Mos Def – and his Big Band – is another impressive get for the University Musical Society’s concert series. And yet, this concert doesn’t seem to be the most logical production. Why would Mos Def go through the trouble of assembling a big band for a one-time tribute to J Dilla, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in Ann Arbor of all places?

Kelly Fraser
Mos Def is widely respected and praised for his socially-conscious rhymes. (COURTESY OF GEFFEN).
Kelly Fraser
he famed Detroit producer J Dilla died in 2006 of lupus. (COURTESY OF STONES THROW)

The Mos Def Big Band is yet another impressive permutation of hip hop by the Brooklyn-born emcee. Mos has previously fronted the rock band Black Jack Johnson, as well as recently discovering Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble playing on the streets of New York and enlisting them for a run of concerts. This big band doesn’t have the same personnel, but it’s the same idea. Having horns replace turntables in a tribute to the late Detroit powerhouse J Dilla might not make sense on the surface, but it’s the sort of pioneering move that Dilla would have been proud of.

Dilla, born James Yance, but also known as Jay Dee-, had collaborated with Mos during his career, most notably on Black Star’s “Little Brother,” Mos Def’s “Can U C the Pride in the Panther? (Remix)” and on Dilla’s own posthumously released The Shining. With only a handful of these collaborations though, it appears that their friendship is the reason for the tribute. Immensely respected for his talents within the industry, Dilla’s name didn’t become well known outside hip-hop circles until his death two years ago from lupus. While most of his fame has to do with his production and emceeing skills, his warm and caring personality sure didn’t hurt either. Nearly every hip-hop megastar who eulogized Dilla described him as an ambassador for Detroit, and a world-class nice guy.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day connection is also easily explained. Mos Def is one of the most intelligent emcees to ever wrap his hands around a microphone. His extensive discography puts his money where his mouth is. Genre labels like “backpack rap” or “conscious hip hop” can’t contain his various styles. Mos isn’t preaching from a pedestal – he’s on the ground, in the streets, weaving rhymes about the struggles and triumphs of every day life in his native Bed-Stuy, in a manner that resonates from the inner cities to the suburbs. Whether he’s paired with Talib Kweli and producer Hi-Tek in his seminal group Black Star, or on his own with an album like Black on Both Sides, Mos brings the knowledge and pride that critics often wish most emcees possessed. Without putting words in his mouth, Mos has a dream. That dream is social justice through righteous music.

Long after Kanye West moved on to window shade sunglasses and half-baked boasting, Mos is still trying to bring attention to the administration’s heinous reaction to Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, Mos was arrested at the Video Music Awards for performing his incendiary song, “Katrina Clap,” on a stage on the back of a truck outside the entrance. Far from just a P.R. stunt, his protest showed he wasn’t afraid to put his own ass on the line. And why have this historic concert in Ann Arbor? Because Mark Jacobson, the University Musical Society’s programming manager, and the rest of the UMS staff are straight killing it. They’ve managed to turn Ann Arbor into one of the Midwest’s most prominent cultural centers by bringing in a diverse and impressive line of artists from around the globe. The prestige surrounding Hill Auditorium has made it a great draw for artists, validation per se, instead of the other way around.

This has been said often in the last few years about UMS concerts, but this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Mos Def

Monday at 7:30 p.m.
At Hill Auditorium


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