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FEATURE: Mos Def, Quiet As Kept 2.0

[Editor’s Note: These are the outtakes to the edited interview that appears in the June 2009 issue of XXL.]

Photography Matt Salacuse
Photography Matt Salacuse

XXL: People really want to hear from you. Hip-hop misses a lyricist like you so I know you think you haven’t been away but—

Mos Def: I haven’t been away. I’m just not on certain radars. By choice. ’Cause I’m not jumping in the Gladiator ring to be like, “I smite thee!” [Laughs] Like, you know… I’m relaxed. I’m like whatever is coming to me will come. I just have to just stay working. When people say I don’t see you enough, well just because you don’t see me don’t mean I don’t exist or just ’cause you haven’t heard me don’t mean I haven’t been making noise. But if I keep making noise, you’ll pick up.

XXL: What does it take for you to want to go in the studio and record?

Mos Def: I’m always there! When I’m there, I’m just not broadcasting it, like, “I’m here!” I’m ambitious but my ambition is not fame… It starts to be like something like a bureaucrat, you know, like you’re campaigning for votes for constituents and that’s just not how I—

XXL: For popularity, you mean?

Mos Def: Yeah, it’s very much like a popularity contest.

XXL: And that’s not you at all.

Mos Def: You either respond to the music or you don’t. I’m not… I don’t feel like there’s anything that I can to do manipulate people to respond to it favorably. They’re either into it or they’re not.

XXL: Do you still love rapping?

Mos Def: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve always loved rhyming. I love language. I love ideas and words and sounds, so yeah.

XXL: You said it’s the right time. What makes this the right time?

Mos Def: I don’t know. I don’t know all the answers. I just know that when it feel like that time, I just go.

XXL: True Magic was your last album for Geffen. You did no promotion and the album cover was… There was no album cover.

Mos Def: [Laughs]

XXL: What was that all about? ’Cause I think people were like, “okay…”

Mos Def: I just like to let the music speak for itself. But also it was a tense relationship with my label at that time. I responded to the pressure of that situation.

XXL: Do you think people didn’t receive it because of that?

Mos Def: I mean, it was, you know… it was a difficult time. It was good music created in a tense atmosphere.

XXL: I remember one day I was on Amazon and saw the album and was like, wait Mos Def has an album coming out?! Nobody really knew about it until like a week before.

Mos Def: I mean, that didn’t necessarily bother me either. That was also like all of the hoopla and the drum banging like “I’m coming, I’m here!” I kinda wanted the suspense with that.

XXL: Did you have a problem being on a major label?

Mos Def: Nah.

XXL: How’d you hook up with Downtown?

Mos Def: I was looking to do more music and I was looking for a place and I saw the type of music that they was doing, the type of artists that they had. I was like, “aight let’s give it a go” and we met and they was excited. They was enthusiastic so here we are.

XXL: How much time do you spend rapping, say, in a week or something? How much time do you devote to the studio?

Mos Def: I’m always writing. I write all the time.

XXL: Right.

Mos Def: But I don’t have any type of super strict fixed schedules, you know.

XXL: I can tell.

Mos Def: I don’t wake up at 8 in the morning. But I do it all the time. It’s a part of my life. Wherever I’m at, if things and thoughts and ideas occur to me… I’m starting to do it with more regularity as I get older but it’s a pretty natural process for me the way that I’ve been doing it for the last 10, 12 years.

XXL: Has the acting—how much time does that take up?

Mos Def: A lotta time.

XXL: I mean, like, auditioning for roles and meetings with people. I’m sure you have to go back and forth to L.A. a lot.

Mos Def: I’ve been fortunate with my acting career. A lot of scripts come to me. I don’t mind auditioning if something that requires that but I haven’t had to in awhile, which is a nice place to be ’cause I’ve been on quite a lot of auditions in my life.

XXL: In the beginning?

Mos Def: Yeah, two, three in a day. A lot.

XXL: As a kid, was acting the first thing you went hard with first?

Mos Def: Um, no… I was just a kid that liked to do this. I got an opportunity to be in my school play and I liked it so I kept doing it and then my mother told me they have magnet school programs in my school. Philipa Schuyler was a big part—I gotta thank the people at Philipa Schuyler I.S. 383, middle school.

XXL: Performing arts?

Mos Def: It was a performing arts program but it was a school for what they called the “gifted and talented” and it was right in the middle of Bushwick… It was really dope. It was really nice people. I remember going to school with Orthodox Muslims and some Asian kids and, like, Huxtable kids really living in Brooklyn in brownstones.

XXL: What was your living situation?

Mos Def: Working class. Regular people.

XXL: How do you feel about Obama being in office? Do you feel like he has the potential to change?

