For all the clamor in hip-hop’s chaotic stratosphere about “keepin’ shit real,” there seem to be only a handful of individuals who genuinely understand its spirit. Mos Def is the heir apparent to the legacy of a soul-salvaging art form and way of life that has long been desecrated by big business. His album Black On Both Sides, is nothing short of a masterpiece and a testament to the fact that the flame can never die out, no matter how much loot you smother it with.
You’ve probably been asked a million times about the so-called “hip-hop underground.” From your vantage point, do you see a hip-hop “underground?”
For sure. You got guys like Socrates from Canada, Ugly Duckling, Defari, Dilated Peoples, D. August. It’s so many guys, and really doin’ it independently. Some of these guys press up their own records. Rise ‘n Shine, right here in New York, sell their records hand to hand. To me, that’s the underground, the independents. What separates them from the commercial is the lack of resources to get your product out there. It has nothing to do with the quality of the music. You have a diverse field of expression inside that “underground circuit.” Not everything on the underground circuit is good. Some of it is just… some real wack shit! Not everything on Hot 97 is bad. There’s some stuff that’s good. America, and the media in particular, is very attached to any sort of romantic notion about anything. The media’s been tryin’ to create this war between the underground and mainstream. Mainstream is mainstream for a purpose. Because all of those artists are on major labels, they have major distribution, they can make their projects accessible to the general public, and the media hypes it-
If anything, the media has more to do with the designation of underground and mainstream.
It’s like the “East Coast, West Coast” thing. The media made more of that than it ever really was! What I’ve been discovering among a lot of media people is they don’t care about the reality. They care about what makes a good story. And if those elements of a good story don’t necessarily exist in reality, they don’t feel any way about manufacturing those elements.
This leads to one of the things that you’ve kinda caught some flack for-
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, the whole thing with “Rock ‘n Roll.”
Historically, the media has always had a hand in designating how things roll as far as how music is categorized, who does what, what kind of people do what. Songs like that and “Mr. Nigga,” both speak to how the media flips things to serve a certain agenda.
I’m a very sensitive person. I’m not lookin’ to fuck with nobody. I’m just sayin’ what is really true. Everybody who speaks the truth about something, the media is gonna make an attempt to demonize. People know what I’m sayin’ in these songs is true. I’m not inventing some social condition that doesn’t exist. I’m speakin’ about a social condition that exists and that I didn’t manufacture. This is perpetuated by other people. Race is not important to Black people in America, generally. The only reason it’s an issue is because it’s an issue to someone else! Black people have been gettin’ down with everybody forever! Generally, the culture is very inviting of whatever works. But you start to feel that with Black culture, as it relates to American culture, you ain’t even invited to your own party! You can come, but don’t have too good a time and shit. Everybody is supposed to get the cookie except you, and it’s not fair. You can’t talk about Elvis Presley and give him a fuckin’ stamp and all that crazy shit and not mention Bo Diddley, or John Lee Hooker or Little Richard or Albert King or Muddy Waters! That shit is the bedrock of everything Elvis was doing. People in Elvis’ immediate camp will concede to the fact that Elvis was catapulted to stardom because he was a White man-
Singing Black music.
Exactly. Who could give a reasonable enough facsimile of that sound to White America where they wouldn’t be threatened. Chuck Berry was a huge, gigantic star, but they couldn’t really take him to the next level because White men did not want their White daughters goin’ to see some Black man on stage!
Ike Turner was instrumental in getting Elvis signed.
