It was maybe two years after Dante Smith aka Mos Def earned himself a gold plaque for his debut album, Black on Both Sides. A highly-anticipated record that contributed heavily to the peak of Rawkus Records, Mos became an underground hip hop hero in direct contrast to peaking roster at Bad Boy Records. It took two singles, “Ms. Fat Booty” and the crossover hit, “Umi Says”(which even Nike licensed for a commercial) to get him to plaque status. And once he was there he did something very different.
I was in the crowd at the Roseland Ballroom some two years later when Mos teamed up with Black music legends Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun of Living Color, Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic and Dr. Know of Bad Brains to form an eclectic supergroup known as “Black Jack Johnson” (they added the “Black” following the success of singer Jack Johnson). The crew toured the country and scored themselves a spot on HBO’s short-lived concert show Reverb( from which the above footage was taken). Mos announced to the world that Black Jack Johnson was going to be his second album. But it didn’t work out that way.
I imagine that what happened next was the kind of thing that has Azalea Banks screaming about how she wants off of Universal. Mos brings a Black Rock project to his label, Geffen Records, and it doesn’t sound like “Miss Fat Booty” or “Umi Says”. The last Black rock group with significant sales (in an era where everything had to sell a million) was probably Living Color’s Time’s Up in 1990. Geffen wanted a record like the last one that went gold. They wanted Mos Def, not Black Jack Johnson. The end result was The New Danger, Mos’ sophomore effort, a somewhat uneven album that featured BJJ on a few tracks. But the group as a unit never performed publicly again. The New Danger didn’t gold and Mos as champion sound money-making artist stuck to doing shows and acting gigs.. He released 2006’s True Magic, his last album on Geffen, without a single, album cover or video whatsoever. Bottom line was that he wanted out. The major labels weren’t where he belonged.
For the next three years Mos is all about performing. An accomplished drummer and bassist he turns up in all kinds of places. He sings more than rhymes. He directs a big band at $60 dollars a ticket in Central Park. He acts in a number of films reported pushing his quote up to $3 million per film. Mos Def the rapper gives way to Mos Def “The Artist”. All the pieces had been there before: The acting, the musicianship, the musical breadth. But as he moved further and further away from the popular music sphere his focus seemed to become less about being famous and more about being “infamous”, an outlaw to the current music business regime, an artist who can garner attention in any genre or medium that he chooses, the guy he started out as in the first place.
In 2009, Mos reflected this transformation on The Ecstatic, an acclaimed 4th with a first single, “Casa Bey”, that served as a throwback to his flows on early 12-inches like “Universal Magnetic”. He covered LA wondergirl Georgia Ann Muldrow’s “Roses” and brought in guest verses from Slick Rick and Black Star partner Talib Kweli to do what seemed to almost be the Black on Both Sides follow-up fans never got to hear. He grew a beard like he had on the first album, an outward reflection of the Islam that had guided his path from childhood. And then he ready to begin again.
“I began to fear that Mos Def was being treated as a product, not a person, so I’ve been going by Yasiin since ’99,” he told GQ “At first it was just for friends and family, but now I’m declaring it openly.”
And the change came just in time for his upcoming collaboration with New Orleans legend Mannie Fresh, Omfgod and an as-yet untitled solo album. At a time when the music biz no longer demand 500,000 unit sales as a starts (It was a big deal when Beyonce’ broke 80,000 for her last album) it’s just the right time for a hero to come up for air. Lord knows we need as many as we can get.