The artist formerly known as Mos Def: pulling down the icons of luxury rap
Mos Def’s hotel room is a mint ice cream colour and download-era-cramped. Maybe it’s the video crew or the extended management-type clique that’s making Mos’s makeshift home seem constricted – one hour in and it’s got a bit sticky. His manager is laying down the law. “You’re not hearing me, are you? NO lights!” he barks at the cameraman. “He’ll walk straight out”.
The manager’s been in the squeaky bubble-chair foyer earlier, scrolling his BlackBerry, chatting in the lift about a Yellowman concert the following night. Eventually we settle for angling a lamp shade up into the chair. Night is falling over the city and Mos’s concert is 90 minutes away.
The manager re-enters and cagily inspects the set-up, phone glued to his head, talking to the social media agent Simon. Just as my attention was beginning to drift, Mos Def walks into the room. He’s wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons, a crepe tie with a button-down shirt, a V-Neck and red socks. What I remember are the pennies. He’s got pennies in the eyes of his black leather loafers. The way he speaks is calm and smooth, he has a high forehead with edged-off temples. His messy one-inch afro merges with straggling sideburns and the overall impression is of a sage.
Actor/rapper Mos Def, who is the most recognizable face of the ‘undie’ scene of independent hip hop, has recently changed his name to Yasiin Bey. In January he released ‘Niggas in the Poorest’ a re-mix of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s ‘Niggas in Paris’. The content runs opposed to the standard brags of West and Jay-Z, and relates from the poorest perspective, with lyrics like “Prince William ain’t do it right if you ask me / if I was him I’d put some black up in my family”. The track is part of a ‘Top 40 Underdog’ series, a stab at remixing a series of chart hits.
Pastiche has been a staple of Mos Def’s routine in the past, since his seminal collaboration album with Talib Kweli on Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star in 1998. He previously reworked Slick Rick’s ‘Children’s Story’ on that album, as well as interpolating Boogie Down Production choruses on ‘Definition’ and covering Jay-Z on ‘Takeover’. He puts down the inspiration to dancehall music – a musical tradition that has long remixed versions of songs using the same beat.
When he speaks, he tells me of his grounding in that music: “For sure I’m into reggae – I grew up in East Flatbush in Brooklyn as a teenager – Flatbush New York is a hotbed of reggae and Caribbean culture – it’s part of my background for sure.” Does the US have as strong a passion for Caribbean culture as us in the UK? “England is another hub for Caribbean culture – I think maybe there’s a deeper appreciation for reggae and Jamaican culture in the dominant culture here in Europe as opposed to in the States.”
Mos also shares that he’s an admirer of Michael Fassbender’s film Shame and he’d like to work with Steve McQueen, as well animator Ralph Bakshi, on a cartoon concept he has involving rapper Jay Electronica, featuring a cook on a liner coming out of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. The lyrics from 1999’s ‘Speed Law’ come floating into my mind: “lyrics so visual / They rent my rhyme books at your nearest home video”.
Then Mos starts talking about the scene in New York, comparing its fruition in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the Soul II Soul movement in the UK. Even for Mos, this is impressive: to know about an underground UK warehouse crew that used to clash against sound systems in Tottenham and Hoxton. He continues: “I really didn’t come to the UK until the late 90s, I just dreamed about it, looking at The Face and i-D magazines, wondering what it would be like.”
Only catching the tail-end of the Daisy-Age hip hop movement in New York, Mos was there long enough to be in the Native Tongues crew. This loose musical collective captured the era, and was made up of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Queen Latifah, Mos Def and Common to name a few. The scene was based in downtown New York.
“Washington Square Park was ground zero for us – but we would meet anywhere, on that whole real estate – SoHo, anywhere within a five of ten mile radius of the park was kinda open, Union Square – that general area below 16th Street or 17th Street was where the action was – the Lower East Side, there were other things going on uptown – Puff had Daddy’s House going on at the Red Zone for a while, but everything was really downtown. Boom Poetics, Anti-Pop Consortium – there was a lot of people there. New York in that time, in the late 1980s, early 1990s, was just another era, that wasn’t happening anywhere in the country, or in the world – to be a young adult at that time was a really dynamic experience – a lot of different movements were going on at the same time, you had the neo-house movement, the voguers, and all these incredible dances, and artists and MCs, and poets…It was really an amazing time.”
Mos is taking a new direction with the iconoclasm of his Top 40 mockery, his obscure new name. He seems confident though. To quote from 1998’s ‘Twice Inna Lifetime’: “Hide yourself like Donna Summer / Another number one-a”Tagged in: Dancehall, hip hop, Mos Def, music, Native Tongues, Niggas in the Poorest, undie, Yasiin Bey
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