DJ Malatesta has been active in political rap circles since 1999, and as one half of DDM (Drowning Dog & Malatesta), has played hundreds of shows in over a hundred cities in 16 countries and on two continents. In recent years, he's moved to Milan and seen the development, as a central figure in Rap Militante Internazionale, of an actively anti-authoritarian political hip hop scene in Europe with dozens of acts and venues spreading throughout the continent.
I got in touch with him while he was in Paris working on the new DDM album, 'Black Cat: Best You Can Get' (out in October) to talk to him about the scene, its development and where he sees it going.
1) First off, tell us a bit about yourself: where you grew up and how you got into music and politics.
I'm Malatesta, a producer, DJ and label/distro/tour organiser. Glasgow born and raised, to Glaswegian and Sicilian parents, both who have done shit low paid jobs their whole lives, so I come from a working class background going back many generations. On my mum's side in Glasgow they were Leninists and Stalinists, involved in trade unions, like a lot of Glaswegians in the 80s… my mum was a shop steward in a factory at 15, a real people person, ultra social. My father was brought up by a fascist supporter on the estates of Rome but rebelled against it… even if my dad's a cynical man he wasn't into fascism.
But I really got into anarchist politics after moving to San Francisco, although the east end of Glasgow taught me that the rich and their managers are not cool with people like us. In SF I volunteered at AK Press for many many years and was pretty heavily involved in the Free Mumia struggle, anti-police murder/brutality groups, anti-Iraq war movements and I had an interest in the historical anarchist archives at the Kate Sharpley Library and leftist/national liberation ones such as the Freedom Archives.
I started hanging out at AK Press and Bound Together Books and spent many years in the Bay Area anti-authoritarian movement and at the same time I would play in various mainstream club/bar/chillout nights around SF. Eventually, I bought a cheap sampler, drum machine and a dat recorder and started recording and sampling various radicals, professors and activists such as Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Barry Pateman, ex-Black Panthers, AIM peeps, you know, that kind of thing, then cut it up and drop it in my beats. Around about this time I met DD (Drowning Dog), the most class conscious rapper I've ever heard, and we met some friends/neighbours in our building in the Tenderloin hood of SF where we lived in a low rent building (aka The Complex) and started an anarchist electronica collective record label called Entartete Kunst which later became EK Records. This is the period when I started recording with DD, moved to the Mission hood in San Francisco and eventually we started organizing tours around the US and Europe.
In the end, the shows in Europe were so great and inspiring, we decided to move to Milan, where we've been based and toured almost non-stop from for the last few years..
2) Can you tell us a bit about the Rap Militante Internazionale?
Rap Militante Internazionale (RMI) is a very small group in Milano, about three or four of us, who organise regular anarchist and libcom rap from wherever in the world we can in whatever social centre in Milan is available at any given time as well as other cities in Italy too. So far we've invited crews/rappers from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Germany, Switzerland, USA, Canada and the UK.
It came about when we (DDM) came to Milano on various Euro tours from San Francisco and we would hook up with Leleprox (DJ), a historic figure of radical hip hop in Italy and part of many crews over the years. The idea of the RMI is to showcase through shows, festivals etc this growing scene of crews, internationally and locally, who are occupied with social struggle. People like Premiere Ligne, also responsible for bboykonsian.com (a vital distributor of, mainly French, anarchist, libertarian left and cool street rap) from the 93 hood of Paris; Acero Moretti, antifa rapper from the housing estates outside Milano; Caserio, a new class conscious anarchist rapper from Turin; Istigazione a delinquire from Benevento, near Naples; and Cuba Cabbal from Pescara, central Italy.
Others we're close to and work with are people like Kronstadt, from the barrios of Barcelona, Refpolk from Berlin, Arma di Scelta from Athens (these guys are all working together on a live/studio project called The Future is Still Unwritten), Armada Bizerta, from Bizerta in Tunisia, Kurzer Prozess from Nuremberg, Mentenguerra from Madrid, Collectif Mary Read from St Etienne and Bristol's QELD.
There was also Literal X, a rapper from Thessaloniki who sadly passed away not long ago.
These are just some of the groups and projects. The list is way too long, but these are just some who manage to get their work out there.
3) What are some of the best cities, venues or events in the scene?
First, Paris due to the fact it's the biggest metropolis in France and France is the home of rap music in all Europe, no question. It has a very supportive high quality scene, of course its the home of bboykonsian.com and the shows are always great, really great! And obviously the antifa groups and supporters there love rap.
Berlin has quite a big interest in militant rap: there's an event every MayDay there called 'Barrios Antifascistas' and they support international militant rap and have done for some time. It's a big event, and of course Kopi squat has militant, antifa and queer rap now more often than it ever has in its history. There's also a rad shop in Kruezberg called Disorder Rebel Store that distros all the EK records stuff.
