The very first time I heard the Mighty Mos Def was in January 1995, when Full Frequency Range Recordings put out a six-track promo EP for their Payday subsidiary. I admit that out of the choice cuts they offered, I took more to Group Home's Primo-produced "Supa Star" and Big Red's Diamond-produced "Created a Monster," but the playful "My Kung Fu" definitely made me take notice of the name UTD. While Group Home were rewarded with an album exclusively produced by DJ Premier, Big Red and UTD ended up cancelled projects. Years later I realized that one of the rappers on "My Kung Fu" had to be Mos. I learned that UTD stood for Urban Thermo Dynamics and soon came across a vinyl bootleg of a full-length. This had to be sometime between "Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star" and "Black On Both Sides." Now this full-length finally sees an official release through Illson Media, a label set up by former UTD member DCQ. It is put out in conjunction with a Medina Green compilation, another project the two brothers were involved in. Both releases target Mos Def enthusiasts, with "Manifest Destiny" being the more interesting in any regard. Not only does it tell us something about Mos Def, it also tells us something about hip-hop ten years ago.
As a hypothetical 1994 debut album, "Manifest Destiny" would have a hard time standing the test of time. As such, it's too much caught up in space and time. Its unrefined appearance would prevent it from getting mentioned in the same breath as OutKast's "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik," Biggie's "Ready to Die" or Nas' "Illmatic," which all ushered in equally prominent careers. But it holds up against a 1994 debut by another crew that consisted of two guys and one chick - the Fugees. There's an interesting connection between the two acts, apart from Lauryn Hill and Mos Def both pursuing acting careers on the side. A certain Salaam Remi is generally credited for helping the Fugees realize their potential with his remix of their song "Nappy Heads." Roughly one year earlier, he had laid hands on "My Kung Fu," but to no effect. While the Urban Thermo Dynamics/Fugees comparison should stop there, one can't help but notice the striking similarity between the two remixes. They have almost identical drums, combining in a shuffling, jazzy type beat, and they both feature male figureheads (Mos Def/Wyclef) blurring the lines between singing and rapping in their respective performance. Overall, "Nappy Heads" is much more refined (it's also essentially a new song). But the link is there, and while Remi's remix for "Nappy Heads" got clad in an often-played video clip, the one for "My Kung Fu" never even made it past promo status.
Speaking of visuals, apparently, apart from the perfectly preserved recordings, not much UTD material was left, as the cover features the same grainy pictures that graced their "Manifest Destiny" single from 1995, which seems symptomatic of this crew, to record a full album before even thinking about promotional shots. "The UTD for the nine-four" went deliberately against the grain. In a key segment of their album, an aggravated Mos Def attacks the rap industry:
"I can't believe how low some of my heroes fell
DMC got baldies now - the hell?
Nowaday every crew wanna go gold
brandishin' they tools, actin' all bold
But on the mad real, let the truth be told
Give 'em a open hand smack - they fold
Sometimes I watch these videos, I really start to lose it
I'm like, 'Yo, what the fuck is you doin' to my music?!'
When I started rhymin', back in the day
I wasn't even thinkin' 'bout gettin' no pay
As long as the rhymes that I used to say
got me love around the way, hey, shit was okay
'But now you got a deal' That ain't no cause to celebrate
I'm sick of niggas layin' down, it's time to elevate
beyond the herringbone and the fat ride
And I got too much pride to drink some fuckin' St. Ides
I rather that I die - with my eyes open wide
rather that my moms cries cause I got my cap peeled
on the battlefield - bein' real
So murmur what you wish, whatever
I didn't come here to make you bitches feel better
In fact, it feel type sweet
to get on the mic piece and watch you punks squirm in your seat
Cause next year, when your ass need a new career
the big U will still be here
with the Brakalak bounce, no doubt
And if the truth hurts, stupid, say ouch"
Similar sentiments are echoed in various rap songs from that time, most notably OC's infamous "Time's Up." By including a variety of old school references (see also Freestyle Fellowship), crews like UTD presented themselves as torchbearers of traditional hip-hop values. As Mos reminisces on "My Kung Fu":
"This had to be about ten years back
before I ever even heard of a 24 track
Talkin' about you was an MC was not the move
cause if you said you had skill, well then you had to show and prove
And if there ever was a party, son, yo, I would set it
and tell the DJ run the beat from (Ultra-magnetic)
I grab the mic and then I leave the party buzzin'
Tellin' all the honeys I was Slick Rick's cousin
When they knew I wasn't, but I had no shame
Pa, you know the name, the Mos always had game
Back in the day of the Rap Attack
when brothers knew how to act, before glocks and crack
and Vandy C was doin' radio shows
and 'crossover' meant that you wore your mom's clothes
When Sweet G was talkin' about the games that people play
I used to sit back and say: 'Yeah indeed, someday'"
But when that day finally came, gimmicks had replaced skills:
"And now my time has come
and now hip-hop's an industry polluted by bums
Posin' with guns, they're puffin' mad blunts
Aiyo, brothers just started rhymin' last month!
