When Mos Def appeared as part of the Lyricist Lounge 2 release show at Roseland in NYC, backed by his new rock combo (The Jack Johnson Band), I kept seeing Miles Davis. He slinked on stage arrayed in a purple shirt, purple pleather pants, baby blue pleather vest, and the flyest sunglasses I've ever seen and won't waste words trying to describe. He glowered into the crowd with a vague smirk on his face, a smirk that said I am so fuckin awesome I can't stand it. In attitude and atmosphere, it was reminiscent of the Miles of Get Up With It. And like Miles, you don't think of it as conceit, because fuck yeah, he is so awesome I can barely stand it myself.
While it's too soon in Mos Def's musical career to draw comparisons to Miles Davis, I can't think of anyone else in hip-hop who could possibly qualify. Only one spin of Black Star, or his solo album, Black on Both Sides, is needed to convince you that he is all over the map, the king of any hill he feels like climbing. While his music appeals to a wide range of folks out there, it's done with an honesty that convinces the listener he's doing it to please no one else but himself. He has a righteous arrogance comparable to Davis's, in which boastful claims are always supported with ample evidence.
But when Miles Davis decided to integrate elements of rock n' roll into his music, that genre was at a creative high point. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones were in full swing. Thousands of garage bands sprung up imitating them in sloppy fashion, laying the groundwork for punk. Even the always-venal pop world had the craftsmanship of labels like Stax/Volt and Motown and producers like Phil Spector. Today, rock is so limp and pathetic I pity it; if it was a dog, I'd put a dish of table scraps out the back door, maybe let it sleep in the basement for a coupla days. Hip-hop makes up 95% of what's interesting and novel in music right now (except for your local underground scene, whoever you are reading this, wherever you are, no really, you guys are cool, you really make it).
So when I heard that Mos Def had decided to feel the noize, I was excited but skeptical. It seemed rife with possibility, but a potential regression when you consider how goddam good he is at straight-ahead rhyming and beats. I comforted myself with the knowledge that, at the very least, it wouldn't be some half-assed Limp Bizkit amalgum of metal and rap, appropriating all of the worst elements of both (tiny-dick-swinging, high-tuned snare drums, no audible bass, and no discernible soul). Since rock is at such a low point, there can be no other reason for Mos to tackle it than the fact that he really, really digs it, and he wants to do right by it. A respectable aim, no matter what the outcome.
That outcome was further ensured by the members of his band, who were definitely up to the task of rocking. Keyboardist Bernie Worrell not only played with Funkadelic, but wrote several of its ass-shaking tunes as well ("Freak of the Week," f'rinstance). Drummer [TK] and bassist [TK] are late of Living Colour; on top of that, [TK] laid down the floor on several seminal rap tracks like "White Lines." And last but definitely not least, my personal fave, guitarist Dr. Know, who all but invented hardcore while with the Bad Brains.
A spirit of homage pervaded Mos Def's set. A screen at the back of the stage displayed footage of the band's namesake, the first African-American heavyweight champ, who was hounded his entire life for little reason other than being successful. The first tune of the evening was based on the bassline to Hendrix's "Who Knows?", funk with a hard edge that few but Jimi could ever do well. The goofy "Blackman" brought to mind The Jam's frantic cover of the "Batman" theme song, since they both have the same pace and tunes. In a nod to the arena rock tradition, lighters were tossed into the audience and put to their intended use during the slower tracks. Mos interpolated words from the Temptations and the Sugarhill Gang into the evening's highlight, an extended version of "Umi Says" that swirled magestically around the ballroom, a spiritual liberation hymn to slow dance to.
Despite the references and looks backward, Mos Def's set proved that, like Miles, he is determined to carve rock in his own graven image. The music was much closer to hip-hop than rock, and mostly acted as a wall off of which Mos could bounce his words. It allowed his lyrics to happen but never came close to overshadowing them, like a spinning log that a lumberjack rides down a river: You're not looking at the wood, you're checking out the cat keeping his balance on it and trying not to wind up all wet. Between songs, he said, "We're putting the roll back in in rock n' roll. Most bands, they got the rock [and Mos tapped his head a few times] and no roll. They all thick-headed."
The Jack Johnson Band provided plenty of musical roll as well as rock, while Mos Def's rhymes, as always, rolled off his tongue so effortlessly that it made you want to go grab a marble notebook and scribble away, right that second. One advantage of having a full band behind an MC (see The Roots) is that there can be the kind of interplay between words and music that can only happen in performance, the subtle variants that separate musicians from carbon-based MIDI equipment. When you hear a live, tight rhythm section work with and against Mos Def's lyrics, you realize how incredible he really is. It's as if you saw some sketches done by Gustav Klimt, and then suddenly discovered what he could do with paint.
Not everyone at the show was into Mos Def's scene, and at my position near the front of the stage, I could spot more than a few folks leaving halfway through his set. It may have been the late hour as much as anything else, since it was heading for one a.m. when The Jack Johnson Band finally took the stage. But I'm sure there are many who will be unwilling to follow Mos in this direction, which he has characterized as 'ghetto rock n' roll' in recent interviews. The fact that he probably could give a shit one way or the other salved my soreness as people turned their back on the rock and fled Roseland early. Mos Def seems aware that any musical move is lateral as long as you remember to rock and roll, and know how many miles you wanna go in your new direction.