Milano is where we spend most our time, and created Rap Militante Internazionale with Leleprox there to organize and push anarchist and libcom rap from all over the world. Italy as I think I mention before has the historical aspect of militant rap. The squats and social centers were at it first, in the 90s. I'd also like to mention Sicily; they've also been involved in the International and created militant rap stages at big festivals like Pollina in the past. Also we organized our first Rap Militante event in Sicily, a 2-day festival in 2012 [see flyer below - Ed.].
There are other places like St Etienne, Roma, Nuremberg, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Bristol, London, Geneva, Poznan, Athens… and there are still lots more places!
4) What makes it different from the mainstream or non-political underground hip-hop artists? Are there any basic principles that define you or how you work?
Well, the lyrics are more positive obviously, and we don't usually have agents, managers, tour managers etc. The basic principle is self-managment, autogestione... that way we build solidarity not competition.
I can't speak for about 25 rappers or crews but for me but I've always wanted to be part of something that creates an alternative to the capitalist rap scene and to do that we need to create alternative institutions for shows, production, distribution, publishing etc. From organising small events with 50 people to in some cases events with 5000 people, always collectively self-organised, of course.
5) Can you tell us a bit more about the European radical hip hop scene in general? How has it developed over the years you've been making music?
Yeah, for sure it's developed, some regions more than others. From 2006 to 2009 we were regularly informed by all kinds of squats that we were the first rap act to ever play there in their 30 year history or whatever. Now it's the norm to have radical/antifa rap shows in European social centres… everywhere... and as readers have probably seen on libcom, there are hundreds if not thousands of social centres throughout Europe, of various political backgrounds. From my direct experience there's been a major growth all over Europe of non-statist left-wing rap with many new rappers and groups coming up.
6) What's the relationship like between Rap Militante Internazionale and other more famous/commercial political/conscious rappers and musicians? Do you have much to do with, say, dead prez or even artists like Keny Arkana or Manu Chao?
Typically acts such as Keny Arkana, Manu Chao etc don't distribute our scene's releases or show any solidarity with what's really going on with the radical realities on the ground. I'm in these situations almost everyday and I never see them! Rap Militante Internazionale in Milano has had no contact or relationship with those acts; Keny Arkana and Manu Chao live in another reality from us. They have careers and are doing very well, thanks!
Some of the RMI acts - Premiere Ligne, and me and Drowning Dog a few times - have played with M1 from Dead Prez in the past. He's in Italy quite often and seems to be down but whether its libertarian or not is not so clear to me.
7) Is there any connection between the militant rap scene and the wider non-political hip-hop scenes in Europe?
There is a small connection, for sure, but nothing long lasting really. For example, in Italy, many of the less offensive international mainstream rap acts that come are forced to play in social centres because they provide the best live show environments in that city, pull the most people, are better organised etc. The capitalist private spots just can't compete with them.
As for conflict, not so much. The scenes are pretty separate. We are obviously not into banal capitalistic throwaway raps. We stand against the corporatisation of rap and everything in life of course and obviously the 'cool' underground rap blogs and magazines have a political agenda too. So there aren't that many journalists rushing to write about the scene, where possibly these conflicts or differences of ideas can be discussed publicly, even though more often than not there are more people at our events. But that's how it is for collectivised anarchist/libcom projects whether it's a rap label, act, distro or whether it's collectivised agriculture or an anti-capitalist website. It's difficult to get support from people on the inside, even if it was desirable, but importantly we influence the wider hip hop community by providing examples of self-management that works well. It varies from act to act with regard to trying to influence wider hip hop culture but whether consciously or not that has happened and is happening. You know, some anti-capitalist acts want to keep it all for their small scene of friends and comrades. Not us, we want to get our words out there amongst the working class.
Look, we are part of the historical tradition of militant rap. There's been militant rap in Italy and France since the 90s. When I refer to militant, radical or anarchist rap I don't just mean what comes out a rappers mouths but how they handle their shit on a daily basis, how they get to be in front of you and me and the public. How they organise.
8) Why did you decide to start making political music? Do you see the militant rap scene as having a part to play in building a wider working class movement?
In terms of connections to radical movements, it's worth pointing out that the majority of live shows we all play are benefits for political causes ranging from housing issues, to radical unions to antifa collectives to No TAV to folks locked up. For a very long time I felt it was totally essential to have an anarchist/libcom perspective in music culture outside of punk (up the punks!) so it made sense to me, coz I was involved and politicised in the Free Mumia and anti-police brutality movements in the Bay Area and there was some street rap connected to that but I felt politically it was a bit limited. So that was a big inspiration and yes, I see the militant rap scene having a part in the movement as hip hop culture is hugely important to a lot of people from the hood.
9) What are your plans for the future? Do you have plans to release anything else soon? Any tours, gigs etc? Anything you wanna plug?
Well, right now we are in Paris mixing the DDM album: coming soon! And we are always on tour all over Europe and pushing all the other acts' releases and shows. Check out the Rap Militante Internazionale and Drowning Dog and Malatesta Facebook pages as well as www.ekrecords.info and, of course, www.bboykonsian.com.
10) Anything else?
If it's possible, I'd like to dedicate this interview to Literal X, our comrade and friend, and to Clement and Dax...