Quiet Dog, Bite Hard… (I will sell you Mos Def)

As embarrassing as it is to acknowledge my extreme fondness for Mos Def after Stuff White People Like exposed just how typical such a fondness is in white folk like myself, I would nevertheless like to bellow the virtue of the man, using as my example one of his songs in particular.

Embedded below are two YouTube videos of the same song, “Quiet Dog”. The first is an amazing performance from The David Letterman Show in which Mr. Def plays the kettle drums as he raps. Included below is the album version of the song, notable for its slightly more polished sound. Do yourself a favour and listen to them both. I will meet you a little further down the page. I have included what I think are the lyrics below the videos (I’ve corrected several errors from the version of the lyrics I found, but in the process probably made some mistakes of my own.)

“One thing I want to assure them, if you think I’m gonna change… or compromise my attitude, my way of life, my expression, or my goal… towards politics. They are making me stronger. and I’m much more stronger now.”

To the bang to the boogie said up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat… to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

There go like simple and plain,
it’s primal and basic,
Zulu arrangement,
rock and amazement.
Flaco, [According to an online biography, “Flaco” is one of Mos Def’s alternate nick-names]
radiant from heaven to pavement.
They’re phoney as a facelift, I’m nothing to play with.
Spent time hatin’ it but that ain’t changin’ it.
God gave it to me nobody is taking it.

Therefore

Moving on the basic stimulus,
I’m standing in the twilight I’m watching em get it in.
The walls are trembling,
the air is simmering,
she moving like more than the ears are listening.
Woah now!
Test of your equilibrium,
sonic wave booming all over your inner men.
Skin on skin and skin on skin again.
Put it on, get it on, get on, get it in.
Ladies and gentlemen, misters and mistresses,
cousins, uncles, aunties and synonyms, here it is:
Boogey-man

Simmer down, simmer down, simmer down now. Simmer down now. Simmer down now.
Simmer down, quiet dog, bite hard, my god!

And the rock it don’t stop.
Brooklyn in the kitchen heat up the stove top.
Bey in the empire state [“Bey” is another nick-name, though other versions of the lyrics say “Bang”.]
and navigating away.
Preservation make the greatest hip hop.
Their cool dude swagger looks terribly corny.
They flow so petty, unsteady, its boring.
These dudes ain’t dope but they’re yawning.
They need to get off it, so wack-wack is all you can call it.

Therefore

Movin’ on the death of stimulus,
regardless what zone and what town you represent,
a bulletin to all of your settlements,
from tower to tenement,
a mould, yo, for all of the elements.
Let’s simmer down and manage the mayhem,
I’m bright as the A.M.,
engine bout to roll out the station.
I’m blessed with the fresh of day one
I got it today done.
We all going back to the same one.
This constant motivation I stay with.
Remarkable flavours
that all bear the mark of the greatness.
Woah now!
the kid is from Bucktown,
your girl is in love now,
you chumps start frontin’ and get shut down.

Simmer down simmer down simmer down now. Simmer down now. Simmer down now.
Simmer down, quiet dog, bite hard, lets rock.

And you don’t stop.
We rock to the rhythm you don’t stop.
You maintain the rock and you don’t stop the rock.
You keep up the rock and you don’t stop the rock.
etc….
Quiet dog, bite hard.

Before I offer my own flawed commentary on the message of this song, I wanted to include a comment that appears below the YouTube Letterman performance. In the most liked comment on the thread, user TigerLikesTail had this to say:

The quality of this performance brings me to tears & sends chills. In all music there has always been POP. There has always been party music too. Then there was music that stood out & took you someplace deeper. The sadness comes because 4 hip-hop we let our music get away from us. The large labels took it to pop which always happens. But we sold out our own sound for the sake of the dollar. We lost that deeper meaning that I was proud of. Mos is one of the few that honors it.

I include this comment because it seems to hit the nail right on the head. For all the details that I may interpret incorrectly, this song is quite obviously about Mos Def’s relationship to Hip-Hop as a genre in flux.

The introductory quote that is played before both the album and live version, is Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian musician and political activist. The quote, supplemented by a cursory glance at Kuti’s biography, serves as a mission statement for the song. Kuti began his career writing love songs. As he matured, his music turned in a more political direction. This musical activism was effective enough to ensure that Kuti and his band were constantly harassed by the Nigerian government. Eventually, Kuti’s musical output slowed and he focused on politics, even running for presidential candidacy in Nigeria in 1979. His attempt failed due to disqualification.

The theme is simple: Aspects of Kuti’s life that outsiders might view as superficial changes are actually a fundamental strengthening of his core. Rather than change being synonymous with capriciousness, some changes are representative of growth. It is this type of growth that Mos Def wishes to apply to hip-hop.

He begins the song by playfully quoting the opening lines of Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit, “Rapper’s Delight”, commonly (and arguably) referred to as the first successful hip-hop single. He is calling out to hip-hop’s “primal and basic” roots, remembering the amazement generated by this radiant new form of expression.

He then comments on the development of hip-hop over the years, calling it “phony as a face-lift.” In my two favourite lines from the song, “Spent time hatin’ it, but that ain’t changin’ it. God gave it to me, nobody is takin’ it.” Mr. Def acknowledges what, for him, were probably moments of doubt. He did not like what hip-hop was becoming, but instead of abandoning it, he attempted to recapture the “basic stimulus” that made it special in the first place.

He refers to the situation as a “test of your equilibrium” because “she” (fair lady hip-hop) is fluctuating faster than the individuals representing her.

While I could be blatantly wrong in my interpretation, “Boogey-man,” seems to refer to the pigeon-hole into which hip-hop is often placed, a position often embraced and exacerbated by many hip-hop artists. While “Gangsta Rap,” typically characterized by violence and misogyny, is an understandable reaction to many negative socioeconomic pressures applied to blacks in America, Mr. Def seems to be cautioning such rappers to “simmer down.”

The vicious, rabid dog is chained up and avoided. The quiet dog, unthreatening and unavoided, is uniquely placed to get into position and “bite hard.”

He quickly follows with the assertion that, even given this advocated restraint, “the rock, it don’t stop.” Evidently the change he hopes for is the type of growth mentioned by Kuti, the kind that maintains the fundamental core of the thing that is changing. This core maintenance is essential, as “preservation makes the greatest hip-hop.”

Next, he criticizes certain commercially successful, but vacuous, hip-hop artists, pointing out that their petty, puerile lyrics are boring despite the flashy packaging. These artist have failed hip-hop, in Mr. Def’s eyes. They are so secure in the success of their empty creations that they yawn when they should be creating.

Def’s prescription is simple and it is addressed to all zones, all towns, from tower to tenement: Simmer down. Manage the mayhem. Go back to the freshness that was always there. Remember where hip-hop came from and go back to that place.

Far from intending all hip-hop to be the same, Def anticipates the production of “remarkable flavours that all bear the mark of the greatness.”

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Comments
2 Responses to “Quiet Dog, Bite Hard… (I will sell you Mos Def)”
  1. Fffff says:

    “The New Danger” is the best hip-hop concept album I’ve ever heard. Dig into that for more on his use of “boogeyman.”

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