Try telling him he can't do it all

Times Staff Writer

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 one promising rapper all but 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 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 Ahab-like 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. I worked on it as my little experiment."

He called his project Black Jack Johnson, named 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 one 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, spurred by a few live appearances, 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. "Why's it so unusual to do this? Chuck Berry. Remember him? Little Richard? Bo Diddley? ... It's not a big deal, but I would get treated like I was entering some other realm or some altered destiny.

"It was honest; it was what I wanted to hear."

A hot acting career

Sitting at a poolside table at the Chateau Marmont during a recent visit to Los Angeles, Mos Def -- born Dante Smith -- doesn't seem like a crusading firebrand. His manner is more that of a scholar and teacher. He speaks with a soft, caressing voice and avoids eye contact, gazing into the distance or glancing downward during an early afternoon interview.

His early promise and his position as a respected, guru-like pundit in the hip-hop community, raised expectations high for "The New Danger," whose final version intersperses some of the Black Jack Johnson rock material with an array of R&B-flavored; hip-hop tracks.

But sales have been modest (252,000 since its release in October), and the reviews have been mixed. Even many of the admiring commentaries have noted the album's unevenness and sprawl.

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.

You might assume that the acting has been another reason for the low yield of music from Mos Def, but he dismisses that thought. He finds it hard to even draw a distinction.

"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 grew up the oldest of nine children in Brooklyn's Roosevelt housing project. "A bright valley with dark prospects," he says. "Good people, bad habits."

From an early age he was determined to rise above the mean circumstances. He considered medicine and the ministry, but the main thing was to get busy.

"I read a lot. I wanted to be informed.... I had a curious mind, so I wanted to do things that activated that challenge. I wanted to get involved, I didn't want to just sit around and accept my surroundings."

He started acting as a teenager, working his way into theater and TV. Meantime, hip-hop had a grip on him from the day he heard Run-DMC's "It's Like That" booming from the doorway of a Bronx social club. Two decades later, the magic and meaning of that culture continue to enthrall him.

"People treat hip-hop like an isolated phenomenon," he says. "They don't treat it as a continuum, a history or a legacy. And it really is. And like all mediums or movements, it came out of a need. Like the Beat era came out of a need and a response to a social climate, a political climate, a personal climate. That's all that any art really is, and it's no accident when these things get airborne and expand. Because they're timely, and they're speaking to what's really going on.

"Hip-hop was a response to isolation. Under-representation. Misrepresentation. Abandonment. Poverty. Outlaw classification. There was a lot of things going on in New York City in the late '70s. A very difficult time, and that's the era that hip-hop came out of. They was doin' this to survive. To create some sort of psychic space of inclusion. The world does not want us, so we have to create our own world where we want each other. If no one else wants us, we want each other.

"Hip-hop is a beautiful culture. It's inspirational, because it's a culture of survivors. You can create beauty out of nothingness.... I'm very proud of us."

How Mos Def's own diversion into rock will play out in that culture remains to be seen, but he's not about to second-guess himself.

"All I know is I wanted to feel a certain way when I heard music, and I was makin' music from in me.... And I wanted it to be something that was durable. You can listen to all these Jimi records and Miles records and Curtis Mayfield records; I wanted to be able to add something to that conversation."

And, as always, there's a larger point to be made.

"It's not the bad artists that's the problem, because they're not gonna be around for very long. The tragedy is with good artists who don't believe in themselves and become disillusioned and disenchanted. That's the real tragedy, when a guy starts with something that he really believes in, and then stops believing in his own taste or his own gut, that's really sad."

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