Born Mohandas Dewese, c. 1963, in New York, NY. Education: State University of New York at Old Westbury, B.A. Addresses: Management-- The Zomba Group, 137-139 West 25th St., New York, NY 10001.
In a review of Kool Moe Dee's 1991 album Funke, Funke Wisdom, Rolling Stone 's Alan Light referred to the artist as "one of rap's founding fathers." From the rapper's pioneering work with the Treacherous Three in the early 1980s to his highly successful solo work, Kool Moe Dee has honed his distinctively hard-edged but stylish delivery and pursued his cherished theme of black independence. Poised between the mass market giants of pop-rap and the hardcore underground, he has for many years forged a middle path; he mixes political and social commentary with playful rhyming and dancefloor beats. "Funk is definitely necessary" to convey serious messages, he told Billboard. "The idea is to entertain first."
Moe was born Mohandas Dewese in Harlem, New York, in the early 1960s. He attended Norman Thomas High School in New York City and was an avid rapper as a teen; he started out, according to his Jive Records biography, "by grabbing the mike at house parties." His interest in rap grew out of a long-standing fascination with wordplay. "My group of friends growing up were considered, like, the outcasts of the neighborhood because we weren't caught up in doing drugs and crime and things like that," he told Stephen Fried of GQ. "We were, like, the next step from a nerd. We weren't bookworms, but we considered ourselves the intellectual street kids. We had fun with words. We used to like to show how much we knew. Our competition was over vocabulary. Throw a word in there, and see if anybody can respond. And if the person doesn't respond correctly, it means he didn't understand the word--or sometimes we'd overlook it and then run home and look it up." He added that he "was fascinated with words. [Illustrator and rhyme-obsessed author] Dr. Suess, The Cat in the Hat, was phenomenal to me at 5 or 6. [Former heavyweight boxing champion] Muhammad Ali [was, too], not just because of the way he boxed but his poetic style. Loved that stuff."
Moe formed the rap group Treacherous Three with his friends L.A. Sunshine and Special K. The trio debuted on Spoonie Gee's 1980 Enjoy Records single "The New Rap Language." Harry Allen, introducing Moe's testimonial in the Village Voice, called the single "a futuristic record that showed the lyrical and percussive possibilities of hip-hop right up your auditory canal." Treacherous Three soon began to generate excitement with singles like 1981's "Bodyrock" and "Heartbeat." Soon they were signed to Sugarhill Records, the home of some of the guiding lights of early rap. They released a number of singles, including "Action" and "Yes We Can," showcasing their skill as complex rhymesters. Soon, though, their style was eclipsed by the emergence of hardcore rap; groups like Run-DMC and Whodini captivated audiences with a tougher, simpler style. Moe left the Three--and the music world, for a time--and attended the State University of New York at Old Westbury, Long Island, earning a B.A. in communications.
He couldn't stay away from rap for long, however. His solo single "Go See the Doctor," a wry cautionary rhyme about sexual promiscuity, appeared on Rooftop Records and caught the attention of Jive/RCA. The company bought Kool Moe Dee's self-titled debut album and released it in 1986. "Moe Dee's style is slack-jawed and straight-faced, laced with menace," observed Lloyd Richards of Melody Maker. "There's something disturbing in his voice," Richards remarked, suggesting that "Go See the Doctor" might have misled listeners into expecting more "goofy" rap. He chided Moe for the apparent misogyny of certain tracks; the album, he concluded, is "psycho rap for stranglers in the night."
Moe's first effort after signing with Jive, How Ya Like Me Now?, was his big breakthrough. It went platinum and marked the beginning of Moe's feud with fellow rapper L.L. Cool J. The two have exchanged lyrical blows intermittently ever since. Fried noted that on the inner sleeve of the record, "he arrogantly offered his own report card on the industry. Grading on the Kool Moe Dee curve, the rapper rated himself and twenty-four of his competitors in ten categories (including vocabulary, articulation and 'sticking to themes'), assigning final scores that--what a surprise--mathematically proved him to be first in his class."
How Ya Like Me Now? was a hard act to follow, but Kool Moe Dee reemerged in 1989 with Knowledge Is King, a solid success in its own right though not as big a smash as its predecessor. Knowledge includes the single "I Go to Work," produced by hip-hop wizard Teddy Riley; Alan Light of Rolling Stone called the song "stunning." While much of the album devotes itself to issues of black autonomy and political power, "I Go to Work" is a straightforward boast--albeit one that gives Moe the chance to stretch out lyrically: "Every rhyme's a dissertation/You wanna know my occupation?/I get paid to rock the nation." Nelson George of the Village Voice noted that calling Knowledge Moe's best album "isn't saying much," but added, "Everything on the first half of Knowledge hits hard, along with one solid uppercut in the second," even if the album overall "sounds too clean."
Fried remarked in GQ that Knowledge "may not have been the most politically important rap record in the year of Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power,' but it was arguably the most accomplished in terms of balancing lyrics, music and performance.' He added that the record sold 625,000 copies--still impressive though markedly less so than the 950,000 copies of How Ya Like Me Now? The year of Knowledge Is King, Kool Moe Dee became--according to his press biography--the first rap artist ever to perform at the Grammy awards. Billboard 's Janine McAdams observed that Kool Moe Dee "has aligned himself with the new breed of socially conscious rappers. The title track of the new album is the clearest evidence of that commitment." Moe's other activities included voiceovers for TV commercials and an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show.
