Mos Def: From Hip-Hop Star To Chuck Berry
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Chess Records has long been overshadowed by two other legendary black music labels, Motown and Stacks. But it's now getting its time in the spotlight with the new film called "Cadillac Records." The name comes from the big cars that the big stars at Chess like to drive. One of those big stars was rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry. He's played in the movie by Mos Def, an innovative rapper who's pushed hip-hop in new directions. Mos Def has also taken risks on a range of film roles, including "Monster's Ball," "Something the Lord Made," and "Be Kind Rewind." For his latest role, Mos Def had to get in the mindset of the 1950s America. In this scene, he's stopped backstage by promoters who had no idea Chuck Berry was black.
(Soundbite of movie "Cadillac Records")
Unidentified Actor #1: He says he's Chuck Berry.
Unidentified Actor #2: Let me see some ID.
Mr. MOS DEF: (As Chuck Berry) All right then, ID.
Unidentified Actor #1: This license says you're Indian. That pinup make you look like a white man. What the hell are you?
Mr. DEF: (As Chuck Berry) Well, I'm a musician, and my name is Chuck Berry. And I can be whatever you need me to be to play in your fine establishment this evening.
NORRIS: Mos Def stopped by for a chat recently. He says he had to prepare to play Chuck Berry without getting to meet the man.
Mr. DEF: Chuck was on tour, actually.
NORRIS: He's on tour?
Mr. DEF: He was at that moment. And he has a regular performance schedule from what I understand. And he turned 82 this year, I believe. But I did have a lot of written material, and there was loads of footage that they have provided me and stuff that I was able to see on YouTube. And of course there was "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' roll," the movie that he did with Taylor Hackford, which was really helpful. And I was really honored just to get an opportunity to portray him and share in part of his legacy, in that way, it's...
NORRIS: Those are big shoes to fill for you, though. Did you have any trepidation about taking on a role like this? Any bit of nervousness? Particularly before you pick up the guitar...
Mr. DEF: Well, sure. I mean, sure...
NORRIS: And played the first chord on "Nadine"?
Mr. DEF: Absolutely. I mean, singing those songs - it's not trepidation as much as it is just reverence. It was challenging, but it was a challenge that I welcomed. I'm just glad that I had the opportunity to do it and be a part of it.
NORRIS: As I listen to you talk about the challenge and the opportunity, I'd love to actually listen to you sing a Chuck Berry song, and we can do that now.
Mr. DEF: Cool. Cool.
NORRIS: Let's listen to "Nadine."
NORRIS: You're playing the guitar there?
Mr. DEF: As well as I can.
(Soundbite of song "Nadine")
Mr. DEF: (Singing) As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat, I thought I saw my future bride walking up the street. I shouted to the driver, Hey, conductor, you must slow down. I think I see her, Please let me off this bus. Nadine, honey, is that you?
Mr. DEF: When we got on the set, I was really just trying to get my fingers in the right position on the fretboard. And he had such a great physical command of his instrument. It was really a whole other respect for him as just, just as a guitar player, let alone a vocalist or a lyricist.
NORRIS: And command of the stage. Did you actually perform like Chuck Berry? You did the duck walk and everything else?
Mr. DEF: Yes, I did perform the song. I did the duck walk. I see - I was a little disappointed because they didn't feature my duck walk as much as I thought they would in it. Aside from the duck walk, Chuck had this other wide-leg stance that he used to do that I was - really wanted to highlight. The duck walk is the most famous, but I love when he just, you know, he just incrementally just spreads his legs wider and wider, and then he closes them back together. It's a really nice theatrical gesture. And it's hard to do, you know, and to do while you're singing and playing. And he never looked - he rarely looked at the fretboard.
NORRIS: Did you really work - you really worked on your duck walk?
Mr. DEF: I did.
NORRIS: You went into training for this, huh?
Mr. DEF: Yeah, I did. You know, if you're going to do Chuck Berry, you got to, you know, go all out, and the duck walk is just kind of you know, cursory. That's like standing.
NORRIS: Did you get a conk?
Mr. DEF: Yes, I had...
NORRIS: Did you get a full process?
Mr. DEF: A doobie - a doobie transformation. Yes, I did.
NORRIS: And Mos Def, I know that there are people who are listening to this conversation saying, what is a doobie? What is he talking about?
Mr. DEF: Oh, a doobie...
NORRIS: I know what you're talking about, but maybe we could make sure that everybody knows what we're talking about.
Mr. DEF: I forgot to bring my slang editorial. The doobie is just, you know, it's like saying your hairstyle. So everybody has a doobie. It's like, I like your doobie...
NORRIS: Yeah, you get your do done.
Mr. DEF: Yeah, right, you do.
NORRIS: Did you learn anything from playing Chuck Berry?
Mr. DEF: I learned that there's something to be said for the courage of conviction, that sense of belief, being bold enough to believe in your vision. And there's a quote that really fits his particular energy. It says - they say don't go where the path may lead, but go where there's no path and leave a trail. I think that's exactly what Chuck did, you know. It's an inspiration to a lot of folks, not just musicians, but people everywhere.
NORRIS: Hip-hop star and actor Mos Def. He plays Chuck Berry in the new movie "Cadillac Records." Great to talk to you.
Mr. DEF: Thank you so much for having me.