Renaissance men David Bowie and Mos Def chop it up about fame, fashion, and the pursuit of happiness.
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2003 issue.
Style isn't skin deep. It runs deeper, and only a select few ever get a handle on it. We think it's safe to say that David Bowie and Mos Def both have a firm grasp. Although from different worlds and a generation apart, they follow style's all important maxim: Lead, don't follow. As we discovered in our conversation, this principle is more about leading your life than about starting fashion trends—or, as Bowie put it, "style applies to everything you do."
Nobody's led a life quite like David Bowie (born David Jones), the ever-suave 56 year old who shaped the look and the sound of the 1970s and '80s. From his mod early days to the space-age fantasias of Ziggy Stardust and the sleekness of the Thin White Duke, on through the red-shoed revelry of Let's Dance, he inspired legions to dress (and cross dress) with flair. His dramatic style transformations have challenged his audience and encouraged experimentation beyond the music world.
For those raised on hip-hop, Mos Def (born Dante Smith) has provided a bridge to casual coolness. An adjunct member of the Native Tongues collective, he spurred a renaissance of conscious hip-hop with Black Star and as a solo artist. He went on to push hip-hop's boundaries as host and performer on HBO's Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. From his fashion choices to his lyrical technique, Mos has shown b-boys that they don't have to conform to the status quo to achieve success; if they're true to their own style, they can be whoever they want to be. And maybe they can slide just as smoothly from street to sophisticate, from Brooklyn to Broadway to Hollywood.
We brought Mos and Bowie together in a suite at the St. Regis in money-makin' Manhattan to take a break from plugging their latest projects (for Bowie, a new album, Reality; for Mos, a few films and an upcoming album that'll showcase his hip-hop and rock skills). We had a guiding principle for this issue: Fashion is what you wear; style is how you rock it. We couldn't think of two people better qualified to represent that principle. As if to prove it, Bowie and Mos both bypassed the racks of suits and denim picked for the photo shoot and posed for the cover in the clothes they walked in wearing. Then these two great artists, who'd never met before, sat down and chatted like old friends. Now that's style.
FASHION AND CONSUMER CULTURE
What role have fashion and style played in your career?
David: I never really had much of an interest in fashion. And I think that my fascination with clothes generally was motivated by trying to create the characters for the stage. If I wasn't going through a thing where I was also being my characters offstage, uh, I'm much happier just wearing the most low-profile things that I can come up with just so I can get down the street.... [Fashion] doesn't rule my life at all, fortunately.
Style is about the choices you make to create the aspects of civilization that you wish to uphold. —David Bowie
So your style and fashion choices were more about creating characters for an audience?
David: Ironically, style doesn't come even closely related to fashion. It's got nothing to do...
Mos: —right, it's got nothing to do with the clothes.
David: You can take it to a philosophical level: Style is about the choices you make to create the aspects of civilization that you wish to uphold. I will buy a chair for my house. What style of chair are you gonna buy? Everything we look at and choose is some way of expressing how we want to be perceived. I mean, why bother choosing a chair because it looks a certain way? Because there's gonna be something about that chair that says something about you.... And it applies to everything you do. Not just the chair, not just the pair of socks, but it applies to the woman that you choose to be with. It applies to people who say, "I gotta live in the country," not because they are "country people"—I mean, were they born with different genes that make them "country people"? No. There's something about the style of living in the country that they feel, "This is what represents me." So style is about the philosophy of how we create our civilization.
Mos: I think that's probably why so much of the media now is focused on fashion.
David: They mistake fashion for style.
Mos: That's just like using fashion as a camouflage for what people instinctively understand style to be.
It's the commodity of style. It's become, How can I buy the style that that dude has? I gotta get that hook-up, the Dunks etc., right?
David: I never thought when I was a kid that things would turn out like this. Finding a shop that sold decent shit was half the adventure—just tryin' to find this place that had these certain shirts.
Mos: Right, right, right.
David: Now I can't get away from them! I mean, where I live, there must be seven skateboard shops within a hundred yards. If I were a kid, I would have been searching those places out if I were into skateboarding. You know what I mean? Now, it's like it's so there for you. It's the excess, the availability. It's not just the availability—that's nice when things are available—[but] it's like people don't get a chance to think, "Why am I a consumer?" Because the decisions come at them so fast and furiously, they're not [even] given time to think, I am a consumer.
MUSIC AND "THE TYRANNY OF THE MAINSTREAM"
David: I never heard so many kids talk about just doing anything to be famous. I mean, yeah, fame is part of the deal when you're a kid and you think, I wanna go into music, but everybody that I knew was really doing it because of their love for it. I don't see so much of that anymore; it's like, "What should I say so that I can be famous?" It's like the tail wagging the dog, but music's just so accessible and given to us in such awful ways now. It's been devalued tremendously.
You're both in an industry that doesn't challenge the status quo much these days—record companies seem to rely on formulas. But you both continue to push for new things as musicians. How do you feel about the state of music today?
