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5 Reasons You Gotta Know ... Mos Def

5 Reasons You Gotta Know ... Mos Def
Mark Sullivan/WireImage

07/29/2004 AT 06:00 AM EDT

1. Oscar winners want to work with him
When Denzel Washington casts his next directorial project, The Great Debaters, don't be surprised if a certain rapper is starring. "I like the idea of someone like Mos Def being in it," Washington said. It wouldn't be his first high-profile project: Mos, who starred in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 Broadway play Topdog/Underdog, has worked with director Spike Lee (Bamboozled) and costarred with Billy Bob Thornton (Monster Ball) and Charlize Theron (The Italian Job). Next up: roles in the drama The Woodsman (costarring Kevin Bacon) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, based on the cult sci-fi book.

2. He can play the name game
Born Dante Terrell Smith on Dec. 11, 1973, Mos got his hip-hop handle from his favorite phrase, "most definitely." But the critically acclaimed artist – who went gold with his 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides, and drops The New Danger in October – went by a less Def-ining designation in his early acting years: Dante Beze.

3. He's socially conscious
When African immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by New York City police officers in February 1999, Mos, who is a devout Sunni Muslim, urged his hip-hop comrades to speak out: "This letter is an air raid siren. It is an alarm ringing," he wrote. He then organized a group (including Lauryn Hill and Busta Rhymes) to record the four-song CD Hip-Hop for Respect in protest of police brutality, an issue that often dominates his music.

4. He's got style
Some people collect music, others collect stamps. Mos Def's weakness? "I have mad brims," he told The New York Times about his fedora collection.

5. He's a hometown guy
The Brooklyn native (he grew up the oldest of 12 kids and has two of his own) is true to his roots, keeping his digs and his Goodtree Media Company in the borough's arty enclave DUMBO. He is also co-proprietor of Nkiru Books, a Brooklyn storefront he turned into a nonprofit organization promoting literacy, with rap collaborator Talib Kweli. "I get reminded a lot of the time that my life is a little bit different, but I'm just trying to keep it as regular as possible because I like it that way," Mos told the The New York Times.

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