Born Dante Terrell Smith on December 11, 1973, in Brooklyn, NY. Addresses: Record company--Rawkus Records, 676 Broadway, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10012. Website--Mos Def Official Website: http://www.mosdefinitely.com.
Rapper Mos Def's brand of hip-hop music is a socially conscious departure from image-driven gangsta rap. Def came up in Brooklyn, New York, during hip-hop's golden years and emerged a multi-talented and celebrated hip-hop artist, actor, and activist. "The last few years have witnessed the transformation of Brooklyn rapper Mos Def from underground icon to overground star," Richard Harrington wrote in the Washington Post in 2002. According to Jonathan Perry in the Boston Globe, Def has earned his "reputation as an outspoken, politically minded rapper whose positivist messages of unity, freedom, and self-knowledge found their way" onto his 1998 album Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are ... Black Star and his 1999 album Black on Both Sides, two of the most acclaimed hip-hop releases of the 1990s. His lyrics also earned Def international renown as a champion for human rights and equality. As an actor, he has appeared in such films as Bamboozled, Monster's Ball, and Brown Sugar, and in 2002 he performed on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Top Dog/Underdog.
Mos Def's given name is Dante Terrell Smith. He was born December 11, 1973, and he was raised, the eldest of 12 children, in the projects of the Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn. He grew up listening to pioneering hip-hop artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Eric B and Rakim. At age nine Def started writing rhymes that echoed the socially and politically conscious lyrics of these artists. He was a gifted student, and he interned for a year with the human rights organization Amnesty International.
The talented hip-hop artist actually started in entertainment as an actor, not a rapper. His first turn on stage was in a production of Free to Be You and Me in fifth grade. As a teen, he acted in school plays, off-Broadway, and in community theater. He was credited as Dante Terrell Smith after high school on television. He appeared as Richard in God Bless the Child in 1988 and played Raymond Kirkland on You Take the Kids in 1990. He also appeared in episodes of NYPD Blue, The Cosby Mysteries, and Spin City. MTV developed a spin-off series called Lyricist Lounge, on which Mos Def made guest appearances. He played the villainous Lt. Miller in an updated version of the classic opera Carmen called Carmen: A Hip Hopera on MTV in 2001, and he hosted HBO's Def Poetry Jam in 2002.
While he was working as an actor in the late 1980s, Def would wander to Washington Square Park in New York, where he could hone his skills among the aspiring young rappers there. Mos Def's first musical effort was a family affair. Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), the group he formed with his brother and sister, released a single, "My King Fu," in 1994. He then joined seminal hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa's Native Tongues collective, which included the hip-hop groups A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. His work with Native Tongues parlayed into cameo appearances on the De La Soul song "Big Brother Beat" and the Bush Babees' "Love Song." Mos Def's own debut single, "The Universal Magnetic," was released on the independent hip-hop label Rawkus Records in 1996. His follow-up, 1998's "Body Rock," featured Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest.
After standing in the shadows of other acts, Mos Def came into his own as a duo with fellow hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, whom he met in their Washington Square Park days. Their full-length 1998 release, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are ... Black Star, was lauded by critics and fans and set a new standard for serious, socially conscious hip-hop. "I was in L.A. right after the album came out and I'm on stage performing and I'm lookin' at people reciting words of the songs off the album. And I'm like, 'Am I seein' this right? I know this record has not been out that long.' The record came out in October and by January it was gold. Everything changed," he recalled in a 2002 interview with Entertainment Weekly. "My creative possibilities just started to explode."
In addition to his politically aware music, Mos Def also gets behind activist causes. He was heavily involved in two projects to protest the 1999 shooting death of Haitian immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers. He put together the Hip-Hop for Respect EP, which targeted the issue of police brutality, and appeared on The Price of Freedom ... Is Truth (The Amadou Project). He was invited to speak and perform at a United Nations peace conference. Def and Kweli also own an Afrocentric bookstore in Brooklyn.
When Def made the jump to the big screen, some saw him as just another in a line of hip-hop artists to try their hand at acting--rappers Will Smith, Ice Cube, and Queen Latifah all had made names for themselves in Hollywood--but Def had to remind critics that he had been acting for years. "When I started doing films, they thought it was just a clever publicity scheme," he told the New York Times Magazine in a 2002 interview. "But I had been long doing both." He played Julius, the leader of a radical rap group called the Mau Maus, who changes his name to Big Black Africa, in Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled, which satirizes television. He appeared in the controversial 2001 film Monster's Ball and in the 2002 romantic comedy Brown Sugar. His music is featured on the soundtrack of The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington.
