Mos Def

Mos Def
Mos Def

Mos Def at YBCA in San Francisco on December 31, 2008
Background information
Birth name Dante Terrell Smith
Also known as Yasiin Bey
Born December 11, 1973 (1973-12-11) (age 37)
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.
Origin Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York City
Genres Hip hop
Occupations Rapper, actor, singer, activist
Years active 1994–present
Labels Rawkus, Priority, Geffen, Downtown, GOOD Music
Associated acts Soulquarians, Black Star, Talib Kweli, Native Tongues Posse, Kanye West, Gorillaz, Massive Attack

Dante Terrell Smith (born December 11, 1973) is an American actor and Emcee known by the stage names Mos Def (play /ˌmsˈdɛf/) and Yasiin Bey. He 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, which released the album Black Star in 1998. He was a major force in late 1990s underground hip hop while with Rawkus Records. As a solo artist he has released the albums Black on Both Sides in 1999, The New Danger in 2004, True Magic in 2006, and The Ecstatic in 2009.[1]

Although he was initially recognized for his musical output, since the early 2000s, Mos Def's screen work has established him as one of only a handful of rappers who have garnered critical approval for their acting work. Mos Def has also been active in several social and political issues.


Early life

Mos Def grew up during the golden age of hip-hop and has rapped and acted since he was six. He attended Philippa Schuyler Middle School in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He majored in Musical Theater at Talent Unlimited High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan. He studied at New York University in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.[citation needed]

He has two younger brothers, Abdul Rahman (a.k.a. "Gold Medal Man"), who is Mos Def's full-time DJ, and Anwar Superstar. He also has a younger sister, Ces "Casey" Smith, and a younger half-brother, Jermone Victor Moulton, who resides in Brooklyn and shares the same mother, Sheron.[citation needed]

Mos Def converted to Islam. While his father was initially a member of the Nation of Islam and later an active member in the community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who merged into mainstream Islam from the Nation, Mos Def was not exposed to Islam until the age of 13. At 19, he took his shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. He is friends with fellow Muslim rappers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip.[2]



Mos Def began his music career in 1994 in the short-lived group Urban Thermo Dynamics with his younger brother D.c.Q and younger sister Ces. Despite their contract with Payday Records, the group only had 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.[citation needed]

Mos Def signed with Rawkus Records and formed the group Black Star with Talib Kweli. They released an album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, in 1998.[3] Mostly produced by Hi-Tek, the album featured the hit singles, "Respiration" and "Definition", which would go on to be featured in VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of Hip-Hop.[4] Mos Def released his solo debut album Black on Both Sides in 1999, also through Rawkus.[5] Around this time he also contributed to the Scritti Politti album Anomie & Bonhomie and Rawkus compilations Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing.

Def performing at Rock the Bells (New York).

After the collapse of Rawkus, he signed to Interscope/Geffen Records, which released his second solo album The New Danger in 2004.[6] The New Danger contained a mix of several musical genres, including soul, blues, and rock and roll, performed with his rock band Black Jack Johnson, which contained members of the bands Bad Brains and Living Colour. The singles included "Sex, Love & Money" and the B-side "Ghetto Rock"; the latter went on to receive several Grammy Award nominations in 2004.

Mos Def's final solo album for Geffen Records, True Magic, was quietly released on December 29, 2006. True Magic features production from The Neptunes, Rich Harrison and Minnesota, among others.[citation needed] The album was released in a clear-case with no cover art. Neither Geffen nor Mos Def himself promoted the album at all, which is the main reason the album was received under the radar.

The song "Crime & Medicine" is essentially a cover of GZA's 1995 single "Liquid Swords", though it contains different verses. Also, the track "Undeniable" samples a version of the Barrett Strong/Norman Whitfield composition "Message from a Black Man". The song "Dollar Day" uses the same beat as Juvenile's "Nolia Clap".[7]

MTV reported that this album isn't a full version, but a teaser/promotional debut. A new version of the album would be released spring 2007, with updated songs and cover art. However, on October 17, 2007, Okayplayer reported, through discussions with Mos Def's management, that these rumors were unsubstantiated. The CD was intended to be released without promotion or cover art, as per Mos Def's request. There would be no future re-release.

On November 7, 2007, 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 Mos Def announced that he would be releasing a new album to be called The Ecstatic. He sang a number of new tracks; in later shows, Def previewed tracks produced by Madlib and was rumored to be going to Kanye West for new material. Producer and fellow Def Poet Al Be Back stated that he would be producing as well.[8] The album was released on June 9, 2009; upon its release, only Madlib's production had made the cut, along with tracks by Preservation, The Neptunes, Mr. Flash, Madlib's brother Oh No, a song by J. Dilla, and Georgia Anne Muldrow.

