SUPERSTAR NUBIAN BOOGIEMAN: MOS DEF IN NYC
An enigmatic, versatile artist who transcends commercial boundaries, Mos Def (Dante Smith) and his art define gifted, promising, and diverse, while traversing genres in fashions few performers can match. In the later part of the last decade and well into the first few years of this millennium, the Rawkus mic wrecker could be found spitting sixteens on many of the hottest underground and radio joints coming from New York City (I remember when I first heard him spit; my freshman year of college, on the "Big Brother Beat" from De La Soul's 1996 album Stakes is High.) Soon he was linking up with producers around the globe. He and fellow enlightened Brooklynite Talib Kweli released the seminal Black Star (Rawkus) and the album helped push a new wave of positively charged hip-hop. Mos was next generation Native Tongues clique. He could be found championing causes pertinent to African-American communities, be it a small community bookstore, or the Mumia Abu-Jamal case in Philadelphia. Mos Def also exists in a parallel universe, hobnobbing with celebrities and movie stars, jet-setting around the world, living large on movie sets and at award shows. The brother has definitely made it in the entertainment industry, his future illuminated like the Hollywood sign during a full moon.
The Brooklyn-bred emcee, once considered a torchbearer for the future of hip-hop, has been somewhat musically dormant for some time, save for some random concert appearances and guest spots. The promise of his ability is unquestioned, however he spreads himself so thin amongst varied projects, and one wonders to what heights he'd ascend if he would focus on his prodigious musical inclinations. The announcement of six shows in three nights at New York City's venerable Blue Note aroused suspicion: What project he would display, and exactly who would show up? Could one Black Star shine bright like the most high this Valentine's Day weekend?
Whether it be his incredible freestyle (while driving!) with Dave on the Chappelle Show, or his humorous part in the remake "The Italian Job," Mos has certainly been visible as of late. Check his blessed contribution with Philly Rocafella phenom Freeway on Kanye West's College Dropout (the clever "Two Words"), or last fall's poignant "Beef" (white label A-side) that put silly hip-hop feuds in perspective; it's not like Dante has been sleeping ("I never sleep, cuz sleep is the cousin of death." ©Nas). Some observers have questioned the four-plus year delay between his magnificent solo debut Black On Both Sides and his yet-to-be-released sophomore record, as well as his Hollywood attitude and often contradictory, out of character sound bites. It is indeed safe to say Mos definitely has his detractors, but anybody present during the final show of the three night run at the Blue Note surely checked themselves for ever doubting the Universal Magnetic. You must respect.
The line down West 3rd Street outside the Blue Note for the 10 p.m. late show Sunday, February 15 was long and nervy, and since the club only reserved tables for the show, bar seats were first come first serve. Luckily, I had a reserved seat at a choice table; we were "cold lampin'," overlooking the stage and a small portion of the crowd, just the right spot. Everybody seated, the audience was the beauty of the Big Apple, a melting pot of ethnicities, fresh styles, and all-ages, upful positivity. After a bit of a delay, Mos Def took the stage at nearly 11 p.m. and greeted the audience with a humble "Hello New York City," before sitting down at the baby grand and tinkling away at a jazz melody.
Soon his band joined him and he relinquished the piano to Orrin Evans. The band of brothers slowly picked up the melody and began to wade through the jazz vamp with a deft comfort, likely achieved throughout the previous five shows worth of explorations. Trumpeter Wallace Roney and tenor man Antoine Roney took the smooth groove into the psychedelic Blue Note annals as bassist John Benitez picked up the pace and got the motor running like he would so often this evening. Drummer Will Calhoun, dread from Living Colour and also Mos' skin basher in Black Jack Johnson, stole the lime light all evening, and during the oddly-timed opener evoking the lyrical Max Roach. Though he gleefully watched from the audience, it was clear the night would most definitely be about the name on the marquee: The Mighty Mos Def.
