Family & Companions
Seminal alternative hip-hop artist and acclaimed actor Mos Def was well on his way to building a screen career when he rocketed into the spotlight with back-to-back album releases, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Black on Both Sides. The notoriety only boosted his acting opportunities, and while he relished the chance to poke fun of the image of rap stars in "Brown Sugar" (2002), Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" (2000), and the animated series "The Boondocks" (Adult Swim, 2005-14), he also showed dramatic talent when far removed from the music world element. Def earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his leading role in "Something the Lord Made" (HBO, 2004), and multiple Image and Black Reel Awards for such diverse offerings as "The Italian Job" (2003) and "Cadillac Records" (2008), in which he was tasked with portraying rock-n-roll icon Chuck Berry. His natural charisma and playful energy made Def a perfect comic foil, but he also proved an appealing leading man in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (2005) and "16 Blocks" (2006). With his screen versatility and his reputation as one of hip-hop's most introspective and insightful artists, Mos Def enjoyed a unique multi-media career virtually unmatched by any of his rapper-actor peers.
Born Dante Terrell Smith on Dec. 11, 1973, Mos Def was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. From the age of 10, Def was actively performing as both an actor in school plays and a rapper on the neighborhood streets. But prior to making an impact on the underground hip-hop scene, Def's screen career ignited first when he was cast in the ABC movie-of-the-week, "God Bless the Child" (1988) and the CBS inner-city sitcom, "You Take the Kids" (CBS, 1990-91). After landing another regular role on the equally short-lived "Here and Now" (NBC, 1992-93), Def made guest appearances on several police drama series and appeared alongside Bill Cosby as the reluctant detective's sidekick on "The Cosby Mysteries" (NBC, 1994-95). In 1994, Def and Urban Thermo Dynamics - a group that included his brother D.c.Q. and sister Ces - released a pair of singles but Def did not really break out musically until guest appearances on albums by De La Soul and Bush Babees and a 1996 solo single, "Universal Magnetic," which was a hit on the underground scene and positioned Def as a new voice in the socially-conscious school of alternative hip-hop.
While still making regular guest appearances on primetime television, Def began working with fellow MC, Talib Kweli, under the group name Black Star, and in 1998, the Rawkus Records-signed pair released Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Offering a positive, thoughtful alternative to gangsta rap and philosophical takes on modern issues, Def and Kweli's effort became one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of the era, peaking at No. 13 on the Hip-Hop album charts. Def followed up with the 1999 solo release, Black on Both Sides, which further delivered sociopolitical meditations and an expanded musical palette. The album was certified gold, hit No. 3 on the Hip-Hop album charts, and was widely touted as one of the top albums of the year; additionally, Def was credited with helping to "reclaim" the original spirit of hip-hop from its artistic decline. Now recognized as a significant artist with a distinctive point of view, Def's screen career heated up as directors came calling. He played a politically radical musician in Spike Lee's satire, "Bamboozled" (2000), and made a brief appearance in Marc Forster's acclaimed "Monster's Ball" (2001) before his performance as the rapper client of a music executive (Taye Diggs) in "Brown Sugar" (2002) earned Def a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Image Awards.
Def began a long relationship with the HBO series "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" (HBO, 2002-07) as both a host and a performer, and further showcased his range with a starring role in the Tony nominated, Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, "Top Dog/Underdog." He appeared alongside Eddie Murphy and Robert DeNiro in the unpopular buddy cop comedy, "Showtime" (2002), and earned a Black Reel Award nomination for his role in the indie prison drama, "Civil Brand" (2003). Another Black Reel Award nomination was forthcoming for Def's supporting comic role in the actioner "The Italian Job," starring Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. Playing a Philadelphia cop, Def psychologically antagonized a convicted child molester (Kevin Bacon) in the acclaimed "The Woodsman" (2004), this time taking home a Black Reel Award for Best Actor in an independent movie. Def was recognized yet again that year for his portrayal of a pioneering cardiac researcher relegated to anonymity in segregated 1940s America, in "Something the Lord Made" (HBO, 2004), based on a true story.