Mos: I think hip-hop is actually one of the most challenging things that's happened in music in a long time. The people who are in charge of what people see or hear are afraid. What you hear on top 40 or what you see on BET or MTV is not a fair representation of what is really going on.... People don't like the music that's out now, that's on their radio stations, and they want to hear something different, but they're just the audience. You know, people will keep the TV on even if a show is on that they hate—because, unfortunately, they've been programmed to do that. [But] they are really looking for something that's gonna speak to the world that they're living in. That's what people are looking for, but they're not finding it. So rather than really have, like a close relationship to anything that's coming out today, people are just, they've got it on as background music. It's kind of the same way the cabdrivers use music; it's very disposable. But, that doesn't mean there aren't a great number of artists who are doing things to change that. Right off the top, there's Talib Kweli, Cody Chesnutt, Cherry Wine. You have Little Brother in hip-hop—all sorts of dudes that are out and around.
David: How adventurous are the audience, though? What I mean is, people are producing really good shit, but it's gonna be very hard to get to hear it. How determined is the audience to go find it?
Mos: Oh, there's no determination on the part of any audience now, outside of people who are like that anyway.... I think that what happened was that MTV was that powerful...
David: —[the audience] got fat and lazy?
Mos: Yeah. It's like the old parable, "Comfort comes into your house first as guest, then as a host, then finally as the master." That's exactly what happened. Like people got extremely comfortable with being able to turn on their television and see MTV say, "This guy's hot you should buy this record."
And a lot of times, it's true. What made it bad is that it works. MTV could tell you. "This guy is hot," and he [really] was.
David: But now, everybody is hot. There's another hot one!
Mos: Exactly! But things have actually been worse. I mean, there was a time in America not long ago when rock 'n' roll was called race music, and white kids who wanted to go see Chuck Berry were completely forbidden. And today, well, that's not even conceivable to my younger brothers who're 15 or 16, or my nieces and nephews. You know, they live in a world where Eminem and 50 Cent are the best of friends. Which is a good thing—there are a lot of good things that have happened. History has proven that it's impossible to crush the artist. There's always gonna be a need for somebody to write a poem or sing a song about something, about life—that makes it real. There's the word that goes beyond the word, you know what I am saying?
David: And it's always the same kind of artist, I think, who has more enjoyment being slightly on the outside of things, who doesn't want to be sucked into the tyranny of the mainstream. Because once you get sucked into that, you're dead as an artist.
Mos: Once you're totally anything.
David: You're a moving target.
Like people who say hip-hop has to stay "pure" or "true."
Mos: Yeah, it's like, "We don't want any kind of part of anything [else]." I get that from all these underground purist nuts that are like, "I can't believe that you would do that." They got all these guidelines and rules. If you wanted to have a job where you did what other people told you to do, why would you pick this job? I thought everybody got into rock 'n' roll because they didn't want to follow instructions, you know because they wanted to...
David: —screw lots of girls. [Laughs.]
Mos: Yeah, yeah.
David: [And] be taken seriously about doing something creative and probably travel a lot. That was my motivation. I knew I was good, I knew I could write. I also knew you could get laid really easily.
Mos: Yeah, you get laid easily. [Laughs.]
David: But then I would get to see Japan. It was like, "Ok, that or Commercial art?" Hmm....
Mos: Right, exactly!
David: There was no choice.
I'm really quite bipolar, and the depressed times, when everything felt like night, sometimes you get to such a low point that you physically beat at it until it bleeds—as you would say—bleeds till sunshine. You get to a point where you say, 'I will not take it anymore! I'm gonna do something drastic if I stay this depressed. I've got to break out of there!' —David bowie
FAME AND ITS PITFALLS
Mos: Fame is like getting across the street. It's like, if there's nothing to be across the street for, it's a pointless destination. It's like, "I gotta get across the street, man! I gotta be there! I gotta be there!" Then you get across the street and you're like, "Yeah I'm here!" And then, that's it. Fame doesn't make you particularly happy. It could be like a huge giant pain in the fucking arse, actually, if it's not managed. And if it's just fame for the sake of being famous, no one even cares about you—and you don't even care about yourself because you're like, "This is so ridiculous."
David: You'll get a free trip around the White House. You say, "I wanna come and see it," and they say, "Oh yes, please come along." I mean there aren't many people who can do that—you know, go and have a quick look around the Oval office. But that's about it. That, and maybe a restaurant reservation. And there's nothing else! Believe it, there is nothing else fame's good for.
Mos: Yeah, there's not much else.
David: You can get into a lot of trouble with it—that's about the only other thing you can do.
It's difficult to really be an artist nowadays. People are just on another page. You have a society that needs you to say something, but they don't want to give you the environment to be able to be just a functioning, happy, normal person. —Mos def
David, who was it that co-wrote the song "Fame" with you?
David: John Lennon.
Mos: You know, I think about that song, I quote you, like, once a day almost. Really, "Fame" is [still] so current. And then [your song] "I'm Afraid of Americans," which I am—I'm afraid. [Laughs.] Sometimes when I travel outside of New York, I think about that song.
