Real Name: Dante Terrell Smith
D.O.B.:December 11th, 1973 Brooklyn, New York
Label(s): Rawkus, Geffen, G.O.O.D. Music
Mos Def started his hip hop career in a group called Urban Thermo Dynamics, after which he appeared on albums by Da Bush Babees and De La Soul. With Talib Kweli, he formed the duo Black Star, who released the well-received album Black Star in 1998. He was a major force in the late 1990s underground hip hop explosion spearheaded by Rawkus Records. As a solo artist he has released the albums Black on Both Sides in 1999, The New Danger in 2004, and True Magic, 2006. Initially recognized for his musical output, Mos Def’s screen work since the early 2000s has established him as one of only a handful of rappers who have garnered critical approval for their acting work. He has been nominated for Golden Globe, Emmy, and Grammy Awards. Mos Def has also been active on several social and political issues, and was particularly vocal in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Early Life
Mos Def was born Dante Terrell Smith in the Roosevelt Houses of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York City, the son of Darrell Toler. He has two younger brothers, Abdul Rahman (a.k.a. “Gold Medal Man”, who is Mos’ full-time DJ) and Anwar Superstar. He also has a younger sister, Ces (Casey) Smith. Mos Def and his brothers are all converts to Islam. Mos Def was first exposed to Islam at age 13 by his father. He became a Muslim at age 19 after getting to know Muslim rappers including Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip of the group A Tribe Called Quest. Mos Def grew up during the golden age of hip-hop and has been rapping and acting since he was 9 years old. Mos Def began his music career in 1994 in the short-lived group Urban Thermo Dynamics with his younger brother DCQ and younger sister Ces. Despite their contract with Payday Records, the group only released two singles, and their debut album Manifest Destiny was not released until 2004, when it was distributed by Illson Media. In 1996, he emerged as a solo artist and worked with De La Soul and da Bush Babees, before he released his own first single, “Universal Magnetic,” which was a huge underground hit.
After signing with Rawkus Records, Mos Def and Talib Kweli formed the group Black Star, and released a full length album under the name, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star. The album was released in 1998 and featured Hi-Tek as producer on most of the tracks. Mos Def released his solo debut Black on Both Sides in 1999 through Rawkus Records. Black On Both Sides received 4 mics from The Source. In 1999 Mos Def also appeared on the Scritti Politti album Anomie & Bonhomie. Mos Def was also featured on Rawkus’ influential Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing series of compilations. After the collapse of Rawkus, he signed to Interscope/Geffen Records, which released his second solo album The New Danger in 2004. “The New Danger” received criticism from fans and critics for its eclectic mix of several musical genres, including soul, blues and rock and roll, performed with his rock band Black Jack Johnson. Black Jack Johnson contained members of the bands Bad Brains and Living Colour. Mos Def has drawn some criticism from his fan base about “keeping it real” after he appeared in a commercial that endorsed the GMC Denali sport utility vehicle. Mos Def’s final solo album for Geffen Records,True Magic, was quietly released on December 29, 2006. 2007 saw the release of another solo album: Mos Definite. This album was released under the Frequent M (Groove Attack) label. Throughout his music career he has received several Grammy Award nominations, first for “Ghetto Rock” from his 2004 album The New Danger, and then for Undeniable in 2007. Mos Def appears alongside Kanye West on the track “Drunk and Hot Girls” and the bonus track “Good Night” off Kanye’s album, Graduation. He is also releasing a pair of Converse shoes. Mos Def also appears on the debut album from fellow New Yorkers, Apollo Heights on a track titled, “Concern.” In October, Mos signed a deal with Downtown Records and appeared on a remix to the song “D.A.N.C.E.” by Justice. Mos Def appeared on Stephen Marley’s album “Mind Control” on the song “Hey Baby.” On November 7th, Mos Def performed live in San Francisco at a venue called The Mezzanine. This performance was recorded for an upcoming “Live in Concert” DVD. During this performance, he sang quite a few new tracks which may be appearing on an upcoming album. In recent shows Mos Def has played new songs from his album “The Ecstatic.” He has shown crowds tracks produced by Madlib and has rumoured to be going to Kanye West for new material. The album is said to be released in April 2008. Producer and fellow Def Poet Al Be Back has revealed that he would be producing as well, and that Mos is “four or five records in” to the album. In April Mos appeared on the title track for a new album by The Roots entitled Rising Down. The new single ‘Life in Marvelous Times’ will be officially available through itunes on the 4th of November, and is currently available for stream on The Roots website Okayplayer.
Mos Def’s background in film and theater date back to his days at New York University, studying experimental theater. He began his professional acting career at the age of 14, appearing in the TV movie God Bless the Child, starring Mare Winningham. He then played the oldest child in the short-lived family sitcom, You Take the Kids, starring Nell Carter and Roger E. Mosley. His most notable acting role before his music career was that of Bill Cosby’s sidekick on the short-lived detective show, The Cosby Mysteries. He also starred in a 1996 Visa check card commercial featuring Deion Sanders. After brief appearances in Bamboozled and Monster’s Ball, Mos re-invigorated his acting career with his performance as a talented rapper who is reluctant to sign to a major label in Brown Sugar. He was nominated for an Image Award and a Teen Choice Award. In 2002, he played the role of Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, a Tony-nominated and Pulitzer-winning Broadway play. He also received positive notices as the quirky Left Ear in the blockbuster hit, The Italian Job in 2003. In television, Mos Def has appeared on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show, and has hosted the award-winning HBO spoken word show, Def Poetry since its inception. The show’s sixth season aired in 2007. He also appeared on the sitcom My Wife And Kids as the old school friend of Michael Kyle’s (Damon Wayans).