They gettin' fat deals on any major label
when they only seen other people hold the mic cable"
His dissatisfaction even leads him to lament the make-over of Run-DMC, who in 1993 not only visually modelled themselves after their own protégés Onyx. Ironically however, UTD, especially Mos and his sister, seem to have taken a clue from Onyx themselves, engaging in an over-the-top angry delivery on several cuts. The most astonishing sight being Mos with "a full clip and my hand on my dick" without a hint of irony. This doesn't seem to go well with the 'We're not like them' mantra, but ultimately UTD were as much a product of their environment as anyone else. As Ces puts it: "Times is too wild to smile." That's why Onyx were so successful with their mad face invasion. So while UTD stood for more substance than the average gun-toting, blunt-smoking fool, both rap and real life prompted them to toughen up. With sometimes schizophrenic results. When Mos declares at the top of "Luv It Liv It": "This is for all of you so-called ruff motherfuckers," it's sort of a pot calling the kettle black moment.
After hearing the opening "Worldwide," one might be quick to dismiss Ces as the weakest link in this "family cipher," as she spits generic lyrics in a gruff-voiced flow littered with forced intonations (think Hurricane Gloria or Champ MC). But she quickly redeems herself with her strong but distinctively female stance. She especially shines on the title track's hook, encouraging folks with almost esoteric wisdom: "If you can see it, you can be it / if your mind can go there, then why can't you?" And on "Luv It Liv It," she's straight ripping it:
"Now as a female I must represent
cause nowadays hoes ain't makin' no sense
Gettin on' the mic with they jeans all tight
talkin' about 'Gimme my props' and I be like, 'Yeah aight...'
You can't be real in this day and time
when you're fuckin' your producer and he's writin' your rhymes
So bitch please, you spend all your time on your back
gettin' fucked and fat, and on top of all that you're wack
So if you think of steppin' to the dread
I knock the fuckin' No-Lye relaxer out your head"
It's an interesting mixture that UTD present. They are ready to meet foes eye to eye, but at the same time they try to rise above the eye for an eye mentality. A good example is the somber "Hardcore Nights," a six-minute lesson on how to navigate the New York streets. Mos Def:
"Hardcore nights in the city
Nobody's (sleepy), everybody's (creepy)
Stay on the top since I can't be slouchin'
Too many heads crawlin', too many creeps (crouchin')
And when I slide by, I glide by
Easy, pa, this ain't no drive-by
So relax the lines in your face
ease your hands off your waist
unless you gonna pull out somethin' you can taste
Cause straight up, you gon' be eatin' it
Whatever assault you form, I'm defeatin' it
Abusin', confusin' and beatin' it
Son, I know about these streets and shit"
Not every lesson here is neatly wrapped up in a well-written piece. The social commentary of "You Can Run" and "Front Line" is hampered by the crude fashion it's delivered in. Imagine Mos threatening: "Fuck around, I leave your brains layin' in your lap." It just doesn't sound right. Mos may introduce himself as an "asphalt reporter," but whenever it opts for an angrier tone, "Manifest Destiny" gets stuck, unable to reach the intensity of Onyx' "All We Got Iz Us" or Mobb Deep's "The Infamous." Still, two of its best tracks, "Victory" and "Moon in Cancer," are about dealing with a hostile environment. In "Victory," we're surprised to learn that Mos remembers a reclusive childhood: "The loner type, even as a little tike / While the other little kids were out at play / I was home wishing for a rainy day / I didn't have friends cause I barely even spoke." After the depressive Mos, it's up to his siblings to lift the spirits, DCQ by repeating that "victory is not granted to the swift and mighty," and Ces with self-motivating rhymes:
"The night brings courage and solutions
Images and dramatic conclusions
I play back a hundred thousand scenes
Cut the proper sneer and practice bein' mean
I've taken too many a loss
Man, fuck patience, it's time to excercise force
It's the last thing heads would expect
If they won't give it to me, I'm takin' my respect
And I'm usin' all means at hand
cause apparently muthafuckas don't understand
They don't know the fury behind the meekness
mistakin' my kindness for weakness
Strictly hands over ears when you try to make amends
I got my pad and pen, so who the hell needs friends?
You think I'm on some shit? You're goddamn right
My area of peace is like mad airtight
Attempt to trespass my radius, and we gon' have to fight
My heart is too heavy for you to take me light
I exit sufferer status (aight?)
So if you thought otherwise, I'ma let you know
that when the tables turn, they movin' hard and slow"
Mos meanwhile continues his introspection on "Moon in Cancer," an emotively narrated nightly trek across the urban landscape, a performance that should feature in any Best of Mos Def mix worth its salt.
Often, the media gets a kick out of singling out the star in a group, the 'member most likely to go solo.' Objectively, on "Manifest Destiny" Mos Def is that member, with his younger siblings following their big brother's example, both displaying a refreshing level-headed approach. That's why this not a one man show, it is a group effort with all three members in sync when it comes to the lyrical content. Which ultimately revolves around the issue of growing up, of coming of age. To try to replace the "b-boy" with the "b-man," to say it with Mos. Musically, UTD's Brakalak bounce feels equally authentic, and that includes the occasionally overstepping hardcore demeanor. In the words of Mos: "In my estimation the U rocks the hardest / yet regardless, we still stay modest." Speaking of rocking, there's no forced marriage with rock music here, it's all fat drums and thick bass, as familiar and solid as Brooklyn brownstone.
If I may end this on a personal note, I'd like to see as many Mos Def fans as possible cop this one. Not only will you support his younger brother, you'll find many of the qualities you've come to estimate about Mos Def. And on the aforementioned "My Kung Fu" remix (which is also included here) Mos reveals his favorite MC from back in the day. (A good pick, too!) If that's not enough to get you to check this out, I don't know what is.
Music Vibes: 7.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 7.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7.5 of 10
Originally posted: November 9, 2004