The new release from Immortal Technique, hip-hop’s most implacable class warrior, thoroughly links local and global struggles. Tom Jennings nods his head enthusiastically
Globalising Ghettocentricity. Music review – Tom Jennings
Harlem-raised after his family fled Peruvian civil war, Immortal Technique’s misspent youth included incarceration for violent offences, wherein he honed his hip-hop flow before redirecting rage onto rivals, winning open-mic contests across New York and further afield. So far, so classic ‘boy from the ’hood done good’ – except for the parallel awakening of revolutionary class-consciousness translated into the most explicitly political rap recordings yet. From the get-go favouring precarious autonomy over commercial straitjackets – McJobs paying for studio time, handling distribution personally – Revolutionary, Vol. 1 (2001) heralded his agenda in the ‘Poverty of Philosophy’:
“My revolution is born out of love for my people, not hatred for others ... As different as we have been taught to look at each other by colonial society, we are in the same struggle and until we realize that, we’ll be fighting for scraps from the table of a system that has kept us subservient ... I have more in common with most working and middle-class white people than I do with most rich black and Latino people. As much as racism bleeds America, we need to understand that classism is the real issue. Many of us are in the same boat and it’s sinking, while these bougie motherfuckers ride on a luxury liner, and as long as we keep fighting over kicking people out of the little boat we’re all in, we’re gonna miss an opportunity to gain a better standard of living as a whole ... You cannot change the past but you can make the future ...”
The debut’s burgeoning buzz prompted distro collaboration with independent labels for 2003’s Revolutionary, Vol. 2. Also far exceeding sales expectations, this was swiftly followed by Viper Records’ establishment to regain self-control. Apart from legendary single ‘Bin Laden’ (with refrain: “Bush knocked down the towers ...”), Immortal Technique concentrated on consolidating talent like producer Southpaw and MC Akir, whose Legacy is the best hip-hop album in years.* At long last, then, a new album – The 3rd World, produced in mixtape fashion by Green Lantern (formerly house DJ for Eminem’s Shady Records) – continues Tech’s maturation, adding contemporary hip-hop styles to raucous minimalism. His vocals too have greater texture and engaging thoughtfulness than prior default tenors juggling psychotically omnipotent bragging and sneering hectoring when dropping political science. Both doubtless suit MC-battling but can become soporifically monotonous – militating against appreciating his prodigious lyrical dexterity astutely condensing contrasting levels of analysis into each theme with ferocious wit and insurrectionary wisdom.
The 3rd World’s concept relates “the streets here in the US to those around the world”. Moreover, in terms of cultural production, “the struggles of developing countries ... are mirrored within the rap industry. In the same way that First World superpowers have continuously exploited the Third World for its natural resources, land, labor and industry, the major label superpowers have done the same” (Immortal Technique, www.viperrecords.com). So the into, ‘Death March’, emphasises that “We are now in a state of guerrilla warfare ... through the streets of your psychology”. And if the equation of commercial rap to chattel slavery stretches credulity, the multiple analogy in ‘Harlem Renaissance’ powerfully links US urban political-economics to world-system wars and cultural recuperations past and present:
“Harlem was once was red-light district-rated / Designated ghetto like the yellow star of David ... / Until after the invasion of gentrification / Eminent domain, intimidation – that's not negotiation ... / Ivy league real estate firms are corrupt / They lay siege to your castle like the wars in Europe / They treat street vendors like criminal riff-raff / while politicians get the corporate kickback ...
“When I speak about Harlem I speak to the world / The little Afghan boy and the Bosnian girl / The African in Sudan, the people of Kurdistan / The third world American, indigenous man / Palestinians, Washington Heights Dominicans / Displaced New Orleans citizens / Beach-front Brazilians, favelas that you living in / The ’hood is prime real estate, they want back in again ...
“I didn’t write this to talk shit, I say it because / Some of ya’ll forgot what the Harlem Renaissance was / We had revolution, music, and artisans / But the movement was still fucked up like Parkinson’s / ’Cause while we were giving birth to the culture we love / Prejudice kept our own people out of the club / Only coloured celebrities in the party / And left us a legacy of false superiority / W.E.B. DuBois versus Marcus Garvey / And we ended up selling out to everybody / The Dutch Schultzes and the John Gottis / Banksters, modern day gangsters, immobilari ... / Harlem Renaissance, a revolution betrayed / Modern day slaves thinking that the ghetto is saved / So they start deporting people off the property / Ethnically cleansing the ’hood economically / They want to kill the real Harlem Renaissance / Trying to put the virgin Mary through an early menopause / The saviour is a metaphor for how we set it off / Guerrilla war against the lease-owning predators”.
Other tracks and guest appearances flesh out the grass-roots revolutionary stance with more depth than even Paris, The Coup and Dead Prez can manage – from the Spanish-language ‘Golpe De Estado’ (=Smash the State) through rabble-rousing anthems full of insight and intelligence. Meanwhile, several reflective cuts leave self-righteous preachiness decisively behind, including ‘Mistakes’ pondering wrong turns taken: “Some people learn from mistakes and don’t repeat them / Others try to block the memories and just delete them / But I keep them as a reminder they not killing me / And I thank God for teaching me humility / Son, remember when you fight to be free / To see things how they are, and not how you’d like ’em to be / ’Cause even when the world is falling on top of me / Pessimism is an emotion, not a philosophy / Knowing what’s wrong, doesn’t imply that you right / And it’s another when you suffer, to apply it in life”. So, even as a stopgap while The Middle Passage and Revolutionary, Vol. 3 incubate, this superb album has a compelling sound and vision all its own.
* see my review of recent radical rap in ‘Rebel Poets Reloaded’, Variant 30, 2007 (www.variant.org.uk).
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 15, August 2008.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: