The Inevitability of Def

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Mos def should really be talking about his new movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it's late in the evening, he's been talking about it all day and, to be perfectly frank, he's a little Hitchhiked out. "Really, on a personal and spiritual level, I don't think it's good to, like, talk about yourself," he says, kicking back with a 7-Up at a downtown Manhattan hotel. "You start to get the idea that everything you have to say is exceedingly important. It's not. It can just be like, 'I'm tired. My feet are sweating, I want to watch The Gastineau Girls. I want to watch Spike TV.'" He switches to a dramatic Spike TV voice. "We're here in the Philippines, where this telephone worker has no idea he's about to be shocked with 50,000 volts." It's the first of many routines for the night.

Mos isn't a diva. He's a friendly, funny, smart, genuine guy who has a rapidly spiking career as an actor and a hip-hop artist. The key to his success is the Mos Def vibe: quirky, thoughtful, confident but low-key. Canned publicity is painful for him. "It's better if [the attention] comes organically, as opposed to being ... "—he searches for the mot juste —"vigorously campaigned for."

Mos Def is short for Most Definitely, which apparently he used to say so much that it became his nickname; his real name is Dante Smith. At 31, Mos is one of the few (only?) rapper-actors who is actually good at both. As a musician, he has a reputation for being progressive and socially conscious, a post-bling antidote to hip-hop's rampant gangsterism. His latest solo album, The New Danger, came out in October, and it's an example of how Mos's iron commitment to his idiosyncratic sensibility can get in his way. It features his laid-back, verbally adroit rapping over shredding rock riffs. Critics dug it, but some fans shrugged. "I think people just were expecting something different," Mos says. "Kinda like, crusading, 'I'm gonna save hip-hop from all these jewelry-wearing, champagne-swigging, sneaker-designing monsters.' And I was like, No, I'm just gonna make some music I like."

He makes some interesting choices as an actor too--from such indies as Monster's Ball and The Woodsman to big fat commercial films like The Italian Job. Hitchhiker's Guide is another cross-'em-up surprise: a nerd-friendly science-fiction comedy (based on the cult-classic novel and radio show by Douglas Adams) about a melancholy English bloke named Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) who roams the galaxy after Earth is demolished to build an interstellar bypass. Mos plays Arthur's winningly unflappable (and alien) best friend, and his laid-back vibe was in full effect on the set. "He slept a lot between takes," says executive producer Robbie Stamp. "The crews used to laugh. He had a phenomenal catnapping ability." But he wasn't phoning it in. "Some of the philosophical themes in the book, he really got into them. He's a very thoughtful guy."

But tonight, Mos isn't talking philosophy. (He isn't talking about his personal life either. For what it's worth: he's unmarried, was born, raised and lives in Brooklyn, and has two kids.) Cued by the lousy music in the hotel restaurant, he launches into an inspired impression of himself seducing a date to light jazz: "Oh yeah. Oh. Yeah. Let me close these blinds. Is it hot in here? It's gotta be these hot, smooth sounds!" When he learns that I used to play the cello, he becomes an M.C. busting rhymes over a solo cellist: "Break it down, Johann! Rock awwwn! Can the cello have some, y'all? I'd say the cellist ain't had some in a long time!"

Speaking of which, Mos has played the best friend, the sidekick, the neighbor—when is he going to get the girl? "When the time is right, it will come," he says. "You know, intimacy on screen is awkward. I think sex is the one thing you cannot successfully portray on camera." Instead, Mos's next role is as an autistic man opposite Bruce Willis in the action thriller 16 Blocks. But don't ask him to talk too much about himself to sell it. "I just don't think it's very dignified to ask people to like you," he says. "You can just wind up being somebody's ottoman." An ottoman? You mean, like a footstool? "Ottoman just sounds sexier. Footstool just sounds like a medical condition to me." Mos's dignity is probably safe for a while longer.