Hot on the heels of his Emmy, Golden Globe, Image Award, and Black Reel Award nominations for his starring role in that "Something the Lord Made," Def returned to the studio to record The New Danger. Despite hitting No. 2 on the Hip-Hop album charts, the overall effort, which was marked by soul and rock sounds, failed to meet the high expectations of fans and critics. However the Grammy Awards, typically last on the bandwagon, made up for overlooking Def's earlier achievements with a Best Urban/Alternative Performance nomination for the single, "Sex, Love and Money." His screen career showed no signs of slowing down with his leading role as the cynical, hard-drinking galactic hitchhiker Ford Prefect in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (2005), the long-awaited film adaptation of Douglas Adams' famed sci-fi novels, and Def's starring role in the HBO original movie "Lackawanna Blues" (2005), based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson's autobiographical one-man show. The same year, Def began a recurring voiceover role on the animated series, "The Boondocks" (Adult Swim, 2005-14), where he took a dig at gangsta rap with his characterization of the thuggish but closeted gay Gangstalicious.
Following a pair of cameo appearances as himself in comedian Dave Chappelle's documentary "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (2006) and the Will Ferrell vehicle "Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006), Def starred with Bruce Willis in Richard Donner's "16 Blocks" (2006), playing the chatty, energetic witness assigned to the care of a gruff detective (Willis). Def's final recording for Geffen Records, True Magic (2006), was released quietly with no promotion or fanfare, per Def's request, at end of the year and met with a lukewarm reception. He returned to theaters in 2008 in Michel Gondry's charmingly improbable comedy, "Be Kind Rewind" (2008), co-starring with Jack Black as a video store employee who accidentally de-magnetizes his stock and sets out to reenact bootleg versions of famous films. Unfortunately the well-reviewed film did not bring in large audiences, but it proved an excellent showcase for Def's charisma as a leading actor, and he followed up the madcap comedy with a dramatic portrayal of rock-n-roll guitar legend Chuck Berry in "Cadillac Records" (2008). Def earned another Image Award nomination for his strong performance, though his follow-up film, the mistaken-identity comedy "Next Day Air" (2009), did not enjoy nearly the positive reception.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Television debut in the CBS series "You Take The Kids"
Cast in the ABC television drama "God Bless The Child"
Cast in NBC series "The Cosby Mysteries" starring Bill Cosby
Made his major label debut with a cameo on De La Soul's "Stakes Is High"
Had a two-episode recurring role on "Brooklyn South" (CBS)
Acted on episodes of "NYPD Blue" and "Spin City" (both ABC)
Debut album under the group name "Black Star"
Made feature debut in "Where's Marlowe?"
Made solo album debut
Starred on MTV's "The Lyricist Lounge Show," mixing comedy sketches, hip-hop and urban poetry
Featured in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled"
Starred opposite Destiny's Child singer Beyonce Knowles in MTV's "Hip Hopera: Carmen"
Had a supporting role in the feature drama "Monster's Ball"
Cast as a hip hop star in the romance feature "Brown Sugar"
Made Broadway debut in "Topdog Underdog"
Had memorable role in the classic remake "The Italian Job"
Portrayed the head of a smuggling ring in the feature drama "Showtime"
Starred with Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick in "The Woodsman"; premiered at sundance
Starred opposite Alan Rickman in the HBO drama "Something the Lord Made" a dramatization of the relationship between heart surgery pioneers Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas; received an Emmy and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Lead Actor (Mini Series or TV Movie)
Starred in the HBO original movie "Lackawanna Blues" based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson autobiographical one man show
Co-starred with Bruce Willis in "16 Blocks," a real time action thriller directed by Richard Donner
Portrayed Chuck Berry in the musical biopic "Cadillac Records"
Released his fourth studio album, <i>The Ecstatic</i>; earned two Grammy nominations, including Best Rap Album
Earned a Grammy nomination for the music video for his single, "Stylo," alongside soul legend Bobby Womack