and what it’s about. What are you planning to do with this business?

Well, Kweli was working at the bookstore many years before I got into it and anything happened, and Kweli used to hang out and do poetry readings and everything in the bookstore. He was a part of the hip-hop generation. Kweli is extremely literate. So he was working at the bookstore, I used to go visit him. Things started happening with Black Star and he said that my moms and some of my family should look into buying Nkiru . The owner was an old little lady with her daughter, she founded it, and she was trying to keep it alive for her daughter. But she was really in the mode to retire and settle down, so it was kind of like Kweli didn’t want to see the bookstore close. After going in there and experiencing what the place had to offer. I didn’t want it to close. So I kind of offered, so we did that. We didn’t want to make this a solely commercial venture; we decided to make it a not-for-profit organization. A foundation, so it could take pressure off the Nkiru having to perform, to actually have a lot of walk-in business. That’s the reason we’re doing it. The plan is really just starting, with our programs in and around the neighborhood. We started a couple pilot programs outside of New York, being a cultural center, and also a community resource for the communal good. I am just really proud to be a part of it.

Gabe: It is pretty clear to anyone who pays attention that hip-hop is becoming mainstream. People, in large part thanks to Black Star, have coined the term “intellectual hip-hop” as a genre for your music and for people like Common, Latyrx, and Dead Prez. Your song “Umi Says” was recently in a Nike commercial. Do you feel there is a move to commercialize your music? Is that okay with you? Is it even a question?

All music is commercial, 99 percent of music is commercial, it’s for sale. I’ve said this from early on, I’m not attached to any aesthetic. Some people who are preoccupied with whether things are becoming too commercial are just as bad to me as people who are preoccupied with being over people’s heads. Not being accessible enough. It’s the same sort of mentality on opposite sides of the spectrum. The most challenging thing to do and the most worthwhile thing to do is achieve a balance where what you’re doing is sincere and honest to your experience, something that does not seek to manipulate people, does not seek to curry favor with a particular crowd or audience, and should still be accessible. I think the real or true “artist” is not obscure. People’s yardstick for how vital something is like how difficult it must be find. (laughs) There’s so many examples that refute that, Stevie Wonder was extraordinary accessible, and so was Duke Ellington, so was Jimi Hendrix. They were also very original, very fresh, you know, not copies of anyone else. It’s possible to be accessible and still have edge. They used the song in the commercial because they liked the song. It’s certainly not like I live next door to Michael Jordan. I don’t know him, we don’t go golfing.

Gabe: So it’s just one of those things. At the end of your set tonight, you did a bit of “Traveling Man,” and I was just wondering, that song is so tight –

Thank you.

Gabe: Yeah, I was wondering, what was your inspiration writing it?

Traveling. All the traveling I do. Just really trying to explain to somebody that you love, that you’re coming back home. You’re all alone. Because you’re on the road and it can be harsh.

Pete: Like we were saying, it’s rare to see special artists, in anything, painting, music whatever, for someone to be simultaneously the most popular and the most innovative at what they do, for example, The Beatles.

Right! Right, exactly.

Pete: So it seems like you and Black Star, and the rest of the Rawkus roster, are just going good places in general, in addition to that, the stuff you put out is getting more and more popular, or at least commercially successful. Do you feel any pressure to dictate where hip-hop is going, being both artistically and commercially viable?

The pressure I feel is pressure that I am putting on myself because I am surrounded by people that are at the top of their ability. I am always in admiration of people who are just almost supernatural in their abilities to do things. So the pressure on myself is to be a stronger writer, a better performer, a better singer, to be a better songwriter. Actually, my own personal profile is very resistant to any label that any people have to put on me. I am making the decisions with my identity. I don’t want to become the darling of any community. I am very aggressive sometimes, and maybe heavy handed about refuting those titles and those labels. Because when Rawkus was just starting out, its emergence in late ’97, ’98, everybody was calling us “The New Kings of the Underground” and all this shit. Those things were painted in broader strokes than what’s really happening, so people can sell more magazines. They put the spin on the story because it added a sense of drama; and the truth about many things in life is that reality is really plain and mundane. People think that, like, you are travelling, you’re on the road. I mean we are in hotels. I’m seeing Meet the Parents for the 12th time. That’s life that is the way it is really like. People think that at Rawcus we set out to start a revolution. We just didn’t want to get the lights cut off. Myself, them as a record label, we are really just producing and putting out the music we like. They signed Company Flo cause they liked Company Flo. I worked with them and I liked them as a label. They liked me as an artist — and people started to respond to that. I wasn’t doing much of anything besides putting out the records that we think are good. People have more issue with our success than we do. Because people, you know, especially people who have the most criticism, they say it’s commercial now, it’s too accessible, it’s the same thing that people said about Miles Davis when he started using electronics and electric guitars. It’s the same thing they said about Bob Dylan when he went electric at Newport in 1965, it’s the same thing they said about Metallica, when they started touring stadiums, shit like when they cut they hair, like they’re less real now.