Mos Def's 1999 full-length solo recording debut, Black on Both Sides, lived up to expectations. In addition to gold certification for sales, it was celebrated by critics and fans. The album "is a tightrope walk across diverse hip-hop styles," wrote critic Matt Diehl in Entertainment Weekly."Merging old-school bravado with new-school poetics, the Brooklyn legend spouts incisive Afrocentric reality that takes all sides into account." Arguments with his label, MCA, stalled any further releases. "I'm not sure they know whether or not slavery is over," he said in a 2002 interview with Robin Finn of the New York Times. He headlined the popular 18-city Lyricist Lounge Tour 2000 with Talib Kweli, Punch & Words, Master Fuel, Ali Vegas, Jus, Reks, Akrobatic, Swiss Chris, and others.
Def made his Broadway debut in 2002 in Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Top Dog/Underdog. Def played a con man named Booth who has a difficult relationship with his older brother, Lincoln, also a con man, played by Jeffrey Wright. "It's a very real human play about two brothers and their relationship to each other, their rivalry, their need for each other, their history," Def told Richard Harrington in the Washington Post."It's a modern play about two young black men in modern times and the universal issues of family and abandonment, the human condition." Both the play and Mos Def's performance were well received. "The acclaim for Topdog seems destined to vault Mos Def's acting career to a new level," Mark Binelli wrote in Rolling Stone in a 2002 article. Def's song "3-Card" appears on the stage play's soundtrack, which features jazz, blues, R&B, and hip-hop music.
In addition to eight performances a week during his run in Top Dog/Underdog, Def also led a rock-rap band, the Black Jack Johnson Project. Named after the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, the group is made up of Def on vocals, Living Colour's Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish on drums and bass, respectively, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and Dr. Know, the former guitarist for the punk-reggae band the Bad Brains, of which Def was a longtime fan. Def referred to the Bad Brains and Fishbone in his 1999 song "Rock 'n' Roll." Def's artistic goal with the Project was to create a true blend of rock and rap, which he did not hear in existing so-called fusion projects. Most rock-influenced hip-hop acts are "not taking advantage of either genre, not for my tastes as either a hip-hop fan or a rock fan. I'm not hearing a true fusion," he told Harrington in the Washington Post. "I wanted to do something where the rock 'n' roll fans don't feel neglected or patronized and the hip-hop fans don't feel that way, either. This could be like a real exchange ... and show that hip-hop is an extension of that rock 'n' roll and blues tradition...." Def's effort was apparent to listeners, according to music critic Craig Smith in the Washington Post:"While the band has been categorized as rock and roll, it utilized blues elements, reggae refrains, and even gospel phrasings." The group debuted at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California in April of 2001.
by Brenna Sanchez
Mos Def's Career
Began rhyming at age nine; formed his first group, Urban Thermo Dynamics (UTD), with his brother and sister; appeared as Richard in God Bless the Child on television, 1988; played Raymond Kirkland on TV's You Take the Kids, 1990; appeared in NYPD Blue and The Cosby Mysteries, 1994; released UTD single, "My King Fu," 1994; joined the Native Tongues collective founded by Afrika Bambaataa, which included A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; made cameo appearances on De La Soul's "Big Brother Beat" and the Bush Babees' "Love Song"; appeared on television's Spin City, 1996; released debut single "The Universal Magnetic," on Rawkus Records, 1996; released "Body Rock," featuring Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, 1998; with Talib Kweli, released debut album, Black Star, 1998; released Black on Both Sides, 1999; played Julius in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, 2000; headlined the Lyricist Lounge Tour, 2000; made guest appearances on MTV's spin-off show, Lyricist Lounge, 2000; appeared in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, on television, 2001; made Broadway debut in Topdog/Underdog, 2002; appeared in film Brown Sugar, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are ... Black Star , Rawkus, 1998.
- Black on Both Sides , Rawkus, 1999.
December 24, 2004: Mos Def starred in The Woodsman, which was released by Newmarket Films. Source: New York Times, movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=301327, January 11, 2005.
April 29, 2005: Mos Def starred in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was released by Touchstone Pictures. The film is based on book series by the late Douglas Adams. Source: New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=295710, May 16, 2005.
March 3, 2006: Mos Def starred in 16 Blocks, which was released by Warner Brothers. Source: New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=326283, March 5, 2006.
- Billboard, August 3, 2002, p. 16.
- Boston Globe, September 29, 2000, p. C9.
- Entertainment Weekly, November 5, 1999, p. 82; April 12, 2002, p. 32.
- Essence, July 2002, p. 74.
- Jet, May 6, 2002, p. 46.
- New York Times, April 19, 2002, p. B2; October 11, 2002, p. 26.
- New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002.
- Rolling Stone, May 10, 2001, p. 97; May 23, 2002, p. 51.
- Time, December 6, 1999, p. 96.
- Washington Post, January 11, 2002, p. WW6; January 14, 2002, p. C3.
- "Mos Def," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 29, 2002).
- "Mos Def," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (October 29, 2002).