David: I'll tell you a line I love—I'm not sure which of your songs it's in, but it's about ripping the sky until it bled sunshine...
Mos: —oh, "Blast the holes in the night" [from the Black Star song "Respiration"].
David: Oh man, that's the most beautiful line.
Mos: Thank you. Sometimes it's smoke or gunshots or whatever, and before you know it, the night is just gone. You know what I'm saying? You smoke the night away, you shot the night in, and you look up and you're like, "Fuck."
David: See, I relate to that in terms of depression, because I come from a family with a lot of mental illness, you know.... I'm really quite bipolar, and the depressed times, when everything felt like night, sometimes you get to such a low point that you physically beat at it until it bleeds—as you would say—bleeds till sunshine. You get to a point where you say, "I will not take it anymore! I'm gonna do something drastic if I stay this depressed. I've got to break out of there!" And you might do it by somewhat violent means, you know, and that's when you feel like you're forcing sunlight out of the situation. It's not just the natural lightening up and "Oh! Everything's better now." It's like [roars] "I want my sunshine! I wanna be happy!"
Mos: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
David: You know? "I'm so angry, I wanna be happy!"
Mos: Yeah, you know, that's another thing. It's difficult to really be an artist nowadays. People are just on another page. You have a society that needs you to say something, but they don't want to give you the environment to be able to be just a functioning, happy, normal person. It's like, the industry is at odds with you, the society is at odds with you. You start to live in this very confined box where it's like, It's "me" and "them."
SPIRITUALITY AND ART AS SALVATION
Are artists more affected by what's going on in the world?
Mos: Artists go through it and people—fuck, the crossing guard is going through that shit. But artists go through it because, for whatever reason, real artists are just [snapping his fingers twice] wired with this, like...you can feel shit—the good shit, the bad shit, the wild shit, the shit that people don't say. It's on every artists mind and it's like, it can be a lot for some people. It can be a lot for some people to fucking deal with you know?
Mos: I understand why people get into drugs and bullshit, because it's like...
David: —there's just some dysfunctionalism with artists. There are good things and bad things about being an artist, and the good thing is, sometimes you get an inside line on what's really happening. You develop these strange antennae that clue you in to what's really going on.
Mos: It's like Jay-Z said, "I just read a magazine article that fucked up my day." That shit will happen to you several times within a day in the climate we're living in. You turn on the TV and some kid's getting shot. Just fucking reading the news, I'm like, "That hurt my feelings. I need a drink now." That's when you start being like, "Well, just fuck it all." The test in life nowadays is just trying to keep yourself charged up with enough good feeling. It's like, "OK what am I going to do to feel really good today?" Not like, some chick or a drink...
Mos: You say, "What am I going to do to feel good, for real?" Because to me, it's like happiness is about happiness, but happiness is a fight.
David: You've got to validate every day. There are those who just put a stamp on it and say, "This is gonna be a good day and I'm not gonna let anything else make it a bad day."
Mos: Fuck it. Yeah.
David: And I don't need drugs to do it.
Mos: Yeah, yeah. Don't need no booze or no bullshit like that. And to me, that's gangsta. That's hardcore! Like you said, "I'm gonna feel good."
Doesn't the outside world make that tough sometimes?
David: If I hadn't had my children, I would have been discouraged a lot quicker. It would have been much more easy for me to say, "You know what, let the whole thing go. Have a good time, because these people, this place—it's just not worth it." You know? I can't do that anymore. I look into those eyes and they look at me so trustingly that I'm gonna make sure that [they're thinking], "Hey, you did a good thing bringing me into the world, daddy. I'm going to have a great life!"
Mos: It's like that Bad Brains song "Positive Mental Attitude." The moment you start thinking it's hopeless, then it is. [But], if you think it's gonna get better, it really does. Life is a test.
David: [To Mos Def] On a quick serious note, would you say it's the will of God for you to do what you're doing?
Mos: I'm doing exactly what I was supposed to do. Yeah. I didn't exactly choose this. My own life, if it were up to me, would be very, very quiet. I'd be like a shopkeeper, a book collector, or something like that. I'm not like this. Myself as a performer and an artist is totally different from who I am.
David: Yeah, I understand that.
Mos: It's like, I would never, as myself, be onstage with Jeffrey Wright..
David: I agree with you. I'm much happier just sitting there with a book I can read for 24 hours....
Mos: And people think that you're lying when you say that. They're like, "There's no fuckin' way—I saw you up onstage, with your makeup, and you were fuckin' hollerin' at the top of your lungs." And then they think that that's you. It is you, but it's you as a performer. Michael Jordan on the court is a completely different guy. If the play requires him to leap out all the way and grab the ball, that's what he'll do. He may be a completely shy, withdrawn sort of person [off the court]. I tell people all the time, I've always loved music and I love the language, which is a huge reason why I'm part of theater. But, I didn't wanna do all of this. I would've been satisfied to do it, like, on the weekends among friends, and to have a regular job.
David: You're expressing so much of what I feel.... I wish that we'd had a much longer bunch of time.