Pete: Yeah, they started calling them Alternica.

Yeah. I don’t get that…

You know what, what I would really like to say about this is that in this day and age there is no underground anything anymore. Because there’s too much information floating around about everything and everyone. So it’s only a matter of time before someone who is obscure will become un-obscure. We have reached the information age where people have data on all types of levels, of cultural data, personal data, about people, about artists, about you, architects, poets, people from all different areas of life. Just the general rule is that if you’re doing something that’s quality and worthwhile, it’s impossible for you to go unnoticed. Unless like you’re trying to be unnoticed and in that instance, it kinda defeats the purpose, you know. So it’s impossible for people to do things especially in the area of media: if they’re quality, then people are going to notice. I mean, Shuggie Otis is a perfect example of that right there.

Pete: That’s a good record.

Yeah, 1974, it’s 26 years old and he wasn’t at all noticed, and now, 26 years later, he’s enjoying this resurgence and to me it seems you can only hold that type of thing back but for so long, if it’s really real, somebody’s gonna know.

Gabe: So you talked a bit tonight about being a better father, being a better person, as you grow older, does it seem that you are on the right path, making the right choices, being the man you intend to be?

(Smiling) I’m trying. I’m really trying. I say it all the time, I think maybe if I looked a little different, if I looked a little meaner, people wouldn’t, you know. I do have this sort of sunny demeanor, makes people think that “Oh, he’s…” and I’m not like that. I’m just trying to have the best attitude I can. I work very hard. I’m just like anyone else. Sometimes I don’t feel very good. Sometimes I feel confused, sometimes I don’t behave very well. People may not get to see that about me, but people that know me certainly know that about me. I’m not one to hide it, I’m not one to broadcast it either. But I certainly don’t want to give off the illusion that I’m somewhere in a tantric pose at all times. I’m just trying to do the best I can, sometimes I have great success, sometimes I do not. I am 27 years old. I’m a private person who is a public figure; and it’s challenging. Sometimes I rise to the occasion, and other times I act stupid. But that’s it, I just try to keep it as real about that as possible. I don’t want to be held responsible for frontin’ to nobody. I’m just trying to be agreeable as possible. I’m certainly not all doom and gloom.

Gabe: You’re a real guy.

Uh huh. I’m a real dude, I’m just a plain dude. It’s pretty simple with me.

Gabe: Do you have a worst memory of grammar school?

I have the worst memory of grammar school. My fifth grade teacher, his name was Michael Shuman. It’ll let you know it’s pretty bad because I remember his first name. He was the worst dressed man. You know in Boomerang, the dude with the mushroom jacket, he had hundreds of em, yo, mushroom pants, shit with flying saucers, clouds, anything. He was also a wretched, wretched man. A very wretched man. He hated us. We all knew he hated us, and we hated him. He would read your reading scores to the class, you know, that type of tyrant. One day, I was talking, kinda sotto voce to one of my friends, and he walked over to me, I was in the front of the class, and he took the chalk and marked an X on my head. I wanted to kill him. The first time as a child that was I like, “I want to kill you.” That was the worst. In my mind, I was going, “That was completely unnecessary.” There were so many other options that he had available to him, that he just didn’t use. You know he could have sat me in the back of class, he could have asked to me be quiet very forcefully. He could have done anything, but he did that, and it was unnecessary. I think he enjoyed it. So wherever he is, I forgive him because it’s been suggested to me that’s the thing to do. That’s not exactly how I feel personally, but I’m just taking the suggestion.