In a nod to both promise and struggle, Mos regained the stage and dedicated the next song to the visionary who penned it, Gil Scott Heron. "New York City," done with rhythm 'n' bop swagger, was homage to an artist (and the city) that spawned so much of what defines Mos Def. Struggle, beauty, hope, failure, and the promise of the future in a cultured concrete jungle... The emotion behind and within the song and performance was right before you to grasp. After a choice trumpet solo, Calhoun and Mos dropped the boom-bap with a nod to the emcee's home borough, a verse from my favorite song from Black On Both Sides, "Brooklyn" ("Go Brooklyn! they representin' it, sittin' on they front stoop sippin' Guinnesses, using native dialect in they sentences"). The band then reprised Gil Scott Heron's "NYC" before concluding the tandem. It was to be just the beginning.
Mos made poor use of the next ten minutes, delving into an ill-fated comedy routine that reeked of Hollywood Mos Def. Though the amped-up massive was seated (Blue Note, for those who never have had the pleasure of seeing a show there, is all seated tables except the bar in the rear), we were still getting our groove on. I guess he felt compelled to talk, a lot. The man had the crowd hanging on his every word, but most in attendance would have preferred a song. In between mildly humorous bits, he would shout out to a few in the bevy of beautiful females in the house, building on a theme. The material was far from his great interludes on HBO's Def Comedy Jam, but patience is a virtue, and we were treated to a wildly-arranged covers medley; the choices in tune with the declared theme of the Blue Note St. Valentine's weekend residency: "LOVE."
It started as an innocently familiar ditty, a trumpet melody dipped in pop lyric, before the Mighty Mos stepped to the microphone and carelessly whispered:
And we're never gonna survive,
unless We get a little...
The band took off with a faithfully arranged version of Seal's gazillion-selling Number One single "Crazy." Mos sang convincingly, not as smooth or serene as Seal, but soulful nonetheless. After a tremendous trumpet solo from Wallace Roney, the bandleader steered the group into Beyonce Knowles gazillion-selling Number One single "Crazy In Love," delivered at the crossroads of the Bad Brains black punk of Mos and Calhoun's Black Jack Johnson and Uplift Mofo Party Plan-era Red Hot Chili Peppers. Underneath Mos' shouting out the chorus in a punk cadence, Calhoun, Evans, and Benitez created a cacophonous rhythmic dissonance that powered the speeding car. Just before the Jay-Z verse would arrive in the Beyonce song, Mos veered into this past summer's inescapable club banger, Lumidee's "Uh-Oh." With a go-go chant over Kingston's now-legendary 'dwali' riddim', the summer anthem melded perfectly with the staccato refrain of "Crazy in Love." The band slowed down to dub it out with a jazz touch, straight outta King Tubby's basement. Mos weaved the group in and out of this trifecta of songs for over ten minutes, freestyling, singing, giving it up to the band, and finally retiring the medley with the fadeout coda from the Seal classic.
The only failed experiment of the evening followed, an R&B song gone awry. "Gangsta of Love" was a loosely stitched sappy lament that seemed out of place, somewhat disjointed, and uninteresting for some of the players.
The next piece was appropriate for the hallowed room in which we were enjoying this final performance of the weekend run. Mos plus the quintet performed a version of the Miles Davis classic "Bitches Brew," rollicking drums propelling the band's confidence into the rumbling groove that took shape. Mos attached a spoken word stream; the lyric dubbed "Superstar Nubian Boogieman" encompassed the "LOVE" theme, yet asked questions about heavier things. Speaking of heavy, John Benitez's rotund bottom end was the anchor: he aggravated the horns into frenzy, and led skyward. The Roney brothers' sharp reproduction of the classic head drove pianist Orrin Evans into outer realms of free-form funkdafied filth as he washed analog synth within dissonant piano comps and banged baby grand melodies surgically enhanced by Calhoun's methamphetamine drums. My mind's eye dreamt that Miles, the egomaniac showstopper he was, beamed like a proud papa from wherever he operates nowadays.
