How Mos Def Restored My Love for Hip-Hop
I can still remember the first rap song I ever heard, Doug E. Fresh’s “Ladi Dadi” featuring a young Ricky D. For a 11 year old Kentucky boy raised on a musical diet of Air Supply, Styx, Michael Jackson and even Def Leppard, this was unlike anything I had ever heard and it excited and startled me at the same time. But I loved every minute of it. By the time I reached high school, I listened almost exclusively to rap music. From Scholly D to Kool G Rap to Geto Boyz if it had a beat and rhymes, I listened to it. Somehow, this scrawny white farmboy embraced a music and a culture that was entirely foriegn to him and even allowed that culture to define who he was.
My love for beats and rhymes continued through the early nineties. I can remember the release of N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet as points at which I thought rap music couldn’t get any better. In some ways that was a self-fulfilling prophesy, because everything after those two albums sounded a little disappointing. The music started to drift away from being anchored by beats first and lyrics second to a more pop-oriented mode of hook, verse and chorus. Then The Chronic hit and for me the game was over–rap as I knew it had ended.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the cultural significance of The Chronic. I can even appreciate the craft that went into creating that album. But for me, there was no hip-hop afterward. I was never a big fan of what was then called West Coast style, and The Chronic landed the knock-out blow in the long-running East Coast-West Coast fued. For roughly the next sixteen years, hip-hop was dead to me.
My reawakening began with Matisyahu’s 2005 release Live at Stubb’s, which reignited a spark within me I had long thought dead. A couple of years later, I discovered the Roots and I realized that the hip-hop I loved wasn’t dead, it had just gone underground. I did some research and discovered that the hip-hop I loved was still going under labels like “alternative” or “indie”. In addition to The Roots, I discovered Atmosphere and Lupe Fiasco.
In June, I interrupted my history lesson to listen to the latest release by Mos Def, The Ecstatic. I was aware of Def’s acting career and I found out that his last two releases, 2004’s The New Danger and 2006’s True Magic, were considered artistic disappointments, possibly due to a Prince-like desire to finish out a major label contract. But no matter the reasons, the press consensus was that Mos Def had left his best years behind him in favor of his other pursuits.
Enter The Ecstatic. I cannot review this record based on Def’s history, I have never heard any of his other albums. I can’t place this record in the modern lore of underground hip-hop, I am not versed in this lore. I can, however, give you my view of this album as someone who’s missed the kind of hip-hop that I loved as a teenager–and from that viewpoint, this is a spectacular album.
The album begins with “Supermagic”, a rollicking opener that begins with Malcolm X exhorting us to change the world’s “miserable condition”. The song then continues on a repeated Bollywood guitar lick and Def’s chorus that hearkens back to Mary Poppins. Yep, you heard right: Mary Poppins. In the same song, Def lets us know that this time around he can be very serious and very playful at the same time by ending the track with “Have fun, ya’ll.”
And that’s where the next song “Twilite Speedball” begins, repeating the “have fun” refrain and using tubas to accentuate the bass line. This repitition and revisiting of concepts continues throughout the entire album. For example, the word “ecstatic” finds itself in nearly every song and there are repeated references to the “boogieman”.
Many of the songs on Ecstatic find Mos Def globetrotting, sampling world music heavily and telling tales that hail from India, Brazil, and his home, Bed-Stuy. The third track “Auditorium” opens with the repeated “Peace” and features the rapper that popped my hip-hop cherry, Slick Rick the Ruler. Rick joins the game by telling a story about a young military lad in Iraq who has to deal with the rejection of the same people he was sent there to liberate. “Wahid” again carries a Middle Eastern vibe over Mos Def’s freestyle. After a shout out to Run-DMC, the phrase “There’s only One” is used as a refrain, which is echoed in the next track “Priority” when Def raps “Peace before everything, God before anything.”
The great Fela Kuti begins my favorite track on the album “Quiet Dog Bite Hard”. Kuti’s defiant statement that he will not compromise his way of life in his art seems to be coming from Def himself, who could be talking directly to those who have accused him of being more interested in acting than in MC’ing. This song contains some of Def’s best and most inspired rhyming, as does the next track “Life In Marvellous Times.”
I’ll hold up on my lovefest here just to say definitively: this is the hip hop I remember. Not in terms of musicality–I can’t think of a rap artist in 1990 that would dare put Bollywood guitars on a track. Not in terms of flow, which has become much more complex and nuanced as time’s gone by. But in terms of spirit, this album represents what I remember as true hip-hop. It comes from a place that is not afraid to tell you the serious truth in one breath and then break out a fart joke in the next. It comes from someone being real whether you like them or not.
My own love for hip-hop is officially rekindled, much like listening to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ 100 Days, 100 Nights rekindled my love for soul music last year. So if you find yourself, like me, looking for the spirit of oldschool rap in today’s music, The Ecstatic is for you. If you’re not a hip-hop lover but would like to be, this album is a great way to introduce yourself to the genre. But don’t make the mistake of thinking one listen will tell the tale. It will take multiple listens to peel back the layers of the onion–but trust me the time investment will be worth it.