Mos Def appears alongside Kanye West on the track "Two Words" from The College Dropout album, the track "Drunk And Hot Girls" and the bonus track "Good Night" off West's third major album, Graduation. In 2002, he released the 12" single Fine, which was featured in the Brown Sugar Motion Picture Soundtrack.[9]

Mos Def also appears on the debut album from fellow New Yorkers Apollo Heights on a track titled, "Concern." In October, he signed a deal with Downtown Records and appeared on a remix to the song "D.A.N.C.E." by Justice.[10] Mos Def appeared on Stephen Marley's album Mind Control on the song "Hey Baby." In 2009, Mos Def worked together with Somali rapper K'naan to produce the track "America" for K'naan's album Troubadour.[11]

In April 2008 he appeared on the title track for a new album by The Roots entitled Rising Down. The new single, Life In Marvelous Times, was made officially available through iTunes on November 4, 2008, and is available for stream on the Roots' website Okayplayer.

April 2009 saw him traveling to South Africa for the first time where he performed accompanied by The Robert Glasper Experiment at the renowned Cape Town International Jazz Festival. He enticed his bemused African following with an encore introduced by his own rendition of John Coltrane's "Love Supreme" followed by a sneak preview of the track "M.D. (Doctor)", much to the delight of the fans.[12]

Mos Def also designed two pairs of limited edition Converse shoes. The shoes were released to Foot Locker stores on August 1, 2009 in very limited amounts.[13]

In late 2009, Mos Def created a brand of clothing line with UNDRCRWN called the "Mos Def Cut & Sew Collection." All clothing items will be sold in select stores located around the U.S. and almost exclusively on the UNDRCRWN website.[14] 2009 also found Mos Def among the MCs collaborating with the Black Keys on the first Blakroc album, a project headed by the Black Keys and Damon Dash. Mos Def appeared with Jim Jones and the Black Keys on the Late Show with David Letterman to perform the Blakroc track "Ain't Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)".

In March 2010, Mos Def's song Quiet Dog Bite Hard was featured in Palm's "Life moves fast. Don't miss a thing." campaign.[15]

Mos Def features on the first single, "Stylo", from the third Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, alongside soul legend Bobby Womack. He also appears on the track titled "Sweepstakes".

In September 2010, after appearing on Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Friday track "Lord Lord Lord", Mos Def confirmed his signing with GOOD Music.[16]

Mos Def has been an active contributor to the recovery of the oil spill in the Gulf, performing concerts and raising money towards the repair of the damages. In June 2010, he recorded a cover of the classic New Orleans song originally by Smokey Johnson, "It Ain't My Fault" with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Lenny Kravitz and Trombone Shorty.

In September 2011, Mos Def announced that he planned to use the name Yasiin instead of Mos Def beginning in 2012.[17]


He began his professional acting career at the age of fourteen, 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. In 1997 he had a small role alongside Michael Jackson in his short film and music video "Ghosts".

After brief appearances in Bamboozled[18] and Monster's Ball,[19] 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.[20] He was nominated for an Image Award and a Teen Choice Award.[21]

In 2001, he took a supporting role to Beyoncé Knowles and Mehki Phifer in the MTV movie Carmen: A Hip Hopera as Lt. Miller, a crooked cop.

In 2002, he played the role of Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, a Tony-nominated and Pulitzer-winning Broadway play. He and co-star Jeffrey Wright won a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle Award for their joint performance.[22] He also received positive notices as the quirky Left Ear in the blockbuster hit, The Italian Job in 2003.[23] He also appeared in 2003 in the music video You Don't Know My Name of the song by Alicia Keys.

In television, Mos Def has appeared on Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show,[24] and has hosted the award-winning HBO spoken word show, Def Poetry since its inception.[25] The show's sixth season aired in 2007. He also appeared on the sitcom My Wife And Kids as the disabled friend of Michael Kyle (Damon Wayans).

Mos Def won Best Actor, Independent Movie at the 2005 Black Reel Awards for his portrayal of Detective Sgt. Lucas in The Woodsman.[26] For his portrayal of Vivien Thomas in HBO's film Something the Lord Made,[27] he was nominated for an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe, and won the Image Award. He also played a bandleader in HBO's Lackawanna Blues. He then landed the role of Ford Prefect in the 2005 movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.[28]

Def and Bruce Willis on the set of 16 Blocks, filmed on location in Chinatown, Manhattan on Pell Street.

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.[29] 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 starred in the action film 16 Blocks alongside Bruce Willis and David Morse.[30] He has a recurring guest role on Boondocks, starring as "Gangstalicious". He is also set to be in Toussaint, a film about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, opposite Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes. He made a cameo appearance — playing himself — in the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.[31]

In 2007, Mos Def narrated the PBS-broadcast documentary Prince Among Slaves.