In 1990 Moe released an unsuccessful EP called God Made Me Funke; he also shared rapping duties with Ice-T and rap trailblazer Melle Mel on the title track of composer-producer Quincy Jones's album Back on the Block. As part of his commitment to improving conditions in the black community, Moe rapped on the gold charity single "Self-Destruction" for the Stop the Violence project organized by rapper-activist KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions and contributed a short prose piece to the project's book Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction. In his essay he addresses the issue of black-on-black violence, particularly at rap concerts. "The violence is not caused by rap fans," he insists. "It's caused by bandits who come to prey on young kids who are there to enjoy the show." He also asserts that "rap artists are into something besides making money. It's at the point where we're trying to show that we really care about the fans, and not just the fans but the black community, because that's where rap music is generated from, and for. We think that because we have this spotlight and the attention of youth we can utilize this to become young black leaders, so to speak, since they don't have any real positive images to identify with." His rap on the STV record was even more to the point: "I never had to run from the Ku Klux Klan/And I shouldn't have to run from a black man."
According to Havelock Nelson of Billboard, Moe "went back to the streets for inspiration" after God Made Me Funke faltered. "I'm a perfectionist," he admitted to McAdams. "I think speaking is an art form in itself. [My style is] a way to ride and accent certain parts of a sentence to make it stick. I think a lot of rappers just rap to go through it, while I'm thinking: What message am I trying to get across? What's the most important part of this sentence? I'm always trying to take myself to another level lyrically."
He found his next level with 1991's Funke, Funke Wisdom. Relying on samples from funk standbys like James Brown, Parliament, and Sly and the Family Stone, Funke, Funke Wisdom places the emphasis on dance rhythms even as it broaches social issues. Moe is joined by KRS-One and Public Enemy rapper Chuck D. for the track "Rise 'n' Shine," while he has another go at L.L. Cool J with "Deathblow." Jive executive Barry Weiss told Nelson that "Rise 'n' Shine" was first released as a video, then as a single, before the album's release. It went to number one on the Hot Rap Singles chart. "People at street level and at retail were screaming for the record" by that time, he said. "At its best," Light opined, Funke, Funke Wisdom "marks a return to the joyous words-for-words'-sake looseness that powered hip-hop's early classics." Light found "Deathblow" the only real flaw on the album, continuing as it does "a rivalry which grew tired long ago." According to Fried, Funke, Funke Wisdom "will neither incite inner-city youth to riot nor further suburbanize rap music. Nor will it likely be compared to the hardest-cutting edge of rap--Public Enemy, Ice Cube, N.W.A.--which has been embraced by critics as the new punk rock. But it will, once again, walk the fine line between political and musical correctness--balancing message and music, function and fun."
Kool Moe Dee found his niche with this balancing act. A quote in his biography offers a key to his longevity: "The only reason I can say that I'm still around today, is because unlike other old school rappers, I pay attention to what people like. I make music for them. You can't get caught up in yourself." That may be, but he has also survived because--as both Light and George have observed--he has focused on himself; his playful raps have often been a celebration of his own prowess. After all, the second single on Funke, Funke Wisdom asks the musical question "How Kool Can One Black Man Be?"
by Simon Glickman
Kool Moe Dee's Career
Recording and performing artist, 1980--. Debuted with the Treacherous Three on Spoonie Gee's single "The New Rap Language"; with group, signed to Sugarhill Records, 1981; released solo single "Go See the Doctor," Rooftop Records, c. 1985; recorded first solo album, Kool Moe Dee, reissued, Jive/RCA Records, 1986; signed to Jive/RCA and recorded How Ya Like Me Now?, 1987. Contributed voice-overs to TV commercials for British Knights athletic shoes and Minute Maid orange juice, 1989. Contributor to Village Voice and book Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction, edited by Nelson George, Pantheon, 1990. Established production company and wrote screenplays, c. 1990-91. Appeared in television film Strapped, HBO, 1993.
Kool Moe Dee's Awards
Platinum record for How Ya Like Me Now?, 1987.
- Selective Works
- Singles; with the Treacherous Three "The New Rap Language," Enjoy, 1980.
- "Bodyrock," Enjoy, 1981.
- "Heartbeat," Enjoy, 1981.
- "Action," Sugarhill.
- "Yes We Can," Sugarhill.
- Solo releases "Go See the Doctor" (single), Rooftop, 1985.
- Kool Moe Dee Jive/RCA, 1986.
- How Ya Like Me Now? Jive/RCA, 1987.
- Knowledge Is King (includes "I Go to Work"), Jive/RCA, 1989.
- "God Made Me Funke" (single), Jive/RCA, 1990.
- Funke, Funke Wisdom (includes "Rise 'n' Shine" and "How Kool Can One Black Man Be?"), Jive/RCA, 1991.
- Contributor to Stop the Violence project single "Self-Destruction," Jive/RCA, 1989; Quincy Jones's Back on the Block Qwest/Warner Bros., 1990; and Zebrahead soundtrack, Ruffhouse, 1992.
- Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction, edited by Nelson George, Pantheon, 1990.
- Periodicals Billboard, July 22, 1989; July 27, 1991.
- GQ, June 1991.
- Melody Maker, January 24, 1987.
- Rolling Stone, July 11, 1991.
- Village Voice, August 1, 1989; January 2, 1990.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Jive/RCA press biography, May 1991.