Rap Without Pretense

Suddenly, the interview takes another turn for the absurd. Mos Def, who is in a recording studio cutting demos of tracks that may appear on a future solo release, becomes distracted by a video game being played by personnel in the studio lounge. Amazed, he is compelled to describe the game in detail: "There is a grown man -- or a virtual version of what a man is supposed to be -- dressed in a jet-powered jumpsuit, fighting on the shores of a virtual beach," he exclaims. "He's fighting a little, yellow dinosaur -- a midget dinosaur. Now it's some dude with a smoking jacket fighting a half-man-half-tiger with some Rick James 'Superfreak' boots!" Of the game's cloying, electronic soundtrack, Mos Def says, "Federal prosecutors are sticking people in rooms with this music on a loop, and securing all manner of confessions."

Many rappers spend their studio breaks smoking marijuana and playing video games. Mos Def claims to avoid both, "like smallpox blankets." The games, he says, "are creating a generation of small-minded, big thumbed -- I mean, what kind of skill is this?!" As for pot: "One of the first things [older students] told me in high school was, 'You! Don't do drugs!' I spent a lot of time convincing people I wasn't high."

Asked if he comes from an artistic family, Mos Def instantly becomes serious again. His father is pianist in a group called Voices of Folk. "They play slave spirituals, Bessie Smith songs, music from the Gullah Islands," he explains. "I grew up hearing that kind of music. People say that blues is where most American music comes from and I got to hear where blues comes from. It was a real fortunate experience." Mos Def's combination of youthful exuberance and erudition brings to mind the words of Q-Tip, who once characterized himself in song as "One hundred percent intelligent black child."

Much like A Tribe Called Quest, who debuted in 1990 with the light-hearted People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Black Star has chosen to announce their arrival with a subdued confidence rather than the more typical bombast and bravado. "People say it's laid- back," says Mos Def of the Black Star album, "but I think it's really swinging. I think it gives you a chance to sit back and listen. But you can dance to it -- it's not like the wind whistling through the trees. It's secure. It's not forced. It's a very late-night album. Me and Kweli are late-night people."

"We try to have dimension with what we're doing," he adds. "Our next album will sound totally different than this, and the next one totally different than that." It's a task that Mos Def seems hungry to achieve. "I sort of feel more like staying home and doing some more recording," he says of the forthcoming tour. "But I've never played Miami. I'm looking forward to catching a tan."

Black Star, De La Soul, Flavor, Maseo, Rah Sun, Syndicate, Common, and Eminem perform Thursday, October 29, when the Lyricist Lounge tour stops at Liquid, 1439 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach; 305-535-3063. Tickets are $15. Doors open at 11:00 p.m.

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