By 8 p.m. last night, the internets were going nuts with rumors about Mos Def not showing up for the first of his two Monday night shows at the 9:30 Club. Tweets and Facebook status updates were blowing up with reports of a long wait between opening act Hezekiah and the arrival of Dante Beze AKA Mr. Boogie Man AKA the Mighty Mos Def.
You gotta give the 9:30 Club credit for booking *two* shows with Mos on a school night in 2009. After all, hip-hop is notorious for showing up late, and last night's delay of more than two hours was a throwback to golden-era hip-hop concerts—like a Wu-Tang show at Trax in 1996. However, unlike those '90s live show debacles, this time blame can’t be placed on the artist, as Mos' flight to D.C. was delayed by a few hours. And really tho, what hip-hop show has ever started before 8 p.m.?
By the time I made my way over to 9th and V around midnight, I already had low expectations.
As I walked in, Mos' DJs were on laptop duty, inexplicably playing G-Unit and Frankie Beverly to the sold-out crowd of hip-hop heads. After one too many New Jack Swing records, the DJ made a rough transition into the instrumental for Outkast's "SpottieOttieDopalicious," which immediately got the crowd bouncing. The beat rode through the horn intro, and after a few bars, even though you couldn't see him, the voice of Mos Def took over the club: "PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!"
He teased the crowd from backstage for a few minutes, still working out the mic levels from the first show. At 12:18 a.m., the DJ dropped JunkYard Band's "Sardines" and the crowd straight got open. Mos ad-libbed over the track, harmonizing with the vocals and hyping up the crowd. Like a true veteran, he knows that go-go always wins over a salty D.C. audience.
Over the next 110 minutes or so, Mos talked, rapped, and sang over other people's beats while dancing around his hits. Like a pro MC, he was always in control of the crowd—switching between standard hip-hop call and response, his own memorable verses set to hip-hop and reggae instrumentals, and toasting and boasting like a true soundclash champion.
While he broke into a few full renditions of his classic material, Mos seemed more at home talking to the crowd and spitting freestyles over a wide range of instrumentals, including tracks from Santogold, Musical Youth, Grandmaster Flash, Pace Won, Dawn Penn, and Johnny Osborne, among others.
For a moment, a 20-minute reggae segment seemed like the perfect setup for "Re: Definition," the Black Star classic in a dancehall style, but it only lead into an awkward bluesy number from The New Danger. The show never seemed to go anywhere in particular, just meandered between various beats and riddims (and what was up with the screening of the 1953 film Little Fugitive on the big screen?)
By the end of the show, Mos had hit a handful of his best-known tracks, including "Respiration", "Umi Says," and "Ms. Fat Booty,” giving his true fans something to remember. Overall, though, the crowd seem split. Some heads truly appreciated the experimentation and tribute to the culture while others expected more—more classic material, more songs, more rhymes, more Mos Def.
The early show definitely got the short end of the stick, as that performance had to be cut short, but I'm not so sure that the late shift got a much better deal. Mos seemed reticent to perform too much new material, but also shied away from Black Star tracks and his early Rawkus catalog. Some heads felt that watching Mos Def talk over reggae and hip-hop standards wasn't worth the cover charge, the speculation, or the hype—not too mention the long wait outside in the cold. (Really, hasn't the 9:30 Club squirreled away enough money from taxing merch to buy some heater lamps for outside?)
I'm actually not surprised that half the fans seemed happy while the other half left somewhat disappointed. Few Mos Def fans like—or even know—all of the albums in his catalog, so many aren’t going to be happy with a show that incorporates a little bit of everything.
But, regardless of how you felt about Be Kind Please Rewind or The New Danger, Mos Def is one of hip-hop's best live MCs: He can rap his ass off, harmonize and sing with the beat, and even throw in a little stand-up. And all the while, he never losing his breath or cuffs and distorts the mic (which can’t be said of his former partner Talib Kweli).
Hopefully, the next time Mos comes to town, his schedule won't be so tight, and he can relax and chill a little bit before rocking a show. I have a feeling there are a few Mos Def fans who came out last night who will want to see him again—but also a few who won't.
Some choice quotes from fans below:
"Awful" – Michelle, 36 from D.C.
"It was great" – Lillian, 21 from Houston
"Seemed like too much starting and stopping" – Adam, 34 from DC.
"Freaking awesome" – Laurie, 22 from D.C.
"Worst show I've ever seen" – Alex, 18 from Chicago
"As a fan I expected more" – Neisha, 23 from D.C.
"I love Mos Def" – Tiffany, 28 from D.C.
"We need to hear that Black Star!" – Big John, 37, from DC (UPT!)
"Loved it" – Tim, 26 from Seattle
"Most of the songs were not his songs" – Reef 27, Kenya