In 2008, Mos Def starred in the Michel Gondry movie Be Kind Rewind, playing a video rental store employee whose best friend is played by co-star Jack Black.[32] He also portrayed Chuck Berry in the film Cadillac Records,[33] for which he was nominated for a Black Reel Award and an Image Award.

In 2009, he appeared in the House episode entitled "Locked In" as a patient suffering from locked-in syndrome. His performance was well-received, with E! saying that Mos Def "delivers an Emmy-worthy performance."[34] He was also in the 2009 film Next Day Air.

In 2010, he appeared on the children's show Yo Gabba Gabba! as Super Mr. Superhero. He also appeared in A Free Man of Color, John Guare's play at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.[35]

In 2011, it was announced he would appear on the Showtime television series Dexter. He will play Brother Sam, an ex-con who has supposedly found religion despite finding himself in violent situations.[36]

Social and political views

By the early 1990s, a brand of socially conscious hip hop that had been pioneered and popularized by Public Enemy, KRS-One, and De La Soul, among others, had been eclipsed in popularity by gangsta rap. Mos Def, as well as Talib Kweli, The Roots, Common, 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 negativity in hip-hop, in collaboration with other acts that did the same. His music has also made reference to his Islamic faith, and his contention that black artists receive little credit for their role in the birth of rock and roll.

On Mos Def's 2004 album The New Danger, he took his penchant for experimentation to a new level. Most of the songs were more hip-hop flavored 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". His label 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 Island Def Jam Music Group).

Mos Def 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.[37]

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. He appeared on Real Time again on March 27, 2009, and spoke about the risk of nuclear weapons.[38] Mos Def said that he did not listen to any of Osama Bin Laden's messages because he did not trust the translations.[39]

In 2000, Mos Def performed a benefit concert for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.[40]

Personal life

In 1996, Def married Maria Yepes. After having two daughters, Chandani and Jauhara Smith, he filed for divorce in 2005.[41] The divorce became final in 2006.[citation needed] Two years later, Def's divorce lawyers Blank Rome sued Def for more than $60,000 in unpaid legal bills.[42]

In October, 2006 Mos Def appeared on 4Real, a documentary television series.[43] Appearing in the episode "City of God," he and the 4Real crew traveled to City of God, a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to meet Brazilian MC MV Bill and discover the crime and social problems of the community.[44]

He has recently taken up skateboarding and said he's looking to host a skateboarding event in the United Arab Emirates.[45]


  • Black Movie Awards
    • 2006 Source Awards
  • Black Reel Awards
  • Emmy Award
    • 2004, Best Actor in a Television Movie or Mini-Series: Something the Lord Made
  • Golden Globes
    • 2005, Best Actor in a Television Movie or Mini-Series: Something the Lord Made
  • Grammy Awards
    • 2005, Best Urban/Alternative Performance: "Sex, Love & Money"
    • 2006, Best Urban/Alternative Performance: "Ghetto Rock"
    • 2007, Best Rap Solo Performance: "Undeniable"
    • 2010, Best Rap Solo Performance: "Casa Bey"
    • 2010, Best Rap Album: "The Ecstatic"
    • 2011, Best Short Form Music Video: "Stylo" (with Bobby Womack and Gorillaz)
  • Image Awards
    • 2009, Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: Cadillac Records
    • 2003, Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: Brown Sugar
    • 2005, Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie or Mini-Series: Something the Lord Made



Year Film Role Notes
1991 The Hard Way Dead Romeos Gang Member
1997 Ghosts Townsperson
1998 Where's Marlowe? Wilt Crawley
2000 Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme Himself
Bamboozled Big Blak Afrika Also recorded a song for the movie's soundtrack with other members of the Mau Maus
Island of the Dead Robbie J
2001 Carmen: A Hip Hopera Lieutenant Miller
Monster's Ball Ryrus Cooper
2002 Showtime Lazy Boy
Civil Brand Michael Meadows
Brown Sugar Chris 'Cav' Anton Vichon
My Wife and Kids Tommy 1 episode: Chair Man of the Board
2003 The Italian Job Left Ear
2004 The Woodsman Detective Lucas
Something the Lord Made Vivien Thomas Nominated - Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie
Nominated - Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Nominated - Image Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Mini-Series or Television Movie
2005 Lackawanna Blues The Bandleader
The Boondocks (2005-2008) Voice Of Gangstalicious
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Ford Prefect
2006 Dave Chappelle's Block Party Himself
16 Blocks Eddie Bunker
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby Himself Cameo
Journey to the End of the Night Wemba
2007 Prince Among Slaves Narrator
2008 Be Kind Rewind Mike
Cadillac Records Chuck Berry
2009 Next Day Air Eric
House Lee Season 5, Episode 19
2010 I'm Still Here Himself
Bouncing Cats Himself
2010 Yo Gabba Gabba! Super Mr. Superhero Season 3, Episode 44, Superhero
2011 Dexter Brother Sam Season 6, recurring, (credited as "Mos" in 2 episodes, "yasiin bey" in 3 episodes)


