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No Damn Cliff

Mosley onstage with Justin Timberlake in 2007.  

New Tim is more thoughtful about what he says, or at least quicker to apologize for saying it, like when he said earlier this year that Chris Brown and Drake’s remixes of deceased songstress Aaliyah’s vocals would never work, because only Timbaland, as her soul mate, could do them. “When I look back, I say, Man, I would feel some kind of way, too,” he says. “I was like, ‘You right, I’m wrong.’ ”

New Tim is still the same as the old Tim in lots of ways. He’s still “a big flirt,” he says. “Women are fascinated by me. I don’t know if my song got them through a rough time with their boyfriend or what, but the look they give me, it’s like they are looking into my soul. I attract that Sex and the City–type woman. Real sophisticated.” He gives me a meaningful look. “My wife, she did an analysis and said that 65 percent of white women love me.”

He is still easily distracted. “I was talking to Jay, I said, ‘When did all these white people come to hip-hop?’ We watched it change. That’s how long we have been in the game.”

And prone to digression. “People have changed. Take yourself,” he says. “Like, your whole swagger is not like the typical white girl from back in the day. Go back and watch old interviews from another white woman, and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, God.’ The enunciation of words, the way they sat. It was all so much more sterile. Now, it’s more like, Yo, let me sit with you and talk. And the attraction level in this world today, I’m not attracted to just the same race no more. It’s like, Let me get into this white girl, or Let me date this Indian girl or this Puerto Rican girl. So many beautiful women, you can look past it. And like, your chemistry mixes better. Some countries you go to and people still, like, smell. But that doesn’t happen so much anymore. Now you come home with me, my body odor matches your body odor, and you’ll be like, ‘Wow, you smell so good.’ They used to say white people smelled like wet dog. I haven’t smelled that in about twenty years. Now, back to the music,” he says.

New Tim might be more humble, but he also knows how good he is. “A lot of people have great sounds, but they don’t have great music,” he says. “Have you seen that movie Now You See Me?” he asks. “That mentalist guy, the way he can hypnotize you, that’s me with my music. Like ‘Suit & Tie’ ”—from Justin Timberlake’s album, featuring Jay Z—“is a great masterpiece.”

Should he win a Grammy this year, New Tim knows exactly what he will say: “I’m twelve years a slave. In the music business. I’m the underdog. How many underdogs out there? Fight for what you believe in. Shit will happen. I’m standing up on this podium, as a living witness, to witness that God is always on time. Not on your time. But he knows when you deserve something.”

Mosley has come far, though not as far as he sometimes makes it sound. Which is understandable: When you’ve seen the heights he’s seen, everything else looks like the bottom. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, a military town on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. From the beginning he showed little interest in anything other than music. “He was the quiet type,” says Missy Elliott, who was invited over to his house one day by a mutual friend, an aspiring rapper named Melvin “Magoo” Barcliff, and went there every day thereafter, the two of them making up rhymes while D.J. Timmy Tim, as he called himself, played a tune on his Casio keyboard, beatboxed with his hands, tapped a pencil, whatever sounded cool. His rhythm was so impressive that after another student at the school, Pharrell Williams, heard him banging out a beat on his desk one day, the two soon joined forces in the group Surrounded by Idiots. The resulting recordings achieved a level of buzz in area high schools that today might be called viral, but this was the eighties, when things took longer. So it was that 15-year-old D.J. Timmy Tim was still working at Red Lobster the night one of his co-workers decided to show off his new gun, which was accidentally discharged. Mosley survived what might be the least gangster shooting in music history—it occurred while he was “washing dishes, no less,” he says with a sigh—but the bullet, which remains lodged in his armpit, damaged nerves that temporarily caused him to lose feeling in his right hand.

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