So many stories are untold! They don’t talk about how Little Richard was a patron to the Rolling Stones. They don’t talk about the work Bernard Purdie did with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. My thing is, “Hey, Limp Bizkit, go ahead, make a million dollars, rule the world.” But if you’re gonna blow up Limp Bizkit, you gotta mention Fishbone. You’re gonna blow up Red Hot Chili Peppers, you gotta mention bad brains. You’re gonna blow up Jamiroqui, you gotta mention Omar. Their work is parallel, and in some instances-
Exactly. You got White groups doin’ derivatives of Black music, yet receive more credit than the people who originated it. And if you bring this up as a Black person…
If it’s racist for me to bring up the injustices that I suffer, then who are you? To say that I’m racist to say that Elvis Presley never gave any nod to the music that preceded him… Fuck the whole racial thing, on a historical level, as an artist, he didn’t recognize his history. That’s wrong. It would destroy any artist. We don’t exist fortuitously on our own. We all are here as a result of something else that was here before us. And if you don’t have enough humility or reverence to observe that, and especially if you don’t have enough humility to observe that on the basis of race because what came before you does not look like you, that’s even less cool! The math on it is bad. And, fuck it, somebody had to say somethin’ about it. Not everybody’s gonna like it, or be comfortable with it. And if you’re not comfortable with it, then change the shit. Treat every artist the same. Don’t have a set of rules for me, and have a set of rules for another artist on the basis of their culture or their race. It’s not right. They don’t treat Black artists the way they treat White artists. They don’t have the same reverence for their career. Most Black artists got a 120-day career. You gotta find your whole lifetime audience in 120 days, and if you don’t, then they classify you as a certain type of artist and they treat you that way. Come on, man, Jakob Dylan. It took four albums to break that dude. Sold 40,000 copies on his first album.
Yeah! You be a Black artist and sell 40,000 copies of anything! You can’t do it! They’re not stickin’ around with you for that shit! You know, like, “I really believe in this artist.” That shit is extremely rare. Extremely rare. And it’s the norm for them. And it’s not fair.
Black On Both Sides kind of strikes me as a concept album, and I don’t know if you set out to make a concept album or if it just came together naturally.
It was a combination of both. It’s a collection of songs designed to relay a theme and a message about Black people in the world. I have to do that. Because there’s so much propaganda that exists about who we are, what’s important to us, our abilities. I did it to dispel a lot of the myths that exist about hip-hop, about Black culture, about Black society, about our sensitivity to politics, our level of awareness. I’m not alone in these viewpoints. I don’t exist as The Clever, Smart Negro. These are ideas and opinions that hold true to so many Black lives, so many poor lives, so many working class lives. People who struggle, and people who come from working class backgrounds and have working class people in their families hopefully can relate to what I’m sayin’.
What do you feel in your gut this album represents for you in terms of your development as an artist?
As an artist, it represented the value of following, just what you said, your gut. And searching for what that’s saying. In the process of making this album, I heard so many different suggestions. I try to stay open, but it was a fine line between being overly influenced by what the outside was sayin’, adhering to myself, taking the positive critiques, using what was useful and tuning out what was someone else’s perspective and not mine. This album was very helpful to me because now, when I’m makin’ the decisions-and even now, I’m thinkin’ about the next record and I’m makin’ the decisions about what type of record am I gonna do. Every artist is bullshittin’ you if they say, “Oh, I don’t think about the politics.” You think about, “What record can I do that’s gonna have enough impact to help me continue makin’ records? ‘Cause I like makin’ records.”
But then after a point, you’ve gotta go through all those variables and then say, “Well, what record do I wanna do? What am I feelin’? What am I excited about?” This record helped me have a compass for what it is that I’m feelin’. Trustin’ that no matter what anybody says-if nobody gets it right away-that will be successful. Not in terms of selling records, but that will be the thing that I’m most at peace with. I don’t care what nobody had to say about Black On Both Sides. ‘Cause after I was done, I was like, “This is the album I wanted to make.” I was steadfast about it and I believed in it. So it don’t make a difference what nobody got to say about this album, because as long as I respect it and the people who I respect respect it, then I’m fine. Just stick to your guns. Don’t be popular. Be you. Do what you’re feelin’. It’s just been a real good experience for me, man, because I did it out of love and I didn’t do it for nothin’ else but. Because there was nothin’ else I coulda done, man. There was no other album that I wanted to make at that point.