Rap Without Pretense

The emerging rap star known as Mos Def is a goofball. Usually, interviewing rap stars is an exercise in cliche recitation, with both parties agreeing about the need to take hip-hop to the "next level," and to "stop the violence." For a few moments Mos Def and I speak along those lines. He talks about the importance of "just being sincere, having sincere intentions." Mos Def, short for Most Definitely (his real name is Dante Beze), wants to see rappers, "doing what they do and saying what they say because it's actually important to them. It's a rough thing to talk about," he continues, "because sometimes some nonsense is important to people.

"There's always some guy in some dusky lab going 'Aha! I am going to create pop's next uber-group!'" he explains, changing his voice to imitate a plotting and supremely evil nerd. "'I'll take three parts contrived ideas, four parts more contrived ideas, and a sprinkle of ... contrived ideas! My theorem is perfect! I'll release my serum in the air ducts and let these pop microbes travel across the metropolitan air!'" It's easy to imagine this cartoonish character gleefully rubbing his hands together as yet another remade Eighties pop song lurches from the grave.

But then characters come easy to Mos Def, who is also an actor -- he reports that just this morning he caught a glimpse of himself on TV, in an A&E rerun of The Cosby Mysteries. Born in Flatbush and raised in Bedford- Stuyvesant (both are neighborhoods in Brooklyn), he attended Manhattan's Julia Richman High School for the Performing Arts, focusing on drama. He costarred in a yet-to-be-released, feature-length movie that was shot last spring, called Where's Marlo? But Mos Def's most remarkable recent performance is his inventive vocal on Black Star's rousing new single, "Definition." Tuneful and joyous yet sharply penetrating, his performance tempers the song's topic -- an elegiac state-of-the-hip-hop-nation address -- with an air of detached whimsy. The song is as instantly recognizable and against the contemporary flow as the early work of De La Soul, on whose most recent album, 1996's Stakes Is High, then-22-year-old Mos Def made a guest appearance -- his recording debut.

With the release of "Definition," Black Star -- a duo including Mos Def and his equally loquacious partner Talib Kweli -- emerge as one of the premier acts of rap's independent-label underground subgenre. The pair's debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, is scheduled for release on September 29, by New York indie Rawkus.

The emergence of a hip-hop underground is a recent development. Six years ago, the market for rap music was small enough that artists stood little chance of scoring a commercial smash. Now there are usually as many or more rap albums on Billboard's "Hot 200" chart than there are guitar-driven rock releases. And like that of guitar rock, the hip-hop audience is fragmented, with music tailored for the masses getting most of the attention while artists concerned with innovation and aesthetic challenges take a back seat. The underground defined itself in opposition to rappers who'd crossed over into the pop world and, some claimed, thereby cut themselves off from hip-hop's progressive roots. This sentiment was expressed in a spoken interlude on the Wu-Tang Clan's 1997 opus Wu-Tang Forever, and on Cipher Complete's "Bring Hip-Hop Back," the first song on this year's two-CD compilation Lyricist Lounge Volume One. (The Lyricist Lounge is the nomadic open-mike showcase that has, since 1991, given nearly all of New York's most promising underground rappers -- including Mobb Deep, Fat Joe, Channel Live, M.O.P and Company Flow -- their first crack at a packed house. Black Star performs September 24 at Liquid in Miami Beach as part of the first ever Lyricist Lounge tour.)

The "hip-pop" contingent, led by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, responded to these attacks from below by saying, in effect, "You're just jealous." A new phrase, player hater, was added to the rap lexicon to refer to certain rappers' and fans' allegedly unwarranted negativity. It caught on. Almost no one wanted to be termed a hater. But Mos Def didn't buy it. At last spring's press conference announcing the release of the Lyricist Lounge CD (on which Mos Def rapped alongside Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest), he asserted, through a grin, "I have the right to hate whoever I want." With his laid-back, witty manner and winning mellifluousness it's obvious that Mos Def is far from hateful.

"I think people created it to insulate themselves from any real constructive criticism of their work," he says of the player hater tag. "In some instances it's true that people make comments out of jealously. But it became a blanket statement where if you say anything critical about someone's work you're hating them. It's a very narrow view." This line of conversation leads back to the issue of sincerity. "Everybody wants to ride the middle of the road," says Mos, "because once you take a position you have opposition. [The attitude that] 'Everybody's Cool,' is just not realistic. When you take a stand for something you take a stand against something else. That's just the way of nature."

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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Adam Heimlich