In this most soul-drenched of performances, it is indeed fitting for a taste of the most soul-drenched record in recent memory, Andre3000's (of Outkast) The Love Below. Just as my droog Robbie W.K. called it, "Prototype" came on strong, and with all its sensual lust it was glorious. Mos substituted a humble B-Boy steez in place of the raw sexuality that drips from Andre3000. It was a faithful performance all the way around, from Benitez's thumping bass to Calhoun's rim shot deluxe, and Mos's love-stricken crooning. My favorite song from the confidant departure that is Andre Benjamin's majestic solo record (for all you who wonder if Andre is not hip-hop/Outkast anymore, check out how he blesses Sleepy Brown's new banger "I Can't Wait"), the love song recalls Prince, George Clinton, and Curtis Mayfield, and with the quintet enriching the song's soaring qualities live and direct, Mos added a wonderful topping. Calhoun took it double-time, the band launched into outer space, and the Roney brothers commandeered the vehicle with horn sirens. Awesome.
After declaring "Like Wu, we are for the kids" (a reference to Wu-Tang's Old Dirty Bastard's Grammy spectacle where he declared "Wu-Tang is for the children!") the band delved into a reggae groove back at King Tubby's again. Mos riffed on the classic Nas joint "The World is Yours." This was to be just an interlude, a soothing, irie groove that had heads a bobbin', and the B-boys and dreads in the crowd rejoiced. The tone soon turned serious as Mos began to vocally remember some of those dearly departed... from African American luminary Weldon Irvine, to the recent Brooklyn rooftop murder of Timothy Stansbury, and others in between. A peculiar take on Whodini's early hip-hop electro classic, "Friends" was dedicated to peoples who no longer walk the earth among us. It was during this song that the lines between art and life, reality and fantasy, business and pleasure, became less blurred, almost like the drugs had wore off. Here it was: the plain truth. Mos began to weep, retracting from the front man spotlight, sitting side-stage collecting himself. The trains of thought must have reached optimum speeds (some in the audience questioned the authenticity of his emotion... after all he is an accomplished actor).
To wrap up an evening that transcended time, space, genre, age, race, and circumstance, Mos chose the far-reaching "Umi Says" from 1999's Black On Both Sides. The tune is certainly the most recognizable of Mos Def originals, a throwback to conscious blaxploitation themes of the pimpin' '70s, topped with a lyric confronting wavering confidence and self-awareness. (In atypical Mos Def irony, the song also appears in a Michael Jordan Nike commercial.) The only song imported from his usual repertoire, it immediately received a warm reception from the still buzzing audience, harking back to jazz records of yesterday whereas after a familiar song or groove surfaces, it is met with clapping, whistles, hoots, and hollas. Mos negotiated through the epic song, poignantly questioning himself in the face of mortality, a pledge born from uncertainty that any person who has ever profoundly doubted can identify with. The power of the lyrical content, delivered with pronounced vulnerability, lent credence to the intimacy of the entire performance. Will Calhoun got into some heated jungle funk and Benitez followed the lead, a rumble safari with freedom jazz dance.
The song brought the set full circle, after the Blue Note, the band, and our leader had sailed glorious seas of fantasy for much of the past 90 minutes. As the performance wound down, Mos Def returned to Andre's The Love Below canon, borrowing his Cupid Valentino character for a few bars, only to dip into John Denver folk lyrics the next minute.
Mos Def's schitzo chameleon-like presence towards the end of the set came off both comical and disturbing. It also was an accurate depiction of Mos' inclination to try a million things at the same time. His M.O. appears to be: To artistically and geographically jump all over the map and spread his talents, personas, and energies so thin across a myriad of interests.
After a set of music so unique and spirited it could only inspire an audience to Mos Def's prodigious talents, the final few minutes of distracted, unfocused nonsense left some people wondering. But it certainly did not cloud the sunshine of the evening's empowering musical experience, one that transcended the words "concert" or "show," and entered new realms that search for new land. Now if we could only search for that new Mos Def album!!!