Acting, rapping, Mos Def's on track

Pop Music

December 05, 2004|By Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - Rock 'n' roll and rap, the dominant pop music styles of the past half-century, both originated in black music, but when it comes to mixing the two, there's been good times (Run-DMC and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," Danger Mouse's The Grey Album) and there's been bad times (Limp Bizkit and its lunkhead progeny).

That last one was bad enough to make a promising rapper torpedo his career momentum in order to clear the tainted air.

"I don't like insincerity in people and I hate it when people pose," says Mos Def, 30. "I was really, really frustrated when I would see these bands that were derivative of what hip-hop was. They would take like a rock riff and sprinkle some hip-hop on it and oh, it was this `amazing' thing. ... That [stuff] has been done before and it's been done better. I just got tired of it."

Mos Def's first two major records, the collaborative Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star in 1998 and his 1999 debut solo album, Black on Both Sides, established the Brooklyn, N.Y., native as a beacon of hip-hop's progressive wing.

But it's taken five years for the recently released follow-up, The New Danger, to appear, largely because of his quest to reclaim rock for black musicians.

"I think there is a social and racial dynamic that comes into play," he says. "Limp Bizkit and those bands were like these mannequins, these caricatures of what we started, and the people who were really doin' it are not being recognized at all. It's the classic story. So I just did it myself."

He called his project Black Jack Johnson, for the controversial boxing champion whose travails a century ago have made him a symbol of racial persecution. Mos Def's Black on Both Sides was dominated by a jazzy, R&B-flavored brand of hip-hop, but the next would rock those pretenders back into obscurity and exalt the legacy of such African-American rock bands as Fishbone.

Gathering a powerful hard-rock band - made up of guitarist Dr. Know from Bad Brains, Parliament Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and two members of Living Colour, bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Will Calhoun - he began recording.

Word of this intriguing project got around, but the record never came. After three years, Mos Def says, executives at his label, the now-defunct MCA Records, said they didn't want rock. They wanted a Mos Def record.

"What was an insult to me was [the idea that] Black Jack Johnson is not Mos Def," says the rapper. "It was honest; it was what I wanted to hear."

His early promise and his position as a respected pundit in the hip-hop community raised expectations high for The New Danger, whose final version intersperses Black Jack Johnson rock material with an array of R&B-flavored hip-hop tracks. But sales have been modest (252,000 since its October release), and reviews have been mixed. Even admiring commentaries have noted the album's unevenness.

If anyone has the luxury of making a doggedly individual album it's Mos Def, because his acting career has all the heat that his music career doesn't.

More and more rappers are taking a stab at acting, but Mos Def was an actor first, and no one from the field has carved such a distinctive film and stage career, from an early Obie-winning performance off-Broadway to his eye-opening turn on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog to his Emmy-nominated work in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made. Up next: the soon-to-open The Woodsman and then Disney's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, due next year.

"I'm just an artist. I'm not even unusual in a historical context. It used to be that if you didn't do many things, you couldn't work. People tap-danced, they sang, they acted, they played instruments. I'm just an artist, and I'm doin' what I like to do. It happened very seamlessly for me."

Mos Def appears at the 9:30 Club, 815 V. St. N.W. in Washington, Wednesday night at 7:30. For information, visit www.930.com.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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