The Cadillac Records Interviews: Columbus Short & Mos Def Not Into Bow Wow

Cadillac Records may be about some names that made it big in the history of blues and rock, but during this conversation with Columbus Short and Mos Def about the movie, they were not hearing it about any big name recording artists today to fill those legendary shoes. Specifically up for a quality rant during this sitdown, was Bow Wow. Mos Def, who plays Chuck Berry in the movie, also had some painful words to share about doing those duck walks. And this while Short, who morphs into the king of blues harmonica, Little Walter, chimed in about Cadillac Records signifying a return to real artistry in movies, and not just music.

Columbus Short
Columbus Short

COLUMBUS SHORT: Peace, peace!

Hey, hi…So was that you faking playing an instrument in Cadillac Records?

CS: No comment!

Did you think it was a good idea to go with actors for these musical roles?

CS: I think that ideology of the well known actor, is what has contaminated our business. The studios, instead of letting an actor come and prove his or her talent and worth in their craft, they put your name into a marketing database to see, how many people know this actor. And how many people are going to come see this person in this movie.

Well, there was a time when the Easy Riders and The Graduates, and these wonderful movies were being made, that wasn’t going on. People made good movies, and audiences were going to see them. Period. And now, it’s disgusting me a little bit.

Because there’s this tremendous talent out there, that is not being seen. I believe that talent can’t be kept a secret very long. But you have people that have done no work, and have no true abilities, and I’m not naming any names. But it should not be based on a popularity vote.

So it was a blessing to be able to work with these actors, you know what I mean? And I think Darnell Martin should be applauded for that, and for breaking down those walls as a director.

Like it wasn’t about, you gotta get these eight musical artists to play the roles. And, I gotta be honest, I heard Usher was supposed to play some role in this, or somebody like that.

MOS DEF: Bow Wow was supposed to.

CS: Yeah, Bow Wow! You know what I mean? That’s where you could go, if you want to get people in those seats. But if you want to speak to something so precious, as a lot of stories do, but especially this one, you want to have someone like Adrien Brody. An Academy Award winning, you know, ‘actor’, to play Leonard Chess.

Is he Will Smith? I don’t think so. But Adrien is one of the best actors I know. And Jeffrey Wright. If you’ve seen Basquiat, then you’re not going to argue with the talent level that’s in front of you. And Mos Def.

Okay…So Mos Def, what was it like for you, to get to be that wild guy Chuck Berry in the movie, and how did you pull it off in such an amazing way?

MD: YouTube was really helpful! And listening to his music, But also, just listening to the lyrics. I think that the lyrical aspect of Mr. Berry’s work is very unique. It’s distinctive, as something that really sets him apart from the generation of performers that he came up with.

So that was one way. But I really liked watching him talk. And you know, practicing the duck walk! And putting…unnatural strain on my legs!

Did you ever duck walk before?

MD: Ha! Not with the regularity that you needed to duck walk when you’re shooting a movie. It’s like, and we’re gonna do that again. We’re really gonna do this again? And my thighs and legs were really, really, seriously…mush!

But I had a lot of fun doing it. Though I was also really nervous, because Chuck is a historical figure who is still living, and who is still working. And he’s far from retirement. And he’s not too shy about giving his opinions about anything.

Did you talk to him about the movie first?

MD: Uh, no. Chuck Berry was…busy! Chuck Berry is too busy to talk to Mos Def about Mos Def playing Chuck Berry. He had previous engagements! Which was cool.

But there’s a playful spirit to him, that I keyed in on. You know, a mischievous type of gentlemanly quality. But underneath it, there’s this tiger, you know? And given the context of the times when he came to prominence, it’s almost like this subversive, like tongue-in-cheek thing that he’s doing the whole time. But it’s very forward, and it’s very dignified at the same time.

So I was really trying to capture that nature. You know, that he’s a man who took himself very seriously, even before he became a musician. Miles Davis came from the same town, and they both played in different idioms. But they had a similar attitude in the way they perceived themselves, and the type of standards that they set for themselves.

But I’m really honored just to be part of this story, and being part of telling his story. He’s such a large, enigmatic, mercurial guy.

Columbus, what do you feel about those times and those musicians, and playing somebody like Little Walter?

CS: Because they were blues musicians, even though they lived in oppressive times, they had a certain freedom in their own world that led them to live beyond the existence that was really happening. And I think that even manifests itself today, that we’ve still got problems and issues.

But the spirits and attitudes and finding your music, finding yourself and writing songs where you’re free to do it, you live outside of society’s rules and stuff.

Was this a history lesson for either of you?

MD: Yeah, like The Beach Boys stealing Sweet Little Sixteen for their Surfin’ USA. But the thing that struck me most, was that this is not just for amusement, or entertainment or folly, These men and women were using their music to create a context for themselves. Personally and socially.

And to create another type of political, and in some cases another economic context for themselves, and others. And how much their work played a role in shaping the identity of what we know as America today. And the tradition they were continuing, is pretty phenomenal.

You know, when I read that quote where John Lennon said, if rock ‘n roll had another name, it might be Chuck Berry, I would sit and wonder, did he know what Chuck was doing? Or was he so involved in the process that he just had this state of forgetfulness.

And were any of them, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, aware of how significant their contributions would be? And something my father said to me, he said English is in many places around the world, the language of commerce. But I find that it’s also the language of culture around the world. And part of that, is because of musicians like Chuck Berry and James Brown.

You know, because they sang their songs in English. And I think that puts a premium on, not just on their ideas and expressions, but also the entire language. And the way they were using the language, definitely played a role in establishing America as a leader, not just politically, but a leader in imagination. And thought and style, all of that.

And these men and women are nothing short of heroic ambassadors, dignitaries, and all of that. So I knew about their music and appreciated their music. But I stepped away from it after we were done, with a renewed appreciation and respect, for all that they had done.

How do you see your own generation of musicians in relation to that past?

MD: What I like about my own generation is, that they distill a lot of those influences. And they’re able to reference all of those different idioms. Including Miles and Coltrane. And without exclusion. Everything from rock ‘n roll, to jazz and blues.

And all of it finds its way into hip hop. And hip hop as a result, influences so much of modern music. And not just the sonic aspect and kinetic aspects. So I’m very proud and honored to be a part of that time, and born into that generation. So for me, yeah, it’s right now.

CS: And with this movie, you have to give Beyonce credit. Like when you have a persona that big, to help break down those walls.I think Beyonce deserves kudos. Because she did the work. She broke down those walls, and she delivered a performance that transcends her persona. So here we are, well known or not, this is the movie we did. And I’m proud of it.

MD: And kudos to everybody who had to perform those songs. And when I say kudos to everyone, I mean kudos to me! I was in the studio and like all those Chuck Berry lyrics, and ‘rangalang in my automobile.’ And I was like, am I really doing this! If I wasn’t Chuck Berry before, I better be Chuck Berry now!

[Publicist]: Okay, that’s all we have time for today.

CS: You’re not the boss of us! C’mon, one more question.

Columbus, what were the big challenges for you?

CS: It was the little things. You know, Little Walter…Little Bow Wow!

MD: And it’s Cadillac Records, but nobody got no Cadillacs out of it!

CS: Hey, loan it! A year’s lease, a year’s drive. Something!