[Art by Dale Darden]
The other day while pumping gas I looked over to the car next to mine and witnessed domestic hell.
The woman at the next pump was clearly trying, with every ounce of energy she could muster, not to explode into a fit of rage. Then, from the back of her mini-van, I heard another “OW!” and it was lit. She flung open the door and for the next six gallons tried to restore order, pulling apart her two fighting kids in the back. Finally she had no choice, she had to throw down the classic, “That’s it, we aren’t going.” As the younger of the two children began to tear up, I tried to muffle my laughter. I knew it was an empty threat, but her son sure as hell didn’t. I got in my car, I didn’t want to stare at the trainwreck for too long, but not until after I heard the little brat begin to scream like Danny Brown in a haunted house. I continued on with my day, just a bit more appreciative that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, because I’m not in charge of a screaming, irrational human creature. Maybe-definitely someday I’ll subject myself to issuing empty threats in an attempt to exit a gas station without losing my mind, but right now? Nope.
When that day comes, and when it’s time to introduce Kanye Garrison (boy or girl I think I'm going to name my seed Kanye) to hip-hop, when I need music I know will turn them into a genuinely good person, I’m going to start with Mos Def.
Black On Both Sides is the quintessential hip-hop album. Every time I listen I feel rejuvenated and refreshed because, even though it’s 16-years-old, it represents everything I love about hip-hop. Mos drops some real knowledge on that album, knowledge which still holds true today, but he doesn’t get overly preachy or bogged down in politics. He’s able to tackle sensitive subjects but still put a smile on my face because he packages the messages in some undeniably great music. What really gets me about Mos is his charisma and charm, his almost nonchalance on the mic. When I listen to his music I hear a man who was born to rap. His wordplay is second to none, but you almost miss it because of how easy he makes it sound. Mos Def is a natural and he makes this shit sound easy. I may skip over “Ms. Fat Booty” when introducing my children to rap, “Daddy, what’s smash like an Idaho potato mean?” but in terms of showing my kid what values hip-hop heads should have and how hip-hop should sound, Mos Def is the blueprint. Black On Both Sides, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, theLyricist Lounge tapes, Mos is the blueprint for hip-hop that means something and sounds damn good at the same time.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Mos Def was put on this earth to rap, this is a man who has more than held his own next to Black Thought and Eminem, but he’s not rapping much these days. In fact, he hasn’t rapped much this past decade.
He may be one of my favorites, Black On Both Sides may be that album, but admittedly I often find myself forgetting about Mighty Mos. When we find new albums, songs, and videos dropping at an alarming rate, even icons like Mos Def can get lost in the shuffle. When I saw his name pop up on the DJBooth homepage last week, I was thrilled. It was like seeing an old friend at a bar. I went from forgetting he existed to remembering how much fun it is grabbing a drink with him. Mos Def over some steel drums? Hell fucking yes.
While I know I could listen to Mos Def rap all day, “Sensei On The Block” is only four minutes long. As happy as I was to have this effort in my headphones, all it really did was make me yearn for more, much more, and got me thinking - where the hell has Mos Def been?
I hate to be one of those fans. You know, the kind who is blessed with a new song and only asks for more. If you give a mouse a cookie he’ll ask for a glass of milk. If you give a rap fan a single, he’ll only ask for an album. I especially hate it when it comes to Mos Def, a legend, a man who’s craft I have the upmost respect for. I don’t want to be one of those unappreciative, gluttonous douchebags, and yet I can’t help but feel like I need more. Here I was with a great new Mos Def song and yet, I couldn’t be happy because I felt like it just wasn’t enough.
Mos Def has been a presence, albeit an on again off again presence, in hip-hop for nearly two decades but, to be honest, the past few years it’s been because of what he has done, past tense, and not what he is doing. We have been blessed with some great Mos Def material since 2009, but much of it isn’t from Mos Def himself. God bless Amerigo Gazaway, who blended Mos and Marvin Gaye, giving listeners a crash course on sampling in the process, and I owe Max Tannone a burger and a beer because this “Mos Dub” remix tape has been my cookout soundtrack for like three years, but I want Mos Def himself. There’s no recreating the magic of Mighty Mos Def in the “flesh.”
Mos has always been different, it’s that difference that makes Black On Both Sides unlike any album ever made, but it’s also that difference, that enigmatic aura, that has made the past few years so frustrating. It’s seeing him become Yasiin Bey, thinking it might lead to a new solo hip-hop career, only to see it become some abstract Basquiat tribute, a Doom cover, or some sort of rock band side project. It’s hearing a Mannie Fresh and Mos Def collab live from Mannie Fresh's iPad (Yes that actually happened.) two years ago and remembering how excited I was for that project; I’m still waiting. Like Andre 3K, Mos Def doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a rapper anymore, except rap is still very much interested in him.
Most legendary emcees, those in Mos’ class - JAY, Eminem, etc. - inevitably begin to burn out. We’ll always have their best contributions, but how long can the embers burn? How long can JAY Z rap about paintings? Have Kanye’s speeches now become more interesting than his rhymes? So the last thing I want is for Mos to force new music simply for the sake of making new music, but his story still feels painfully unfinished. Hip-hop is not in crisis, we don’t need Mos Def to save it. Still, isn't hip-hop much better with him playing a more developed part? He’s so technically good at rapping, don't you kind of want to hear him do it more? I don’t what to stifle his creativity and I don't want him to do what everyone else is doing, but I do want to know that the rest of the world is aware that Mos Def is still one of the best emcees alive. I don’t want Kanye Garrison (I might have to rethink that name choice after all) to hear about Mos Def’s magic second hand, I want him or her to experience it for themselves.
Please Mos, do it for the children. They need your raps.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]