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
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-
Regardless of what they have become, we will always have Let’s Get Free to remember Stic.man 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.