Mos Def: We still gotta see. I mean, I’m glad. In a world where image is everything, in a country where image is everything, it’s nice that the perceived boss looks like people in my family. That’s got very positive effect. Very positive effect. But we’ll see. I’ll watch. I’m watching. I’m just watching.

XXL: Where were you when he got elected?

Mos Def: I was in Stockholm with Nas and De La [Soul], we were at work.

XXL: You guys were together?

Mos Def: Yeah, it was a weird moment ’cause… it was fresh. We were eating McDonalds. It was like this weird super American moment. We were like in this real swanked out club in Sweden. It was after the show and Nas was there and De La was there. We was hungry and didn’t have no food so we went out to McDonalds and brought it back. Some African people there, they started crying.

XXL: Did you cry?

Mos Def: Nah, I was just like, “okay.”

XXL: I was balling. I guess nobody knows—you don’t know why you’re crying.

Mos Def: Emotions, yeah yeah yeah.

XXL: Are you always keeping up with politics?

Mos Def: Yeah, I definitely try to. I make an effort, but the places where the real information is not what people read. They say oh the information is out there. But it’s lateral, you know. You get it, but it’s not as accessible as they claiming.

XXL: What do you read now?

Mos Def: I like to read the Financial Times when I’m traveling. Economist. Ad Busters.

XXL: Ad Busters?

Mos Def: Yeah, when I can get my hands on a copy of Ad Busters, I like to read Ad Busters.

XXL: Do you read Monocle?

Mos Def: I read Monocle. I like this new one and I don’t know how new it is but it’s the Conde Nast Portfolio?

XXL: Yeah.

Mos Def: I like Portfolio.

XXL: Are you happy with where hip-hop is right now?

Mos Def: Hip-Hop? I was in the airport, right? Just yesterday. And a brother said, “When you coming out?” I said, “I got something this June.” He said, “Yeah man, come out. It ain’t nothing really out. It’s all mixtapes and people is mad.” There’s a couple releases that came out recently. Nas’ release was real good.

XXL: T.I.’s was good.

Mos Def: I liked T.I. always liked T.I.

XXL: Jeezy’s album.

Mos Def: Jeezy’s album was good. I like the new Cam’ron song “I Hate My Job.” Kanye’s album I like a lot. I like the Cool Kids. [Hip-hop is] just out of phase with reality. It’s not speaking to the times. It got ambitious but the ambitions are boring, you know. The ambition is to be number one so you can experience the sensation in your ego of being number one. It’s not… none of it is active or kinetic. It’s a lot of men but it’s not a whole lot of real manhood. It’s a lot of power but it’s not a lot of strength… Rap is not pop. We don’t have nothing to do with that. We shouldn’t. Because whatever makes us different, we should cultivate and maintain because it’s the thing that got us this far. Dudes don’t even really be wanting to say that they Black no more. Like it’s burdensome to say that out loud ’cause you don’t wanna hurt nobody’s feelings and you don’t want nobody to think that you radical or that it’s not in vogue. But it’s clear to everybody else. It’s an industry dominated by Black men between the ages of 15 and 40. I mean, almost exclusively. 95.9999999 percent is just Black men.

XXL: And the music that we hear doesn’t reflect that?

Mos Def: Not at all. It don’t reflect none of them sensibilities. It don’t reflect that there’s any care for the community outside of being just like a cheering section for your ego. Everybody wanna be the boss but there’s no plan. You just supposed to follow ’cause this dude got the most stuff or the shiniest things so he must be the leader ’cause look at his car. But these are not virtues—what a man owns. It has nothing to do with who he is. And sometimes a man’s wealth will exceed him.

XXL: What’s your favorite album of yours? Black on Both Sides?

Mos Def: I like this album right now. This album is great. I always like the next one that I’m gonna do. I always say the next one. When I do say it. I like this one a lot. I think this one might be my best one yet.

XXL: I got the sampler—like four songs.

Mos Def: I can’t describe it to you. It’s like…

XXL: Any production that I should know about?

Mos Def: Y’all just gotta hear it. It’s just dope. It makes me feel good.

XXL: Yeah?

Mos Def: Yeah, man! It’s like… dope. Really dope. [Laughs]

XXL: Were you excited about the last one as much?

Mos Def: I’m excited about all of ’em. I have songs on there that I love. Sometimes you feel like they get ignored or maybe you was tripping but I was never tripping. All of the songs that I thought were great there were people who felt that way too. And now with the Internet and YouTube and all that, people are gonna hear and see it. No more secrets, really. It’s just about getting it airborn and getting it out there.

XXL: So you don’t care if people download?

Mos Def: If people care about what you doing, they’ll spend money with you. I spend money with people I care about. Some people take it for free because they in different circumstances, but God is taking care of everybody so I don’t stress it too much.-Clover Hope

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