Once the news hit that Yasiin Bey and his family were detained in South Africa for false documents, he would then declare that he’d be leaving both rapping and acting—tragic and unexpected news for every Mos Def fan. I would consider Yasiin Bey, previously known as Mos Def, one of the founding fathers of conscious hip-hop and is amongst the best emcees to ever do it. He vocalizes his truth, always, not once compromising his artistic integrity for popular acceptance (although he has achieved it still, through acting and hip-hop music).
The catalog consists of four released studio albums, three collaborative albums (one being Black Star’s self-titled debut with Talib Kweli) and he has appeared in over twenty films and television shows combined. Born Dante Terrell Smith in Brooklyn, Mos abandoned his stage name Mos Def in 1999, favoring Yasiin Bey. Later, in 2012, he gave us clarification on his name change, revealing in an open explanation: “I began to fear that Mos Def was being treated as a product, not a person, so I’ve been going by Yasiin since ‘99. At first, it was just for friends and family, but now I’m declaring.”
His journey began with Dynamics collective in the early ‘90s. He then gained an audience collaborating and releasing verses on tracks with everybody from De La Soul to A Tribe Called Quest by way of Kanye West. Together with Talib Kweli, he advanced on to super-stardom as Black Star in 1998.
His solo debut dropped the following year in 1999 and eventually ascended gold status, all off the back of a lead single consisting of a savvy Aretha Franklin soul sample. Do you know what song I’m referring to? You should, because the gods have answered our prayers and charges in Africa have been dropped. Yasiin has been given consent to return to the states and has since revealed his final U.S. performance dates.
Adding to that exciting news, the tour incorporates a performance in Los Angeles on Tuesday, December 13th at The Saban Theatre, also hosted by my family, White Label Radio. Things are looking lighter at the end of the tunnel for Bey fans. In celebration, I have curated a list of essential Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def songs you should know (in no particular order) before you attend his last show.
Black Star – “Definition” (1998)
Produced By Hi-Tek
Album: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
This is the first time we really heard of Mos Def on a national level. Released a few years after 2Pac and Biggie Smalls were both shot dead, this song is Black Star’s take on violence in hip-hop and their dislike of it. His style and lyricism screamed b-boy/hip-hop. He, along with Talib, embodied the hardcore “backpack” movement during that time. They flip up several songs by Boogie Down Productions. Hi-Tek’s beat is a reworking of “The P is Free,” the hook is an alteration of “Stop the Violence,” and Mos throws in a line from “The Bridge Is Over.”
“I said Manhattan keep on making it, Brooklyn keep on taking it”
Mos Def – “Ms. Fat Booty” (1999)
Produced By Ayatollah
Album: Black on Both Sides
Back to that savvy soul sample from Aretha Franklin I mentioned previously. This is probably his most recognizable solo song released to the masses. Produced by Ayotollah, the majority of the song and its chorus are both samples of Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead,” a rare single released on Columbia in 1965. “Ms. Fat Booty” is the perfect song to show Bey’s is clever lyricism and mass appeal to the world. You can still hear it occasionally on popular radio rotation.
Mos Def – “Mathematics” (1999)
Produced By DJ Premier
Album: Black on Both Sides
Essentially every hip-hop head would agree, “Mathematics” is a vital song you need to know before pulling up to the event. It’s fan favorite and one of Melloe Won’s (White Label Radio) personal favorite songs of all time. Being produced by DJ Premier alone is ample reason for a die hard head to lose their mind. If there was one song that portrays who Mos Def is as an emcee, it’s “Mathematics.”
The concept of “Mathematics” is associated with The Supreme Mathematics of the Five Percent Nation (aka Nation of Gods and Earths)—though Yasiin is a traditional Muslim, and not from Nation of Gods and Earths. Talib Kweli along with several other NY rappers are Five Percenters.
Mos Def “Umi Says” (1999)
Produced By David Kennedy & Yasiin Bey
Album: Black on Both Sides
Umi means “my mother” in Arabic. So, saying, “My Umi said” is just like saying my mother said. It is in this song that we first see a different and more dedicated side of Mos. He exhibits he is more than a spitter and has musical talent beyond hip-hop. The entire first verse is dedicated to his mother, rapping directly to her at times. And in the second verse, after dedicating personal words to his mother, he comes back with a more conflicting and observational point of view. Both regret and anguish are the main themes present.
Mos Def w/ Pharoahe Monch & Nate Dogg “Oh No” (2000)
Produced By Rockwilder
Album: Lyricist Lounge 2
Hands down, this is presumably the most played of songs, with a Mos Def featured verse and by far one of the best and most underrated Nate Dogg hooks of all time. Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, and Nate Dogg? An unlikely alliance. This collab came out of nowhere and was an interesting transformation in the culture, once again showing the diversity of Mos’s genius.
According to an interview on Rap Genius, Pharoahe Monch never considered the collaboration until proposed by Mos. The story is, Mos Def called Pharoahe Monch and made the approach to through Nate Dogg on the hook (rest in peace). That hook, along with strong verses from two massive spitters is a way to perfection.
Mos Def “Brown Sugar (Fine)” (2002)
Produced By Kanye West
Album: Brown Sugar Soundtrack
My personal preference off my favorite hip-hop film, produced by my most cherished rapper/producer, Mr. Kanye West. “Brown Sugar (Fine)” lives on the soundtrack of the film Brown Sugar. Did you recognize that was him acting alongside Queen Latifah? In the song, Mos raps from the perspective of his character Chris “Cav Love” Anton Vichon. Within the song, Ye accurately supplements a sample of Norman Connor’s song “Invitation” (1979). Presumably the standard type of soul sample expected of an early Kanye West.