  1. ^ allmusic Biography
  2. ^ Ali Asadullah. "You're Gonna Serve Somebody". Beliefnet. Retrieved 4 April 2010. 
  3. ^ Black Star album[dead link]
  4. ^ Posted by TheSavvySista on 6:52 AM (2008-10-01). "VH1's 100 greatest Hip-Hop songs". Retrieved 2011-02-20. 
  5. ^ Black on Both Sides
  6. ^ The New Danger[dead link]
  7. ^ Mos Def - Tru3 Magic - Hip-Hop Album Review
  8. ^ "Al Be Back speaks on Mos Def's new CD". 2008-01-15. Retrieved 2011-02-20. 
  9. ^ "Hip Hop Single of the Day – Mos Def – Fine (2002)". Retrieved June 7, 2009. [dead link]
  10. ^ Pitchfork: Mos Def Signs to Downtown Recordings, Remixes Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." With Spank Rock
  11. ^ Newman, Kathleen (2009-04-29). "K'Naan Hopes To Break The U.S. With Help From Mos Def, Adam Levine". Retrieved 2011-02-20. 
  12. ^ "Mos Def Live at Cape Town Jazz Fest // 125129". Retrieved 2010-03-01. 
  13. ^ "Converse — Connectivity". 2009-09-28. Retrieved 2011-02-20. 
  14. ^ "UNDRCRWN ~ Footwear & Apparel". Retrieved 2010-03-01. [dead link]
  15. ^ "Palm Advertising Campaign". Retrieved 2010-04-15. 
  16. ^ Denis, Vanessa (2010-09-27). "Mos Def Signs With Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music - Music, Celebrity, Artist News". MTV. Retrieved 2011-08-11. 
  17. ^ Perpetua, Matthew (7 September 2011). "Mos Def to Retire the Name 'Mos Def'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 8 September 2011. 
  18. ^ Bamboozled
  19. ^ Monster's Ball
  20. ^ Brown Sugar
  21. ^ Award nominations
  22. ^ "Awards Archive". Retrieved 2010-03-01. 
  23. ^ Italian Job
  24. ^ Chappelle's Show
  25. ^ Def Poetry
  26. ^ The Woodsman
  27. ^ something the Lord Made
  28. ^ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  29. ^ Dave Chappelle's Block Party
  30. ^ 16 Blocks
  31. ^ Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
  32. ^ Be Kind Rewind
  33. ^ Cadillac Records
  34. ^ Dos Santos, Kristin (2009-03-27). House: Mos Def'initely Deserves an Emmy. E!. Retrieved 2009-03-30. [dead link]
  35. ^ Brantley, Ben (2010-11-18). "Theater Review - 'A Free Man of Color' - John Guare’s ‘Free Man of Color’ at Vivian Beaumont - Review -". Retrieved 2011-02-20. 
  36. ^ Guthrie, Marisa (May 11, 2011). "Mos Def Joins 'Dexter'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 25, 2011. 
  37. ^ "Mos Def arrested outside VMAs." 2006-09-01. Retrieved on 2007-11-09
  38. ^ "episode 147". Real Time with Bill Maher. HBO. 2009-03-27. No. 6, season 7.
  39. ^ "Overtime". Real Time with Bill Maher. HBO. 2007-03-27. No. 6, season 7.
  40. ^ L.V.R. Odiaga (May 23, 2000). "Mos Def, Black Thought To Perform At Mumia Benefit". Retrieved August 21, 2011. 
  41. ^ Dan Mangan (February 15, 2006). "Daddy is 'Def' Behind - Rapper $horts Kids". New York Post. Retrieved September 7, 2010. 
  42. ^ Brian Baxter (December 16, 2008). "Blank Rome Sues Mos Def for $60,000 in Unpaid Legal Bills". The Am Law Daily. Retrieved September 7, 2010. 
  43. ^ "Mos Def". 4REAL. Retrieved 2011-02-20. 
  44. ^ "4REAL Mos Def in Cidade de Deuas". Retrieved 2011-02-20. 
  45. ^ "Gulfnews: Universal resonance". 2007-01-04. Retrieved 2011-02-20. 

External links

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