Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Children's Crusade

While there are several worthy candidates, Dead Prez are probably the most successful example of what could be classified as a second generation in political minded Hip Hop. The duo offer an overeducated, passionate brand of protest rap. They blend Public Enemy’s anger and X Clan’s spirituality to deliver a fresh, fact oriented critique out to challenge our system in almost every aspect. They have separated themselves from their stylistic forefathers by refusing to settle for blanket statements or hinting at foul play and corruption. Rather than vaguely referencing an ominous Anti-Nigger Machine, their interests lie in dissecting and laying the parts of said machinery out in the cold light of day for the listener to inspect. Statistics and eulogies for Fred Hampton are commonplace in their verse but never feel forced. For this reason, Dead Prez strike the listener as more KRS than the obvious Chuck D the group name checks themselves on “I’m a African”, the first true song on their idyllic, unapologetic 2000 debut Let’s Get Free.

Stic.Man and M-1 are an immensely talented pair that tackle each track on Let’s Get Free with the combination of intelligence and charisma that allowed the Brooklyn transplants to steal the show, both on and off the stage in the 2006 concert film/love letter Dave Chapelle’s Block Party. They have a tendency to wax poetic on the dire issues they address, which are far ranging, but are good enough to avoid heavy handedness and often achieve poignancy. You find yourself liking them even as their content is almost exclusively the stuff of fire and brimstone. Still, DP is at their most effective when they step away from sociology and history lectures and make their political points by grounding them in personal experience, probably the reason why I consider They Schools as their best song to date.

While often criticized for their production, to me nothing complements DP’s message like their urgent, ominous, future shock soundscape of sonic wailing present on “African”, “Enemy Lines”, “Police State”, “Assassination” and even the somber instrumental “You’ll find a way” to name a few. With the exception of the busy, choppy Pistol none of the beats truly suck.

Dead Prez are at their most obnoxious when radiating their arrogance, which knows no bounds. Of course, this arrogance goes hand in hand with their youthful exuberance and without it the album would have no teeth, yet when they veer off the political and start literally lecturing their audience as to how to live their lives you want to tell Stic.Man to roast less bowls and come down off his fucking high horse. The interlude/song “Discipline” is particularly painful in this respect as a young protagonist turns down a cookout to “do maths.” Then we’re treated to a lecture on the song’s title, given by the worst R&B singer ever DP must have found chilling outside a storefront mosque on Flatbush.

While not always so explicit, essentially DP displays how they achieve their revolutionary chic on the Kanye West assisted Hip Hop when Stic famously and eloquently poses the question “would you rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance? A Beamer, a necklace or freedom?” In setting up this all or nothing dichotomy DP suggest that our only way to enact change is taking up arms and throwing barrels of oil into the Hudson River. While this is an absurd demand, I suppose I sympathize, it can’t be easy writing fiery protest rap about drafting petitions and actually voting for mayor.

As they struggled within the industry, and one can only assume with their identity as artists, the philosophy of Dead Prez went in a direction not unlike the Civil Rights Movement they studied and referenced constantly. In their Turn Off the Radio mixtape series, leading up to their sophomore release “Revolutionary But Gangsta” their message was re-packaged as one of violent defiance, an advocacy of a sort of militaristic outlaw existence, shunning any sort of belief in a future fueled through knowledge of self so strongly promoted in LGF. This change of face is represented in their lead single “Hell Yeah” in which the Stic and M-1 propose a number of ways to hustle money, including robbing a (conveniently white) pizza delivery guy and insurance scams. They make no apologies in the song, or take a moment to ponder the consequences their actions have on others in the community.

RBG contains a lot of gun play and soldier talk which is supposedly different or revolutionary because their agitation is aimed at cops or anyone not of their revolution, but often the listener is forced to remind themselves of that due to the monotony of subject and similarity toward every other unimaginative crack narrative so popular at the moment RBG was released. It’s a message fraught with the same contradictions and difficult questions that plagued the Black Panther Party they so clearly emulate. In fact, it’s right on par with 2pac Shakur’s THUG LIFE movement, preceding Dead Prez’s rhetorical shift by over a decade, so it makes sense that in 2006 they teamed up with the Outlawz to release an awful album no one cared about. In comparison with LGF, their philosophy since comes off as weary nihilism at best (“W-4”) and calculated posturing at worst (The horrifically titled “I have a dream too”) and for a fan it’s a difficult switch to stomach.

Regardless of what they have become, we will always have Let’s Get Free to remember and M-1 by. Beyond their issues, as Dead Prez re-imagine George Orwell with gusto, woo women with games of chess and beg us to eat curried falafel and barbeque tofu for our own good, they represent the eternal hope of the young, educated revolutionaries. As they begin to read and comprehend the vast, ugly history our world is built upon, Let’s Get Free is their shock, their repulsion, their conviction that the world is not only redeemable but worth saving and that they will be the ones to dam the flood. It’s kind of stupid and embarrassing and every once in a while you’ll laugh out loud at the audacity of their hope, but it’s also refreshing.


T.R.O.Y. said...

I'm not sure I'm entirely in agreement with the concept that Dead Prez's message is generally more lucid or more incisive than Public Enemy's. For one thing, I feel like Public Enemy's social commentary was typically carried out through the lens of the mass media - their social critique was media critique. When they chastised members of their community for amorality, indifference, or defeatism, they were quick to point out how the mass media engineers such mentalities and then resells the images of zombie-like negroes living lifestyles based on these mentalities as justifications for cutting social spending or allowing cops to shoot unarmed kids without repercussion.

