When a show with the title “Mos Def Big Band: A Tribute to Detroit’s J Dilla” comes to town, it’s hard not to have high expectations. Not only was one of the most talented rappers performing the work of one of hip hop’s unsung heroes, but he was doing it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. While Mos’s recent track record of rambling live shows and uneven studio albums may have made some concert-goers wary of the ambitious event, Mos’s impressive performance put to rest any thoughts that his rap career is waning. Along with members of Robert Glasper & The Experiment, the veteran MC orchestrated a fitting tribute to the late James Yancey (a.k.a. Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla). At the acoustically perfect Hill Auditorium, Mos delivered a series of extended covers and brand new Dilla-inspired cuts.

After opening with a quick warm-up rhyme, Mos began with a call and response chant that referenced albums from Dilla’s discography and shouted out his various collaborators. The chant included the refrain “We keep it ghe-tto like a plastic cup / It’s fantastic” — a blend of phrases from the intros of Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and Dilla’s Ruff Draft EP. Moments like this that hinted at Dilla’s past work may have gone over the heads of much of the audience, whose attendance was more predicated on Mos’s star power rather than the tribute itself. But aside from some mild crowd reactions, Mos and his band (dubbed “Watermelon” during the set) did their best to convey Dilla’s spirit to an audience largely unfamiliar with his legacy.

Instead of running through Dilla’s more popular works (such as Common’s “The Light” or Q-Tip’s “Breathe and Stop”), Mos focused on the Rhodes pianos and snapping drums of Dilla’s trademark early work. He paid brief tribute to Dilla’s hardcore compositions like “The $” and “E=MC2”, but left out notable bangers like “Raise it Up” or “Fuck the Police.” Various omissions aside, the more laidback selections were appropriate for a reflection on the life of Dilla.

Backed by a soul-jazz band that has worked with Q-Tip and Common, Mos easily created a wealth of exclusive material that referenced hip-hop and R&B songs. Highlights included Mos rhyming about the first time he heard Slum Village’s debut Fantastic, Vol. 1 in 1996 and a version of Rakim’s verse from “Paid in Full” over Dilla’s rumbling “The $.” Perhaps the most transformative segment was Mos’s “D Mix” – a blend of “Ms. Fat Booty,” the Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” and Floetry’s “Say Yes” over an instrumental rendition of Slum Village’s “Intro” from Fantastic, Vol. 2.

One of the most poignant moments was Mos’s adaptation of Robert Glasper’s “Paint the World.” Over a groove reminiscent of the live instrumentation on Dilla’s Welcome 2 Detroit, Mos encouraged the crowd to fulfill their own artistic visions. While Dilla’s MC’ing persona was preoccupied with musings about his material assets and beat-making prowess, his peers and fans alike are quick to recognize the spirituality inherent in his sublime creations. As the band channeled the warm textures of Dilla’s work, Mos emphasized the lasting contributions of his peer and collaborator. In a spoken interlude, he described Dilla as “raw and beautiful,” and reminded the audience that “when you do beautiful things, you live forever.”

Mos Def Big Band
At Hill Auditorium

Professor Mos Def: Class is now in session

Before his first encore, Mos Def took the stage with Lester Monts, the University’s senior vice provost for academic affairs. After giving some background on “one that we feel is the largest (MLK Symposium) in the country,” Monts presented Mos with a “King, Chavez, Parks Visiting Professor Award” and instructed the crowd to call the MC “Professor Mos Def.”

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