Mos won Best Actor, Independent Movie at the 2005 Black Reel Awards for his portrayal of the skeptical Detective Sgt. Lucas in The Woodsman. For his portrayal of Vivien Thomas in HBO’s film Something the Lord Made, he was nominated for an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe, and won the Image Award. He then landed the role of Ford Prefect in the 2005 movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In 2006, Mos Def appeared in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party alongside fellow Black Star companion Talib Kweli, while also contributing to the film’s soundtrack. Also, Mos Def was featured as the black banjo player in the infamous “Pixie Sketch” from Chappelle’s Show: The Lost Episodes. He was later edited out of it on the DVD. Additionally, Mos Def is in the motion picture 16 Blocks along with co-stars Bruce Willis and David Morse. Mos has a recurring guest role on Boondocks, starring as “Gangstalicious.” He is also set to be in Toussaint, a film about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, opposite Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes. He made a cameo appearance playing himself in the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. He also co-stars with Jack Black in the Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind, playing a video rental store employee whose best friend Jerry (played by Jack Black) accidentally erases the store’s tapes. The two protagonists then decide to refilm the deleted movies, becoming local celebrities in the process.
Social and Political Views
By the early 1990s, a brand of socially conscious hip hop that had been popularized by A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, and many others had been eclipsed in popularity by gangsta rap. Mos Def, as well as Talib Kweli, Common, Little Brother, Quannum Projects and others helped socially aware rap music experience something of a comeback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mos Def’s collaboration with Talib Kweli, Black Star, was released during the aftermath of the deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. and focused on violence and deceit in hip-hop, in collaboration with other acts that did the same. Def’s music also has references to his Islamic faith, and his contention that black artists receive little credit for their role in the birth of rock and roll music. On Mos Def’s 2004 album The New Danger, the rapper took his penchant for experimentation to a new level. Most of the songs were more hip-hop flavoured stylings of blues and rock, with fewer raps thrown in. This threw off fans who were expecting another full-blown rap album. The New Danger also featured the controversial song, “The Rape Over,” a parody of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint hit “Takeover”. High-placed executives temporarily made him take the song off releases of the album, citing clearance issues with Jay-Z and The Doors, a band which the song samples. The song has garnered controversy over its veiled reference to Israeli American record executive Lyor Cohen (the “tall Israeli” who then was head of the The Island Def Jam Music Group). Mos and Immortal Technique released a similarly controversial song, “Bin Laden” in 2004, which blamed the Reagan Doctrine and President George W. Bush for the September 11, 2001 attacks. A club remix song, featuring Eminem, was released the following year, in 2005. In September 2005, Mos Def released the single “Katrina Clap,” renamed “Dollar Day” for True Magic, (utilizing the instrumental for New Orleans rappers UTP’s “Nolia Clap”). The song is a criticism of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. On the night of the MTV Video Music Awards, Mos Def pulled up in front of Radio City Music Hall on a flatbed truck and began performing the “Katrina Clap” single in front of a crowd that quickly gathered around him. He was subsequently arrested despite having a public performance permit in his possession. Video of Mos Def outside of the MTV awards can be viewed here. On September 7, 2007, Mos Def appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher where he spoke about racism against African Americans citing the government response to Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Six and the murder conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mos Def also stated his belief that Al-Qaeda was not responsible for 9/11, that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax, and that Al-Qaeda is not responsible for as much terrorism as they are portrayed to be.
- 1999 Black on Both Sides (Chart position 3 RIAA: Gold)
- 2004 The New Danger (Chart position 3)
- 2006 True Magic (Chart position 12)
- 2009 The Ecstatic (unreleased)
- 1991 The Hard Way
- 1997 Ghosts
- 1998 Where’s Marlowe?
- 2000 Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
- 2000 Bamboozled
- 2001 Carmen: A Hip Hopera
- 2001 Monster’s Ball
- 2002 Showtime
- 2002 Civil Brand
- 2002 Brown Sugar
- 2003 The Italian Job
- 2004 The Woodsman
- 2004 Something the Lord Made
- 2005 Lackawanna Blues
- 2005 The Boondocks (2005-2008)
- 2005 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- 2006 Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (performer)
- 2006 16 Blocks
- 2006 Talladega Nights
- 2006 Journey to the End of the Night
- 2007 Prince Among Slaves
- 2008 Be Kind Rewind
- 2008 Cadillac Records
- 2009 Next Day Air
- 2009 Toussaint (unreleased)
- 2010 The Brazilian Job (unreleased)
Black Movie Awards
- 2006 Best Supporting Actor: 16 Blocks (nominated)
Black Reel Awards
- 2003 Best Actor- Independent: Civil Brand (nominated)
- 2004 Best Supporting Actor: The Italian Job (nominated)
- 2005 Best Actor TV Movie/Mini-Series: Something the Lord Made (nominated)
- 2005 Best Actor Independent: The Woodsman
- 2004 Best Actor in a Television Movie or Mini-Series: Something the Lord Made (nominated)
- 2005 Best Actor in a Television Movie or Mini-Series: Something the Lord Made (nominated)
- 2005 Best Urban/Alternative Performance: “Sex, Love & Money” (nominated)
- 2007 Best Rap Solo Performance: “Undeniable” (nominated)
- 2006 Best Urban/Alternative Performance: “Ghetto Rock” (nominated)
- 2003 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: Brown Sugar (nominated)
- 2005 Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie or Mini-Series: Something the Lord Made (nominated)