Dead Prez do engage in similar discourse, but like you've pointed out they are a little bit more inclined to engage politics and history through the lens of economics.

PE weren't confusing to listen to, though, for the average listener, because Chuck D was singularly talented at breaking down relatively complex concepts with a very down-home avuncular style. So while it does take a focused mind to absorb chuck's deconstruction of mass media and race, his lack of reliance on academic texts worked very favorably for him. Whether or not his approach is more admirable or effective is probably a subjective call but there's no doubt in my mind that for the most part he did not have much of a problem concisely and clearly getting his point across.

I enjoyed this post. It's good to see some actual discourse in the rap blogosphere.

Abe Beame said...

It's nice getting a comment that elevates the discussion above masturbatory intellectual one upsmanship. I'd be interested for some recommended songs in which you feel Chuck offers a cohesive, specific indictment. I begrudge PE nothing for the record, it's like trying to compare "Children's Story" and "Niggas Bleed". A song like that doesn't just materialize, it's built on the backs of breakthroughs that came before it. Chuck's contributions are no less valid through DP's building on his work, I just remember being 16 and hearing LGF for the first time and being blown away by their journalistic approach.

T.R.O.Y. said...

Ah, "journalistic." That might be the key to the difference between PE and Dead Prez, ultimately. Even though PE have been lauded as rap news correspondents, they really are more analysts of media than reporters.

As far as a cohesive, specific indictment, I'm not sure what that really means or whether or not it should be valorized. If you're looking for an example of PE denouncing "the crackers up in City Hall" you won't find it. Their cohesive, specific indictment is at all times leveled against the media, with the underlying assumption being that the media is a cheerleader/mouthpiece for the government. This is the case in "Don't Believe the Hype" and numerous other songs. If the message isn't very explicit it's because the subject is complex. Dead Prez are good at riling up sixteen year olds into angry fits of proscriptive rage but what's so inherently great about that? Paul Barman once jokingly rhymed about the kind of "agitprop" meant to "piss off a traffic cop?" Is there a danger of falling into that category when you seek to hand out "specific indictments" through song/

Abe Beame said...

I suppose what I was trying to say was I appreciated their articulate anger. I can see how some of their diatribes can come off as semantics and there are fans that would be turned off or uninterested in researching a reference tossed off casually but for me it was edutainment at its finest, and yes I feel the "innovation" is praise worthy. As a personal example which I'm sure a few LGF stans who came to the album earlier in life can attest to (as well as young KRS fans before them) I gained knowledge of a history that helped clarify my views on several subjects thanks to a few DP songs. Sometimes I get frustrated with PE, they bring you to the precipice of something profound but I feel there's nothing but fist shaking and rhetoric on the other side. Specific and cohesive were probably a poor choice of words, how about a place where the analysis is comprehensive and grounded on concrete? Not meant to be antagonistic, genuinely curious for some obscure back of an album gem I've missed.

elmattic said...

Excellent overview of DPZ. I also was really excited when Let's Get Free dropped, because like you said someone was finally bringing political hip-hop forwards...there hadn't been anything new since Paris' Sleeping With the Enemy and The Coup's debut.

Like you said though, I was all pumpin' my fist until they told me to drink more water (8 glasses a day...that's supermodel, not gangsta or revolutionary). I stuck with them but the beats got weaker and weaker, the critiques just got shoutier and more and more reductive. Then Immortal Technique came along and everything was all right again...

You know what DPZ' problem is? No sense of humour or heart. That's what makes The Coup superior (along with much more consistently better beats). Even when Immortal Tech drops his ridiculous Beef & Broccoli, he at least gets unintentional laughs. That's what Chuck D always knew and why he had Flavor--and why PE albums with weak/lacking Flavorifics aren't as good. Chuck knows you need some relief from the revolution.

I think you're also overrating DP vs. PE. Yes, DP do a brilliant job at indicting the school and prison systems specifically, but both groups do their share of booty-shaking fist-pumping sloganeering.

PE I think takes a broader view and maybe uses a wider brush but I don't think their indictments are any less incisive--and by taking a broader stance I think their work has more lasting value and higher artistic substance. Someone like Billy Woods is much more their *direct* descendant in this sense.

If anything DP is "somewhere between NWA and PE" and takes things more literally, along the lineage of Paris and's a mistake to compare them ultimately since you're talking about anxiety of influence; DP making a conscious [sic] effort to be more direct, localized and literal than PE.

Anyway, good post.

Abe Beame said...

I co sign pretty much every point. In retrospect going at PE in any respect is fairly nuts, and really no disrespect was intended. What I was trying to set up was how DP kind of took their political hip hop in a different, previously unseen direction, maybe I was too quick to view this as an evolution. And a big co sign on The Coup, in the event you check back for a response you may enjoy this:

elmattic said...

Yeah, I shot my mouth off before I saw you give The Coup a lot of love.

I agree DP took things in a different direction, more on a street level than Paris, more hooked into hip-hop as a whole than Paris in a lot of ways (particularly as they came out during that long period where he was a stockbroker.)

Abe Beame said...

Huh, sounds like I need to familiarize myself with Paris