”Nine years old. I was 9 years old. I was like, ‘I’m gonna write a rhyme.’ It was that simple. I always wrote stories and s — – when I was a kid and I was like, ‘I’ll write a rhyme.’ Was I good? Yeah. I was always good. Like, right away. They used to have battles on the basketball court and this one kid came to me and said his little rhyme or whatever and I was a nerd, so it was really important to me to be able to do somethin’, you know? I could play a little ball, but I was small. I could fight, but I wasn’t really a fighter. I was a 99-punch kid. If you hit on me 100 times, I’d be like, ‘Okay, now I’m gonna break you.’ Heh-heh. So I had to do somethin’ to be able to just survive around my neighbors, you know?
And that kid came in and was battling and said his rhyme or whatever and there was a little crowd or whatever and then I said my rhyme and all the kids went, ‘Whooo-oooo-oooh!’ And the kid got mad. It almost got a little physical, but I was like, ‘Okay, I can use this.”’
And Mos Def was born.
Oh s — -! okay. you know, Slick Rick. Doug E. Fresh. KRS. Jungle Brothers. Local cats like Divine Sounds. Big Daddy Kane…”
It’s a terrible mistake. Sitting in the lobby restaurant of a Manhattan hotel, across the street from a Broadway marquee blaring Mos Def’s name, a reporter asks the Brooklyn-born rapper-rocker-actor-writer-bookstore owner-political activist-poet who he listened to coming up. He strokes the muttonchop wisps on his cheeks and fidgets gleefully in his chair. This could take hours.
”…and a lot of dudes who didn’t achieve national acclaim. Super Lover C. Skinny Boys. Public Enemy was a real ghetto thing back in the day. That first P.E. album…”
Flash forward a decade and some shimmery-hot hip-hop star will probably put Mos Def on his list. Or maybe it will be a poet. Or a heavy metaler. Or a writer. At the rate that the sweet-smiling, onetime underground rapper — who has enough hyphens in his job description to draw a line from Greenpoint to Bed-Stuy — is pursuing his myriad passions, future astrophysicists might just count him as an influence. At age 28, he has already reeled off two critically acclaimed albums; a hosting gig on Def Poetry, Russell Simmons’ new-poets showcase on HBO; and appearances in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball, the Robert De Niro-Eddie Murphy comedy Showtime, and the upcoming Taye Diggs drama Brown Sugar. Now, instead of abandoning downtown Brooklyn for a Beverly Hills bungalow, or loping after bling-bling hip- hop fame, he’s taking the biggest risk of his career: very publicly testing his acting chops opposite Tony-winning veteran Jeffrey Wright on Broadway in Suzan-Lori Parks’ shattering urban drama, Topdog/Underdog.
The acting isn’t new. Born Dante Terrell Smith to working-class parents, Mos made his stage debut just blocks from his childhood home in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Roosevelt Projects. ”I started with Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be…You and Me in fifth grade,” he says, pausing to order sauteed spinach and to torch a Camel Red. His stage work — though accomplished for a knee-biter—went unnoticed until his freshman year in high school, when fortune came to Brooklyn in the form of a TV exec. ”ABC came scoutin’ around for new — i.e. cheap — talent,” Mos recalls. ”By November I was in Montreal doing a movie with Mare Winningham.” Ferried to and from rehearsals by his mother and manager, Umi, he followed up his film foray with work at respected New York venues like Playwrights Horizons. Once in a while, he’d pepper in a TV appearance — on Spin City, NYPD Blue, even The Cosby Mysteries — most commonly under the name Dante Beze.