A slew of new Dead Prez releases deepen and diversify revolutionary US hip-hop, according to Tom Jennings.
Zero Sum Game by Tom Jennings
A two-year hiatus following the landmark RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta (reviewed in Freedom, 15th May, 2004) ends with several projects from far-left hip-hop duo Dead Prez. Despite RBG’s success, and endorsement from rap mogul Jay-Z, Sony dropped them after swallowing Loud Records. Independent moves now yield M1’s debut, two mixtapes with the Outlawz, Stic.man’s The Art of Emcee-ing how-to book+CD and his forthcoming album. Their trajectory reinforces the cross-pollination of post-Panther rebellion with street-level music and class-based ‘reality’ rap. So M1 has produced for other artists (including Mississippi’s David Banner), established publishing company ‘War of Art’ (punning on Sun-Tzu), toured with Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface, and signed with jazz guitarist/producer Fabrizio Sotti for Confidential.
The resulting melange of R&B melodies and hooks (satisfyingly rendered by the legendary Cassandra Wilson and newcomer Raye) mixes current NY, West coast, and dirty South club hip-hop beats in a succesful lyrical-musical synthesis thanks to guest MCs like Styles P (ex-The Lox) on ‘Comrade’s Call’, ATCQ’s Q-Tip on the sexual politics tip (‘Love You Can’t Borrow’), and rising star Somalian refugee K’naan (soulful lead single ‘Til We Get There’) – as well as M1’s own mother (fresh from 12 years inside for drugs offences) on the thoughtfully downbeat ‘Land, Bread & Housing’. These strategies dovetail with thematic subterfuge, thinly-veiling revolutionary rhetoric in everyday stories – a sonic populism ‘making sense’ rather than ‘intellectualising’. The title track links repression in the present and the 70s while celebrating contemporary resistance:
“If you’re looking for Assata Shakur, she’s right here / It’s her, me and 2-Pac over here, having a beer / Cheers – a toast to a lovely revolution!”
And if the Dead Prez tactics recall 2-Pac’s stillborn ‘conscious thug’ project, ‘Don’t Put Down Your Flag’ explicitly preaches gang unity in the wider struggle, whereas ‘Til We Get There’ captures the overall thrust of anger combined with hopefulness:
[M1] “That’s what’s called solidarity / When we struggle it’s therapy, after chaos we get clarity / My enemy’s enemy is my man, remember? / I ain’t tryin’ to be endin’ up in this man’s dilemma / We only here for a minute – it’s what you make it, so live it / See, I’m a ryder and I’m gonna be remembered / For those of you not born, to those of you not here / I wish you the best and that’s real” …
[K’naan] “This ain’t ya average, when they portray us they say ‘all savages’ / ‘Cause we have it, blast it, won’t stash it / ‘Cause we fight to the death and manage / To makes songs of struggle and to habits / And damn it, if I don’t get even / It’s chant down Babylon season / Die for New Orleans to Cleveland / ‘Til we even, we not believin’.”
With M1 positioning himself as a remotely radio-friendly quasi-mainstream rapper, Stic.man and California’s Outlawz explore inner-city Black youth career options in two mixtapes: Soldier 2 Soldier fruitfully deploys military themes, tropes and metaphors to powerful effect, but Can’t Sell Dope Forever is more fully accomplished in dissecting the deadly fascination with the drugs game. The subject has intimate resonance with all concerned – several of the Outlawz are former dealers, including Young Noble whose mother and brother were both addicts. Also involved are Stormey, Kastro and Edi Don (ex-members include Napoleon and Fatal, with 2-Pac and Khadafi both murdered), the group being most famous for Still I Rise (1999). They have a long-standing collaborative ethic, though usually stressing the ‘gangsta’ side of the equation – but with Stic, they’re serious.
Can’t Sell’s opener, ‘1Nation’, straightforwardly frames the problem as gang versus class war:
“Listen up, all these guns we got between us / We can point ‘em the right way and come the fuck up / Dope money and turf ain’t worth your life / Doing it for the struggle, that’s how you earn your stripes”.
The title track sympathetically fleshes out the cold-hearted reality:
[Young Noble] “It ain’t too many dope dealers retiring / It ain’t too many old prostitutes vacationing on the islands / Instead of knock ‘em down, my focus is to inspire ‘em … But he ain’t got no job, and she on welfare / All he do is go rob, she do the blowjobs / For ‘06 Bonnie and Clyde, life is so hard … We need some motivation, we need some inspiration / We need to be more creative in our ways to get paper / The block will have your ass in a box for your duration … “Homie, I ain’t tryin’ to preach to you, I’m just sayin’ / The government the bigger gang, and they ain’t playin’ …
Later, ‘Like a Window’ has Stic.man agonising over his junkie brother, musing on the interests ultimately served:
“It’s a war even though they don't call it a war / It’s chemical war unleashed on the Black and the poor / And who benefits? The police, lawyers and judges / The private-owned prison industry with federal budgets / All them products in the commissary / Tell me who profits – it’s obvious / And it’s going too good for them to stop it”.
Finally, ‘Believe’ succinctly critiques consumerism and decisively reconnects the political-economic analysis to daily life:
“You ain’t gotta smoke crack to be a fiend / A fiend is just somebody who’s addicted, it could be anything / Too many of us addicted to the American Dream / We’re high from the lies on the TV screen / We’re drunk from the poison that they’re teachin’ in school / And we’re junkies from the chemicals they put in the food”.
With Dead Prez proving the potency of political street-cred over banging beats, veteran G-Funk raptivist Paris also steps up alongside an astonishing array of old- and new-school, hardcore and conscious artists on Hard Truth Soldiers, Vol I; and, somewhat bizarrely, produced and wrote the lyrics for Public Enemy’s misfiring Rebirth Of A Nation (check www.guerillafunk.com). So, suburban white middle-class subcultures may be abandoning hip-hop, and all manner of self-righteous haters delight in pronouncing it dead. Meanwhile, the momentum grows of an unholy lowlife alliance of bling-obsessed narcissists, psychotic nihilists, and prophets of organised revolt. I know who I’m listening to …
Confidential by M1 (CD/DVD) is out now on Koch Records. Can’t Sell Dope Forever (Affluent Records) and Soldier 2 Soldier (Real Talk Entertainment) by Dead Prez & Outlawz are available on import.
Music review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 22, November 2006.
For more reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: