Mos Def is in a Tokyo hotel room, wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigarette. He's holding forth on the differences between Japanese and American culture, revealing how impressed he is by the intensity of the local hip-hop fans who have been filling clubs for a week to see him perform.
It's an intriguing look at the thought process behind his charismatic onstage persona -- and it's all part of the debut episode of Embedded, cable channel Current TV's hour-long music documentary program that airs weekly starting October 14.
Besides Mos Def, the initial run of six episodes will feature Common, Ben Harper, Thievery Corporation, Silversun Pickups and the Decemberists.
In an era when networks are slashing production budgets in favor of cheaper, quick-hit reality programing and when informative TV music segments are rarely more than two minutes long, Current TV's Embedded is a throwback to a time of pre-YouTube attention spans.
After the first run of six episodes is completed, the independent channel will debut a few best of compilations from all of the shows, and then plans to air another six-episode season in the coming months, according to Davis Powers, vice president of music programing at Current TV.
No one is committing to this type of music programing in the television space, Powers says. We wanted to commit to doing real music journalism and documentaries -- and that comes with working with the artists on the ground floor.
For the Mos Def episode of Embedded, that meant spending seven days with him as he performed at venues in Tokyo and Osaka.
When we're talking to these artists, Powers says, the things that they don't think will be compelling are actually the things we hang on the most.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
In an episode featuring the Decemberists, the focus is on portraying a band in its hometown and what they like to be surrounded by in the midst of them preparing for a very ambitious tour, she says. In another episode, Silversun Pickups are seen in the promotional whirl of the week before their album Swoon was released in April 2009.
The Embedded team that travels with the artists is intentionally small, usually consisting of Current TV senior producer of music programing Alex Simmons and executive producer Mark Rinehart. That intimacy gives them the flexibility to build Embedded documentaries around an artist's lifestyle, which has been the show's primary draw for labels, artists and managers.
Instead of spending 10 minutes on the phone with someone, you can really see what their lives are like, Simmons says. It makes them much more interesting subjects.
In addition to each episode's main artist documentary, Embedded features shorter segments that focus on emerging artists.
Founded in 2005 with funding from former Vice President Al Gore, Current TV is available on select cable and satellite providers, including Comcast, Time Warner, DirecTV and Dish Network. It recently captured international headlines when North Korean authorities detained Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee for nearly five months before releasing them in August. Former MTV Networks president Mark Rosenthal was named CEO of the channel's corporate parent, Current Media, in July.
To enhance the appeal of Embedded among Current TV's target demographic of 18- to 34-year-old viewers, the network's Web site will feature additional performances and outtakes of artists who appear on the show. The show's Mos Def episode will be available online to stream in its entirety. In addition, Current TV reached a deal with Virgin America for Embedded to air as part of the airline's in-flight programing on cross-country flights.
What we're all really working for is definitive pieces that will be evergreen, Powers says. You can come back and watch Mos in Japan three years from now and it will still be a true document of that time.