Until recently, there was an opaque cloud in my cultural vision, behind which lay the boistrous world of rap music. Now, all that has changed: that world is slightly less obscured, by a marginally diminished and barely penetrable haze.
What is responsible for this leap in clarity? Only the best information available: recommendations from acquaintances, About.com’s list of 25 prominent hip-hop groups, and plenty of Wikipedia. Oh, and free access to all of this music, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee.
My process has been this:
(1) Ask (or search) for a recommended artist or group. This has turned up the Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, De La Soul, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy, Nas, Jay-Z, Common, Immortal Technique, Busta Rhymes, and many others. I’d heard of some of these before, but others I had not.
(2) Obtain swathes of their songs, usually entire albums.
(3) Give them a listen or two. If I like them, fine; if not, delete.
The preliminary results are in. Stylistically, I like music that’s fast and lyrically intricate. Thematically, I dislike music about partying or misogyny, or that is obsessed with the music business itself; and I gravitate toward the political, even the disagreeably so. Hence my appreciation for Dead Prez.
I’d actually heard one of their songs about four years ago. We (about four of us) were sitting in the kitchen of a friend from work. She and I often talked politics; hers were more radical than mine, considerably further left, and usually better thought through. Music was playing in the background, and I could just make out some of the lyrics. I couldn’t be certain, but as I tried to listen carefully, I thought I picked up some lines about…wait, are they singing about welfare fraud? And petty embezzlement? I immediately asked that she play the song again. That’s right; the track I was hearing was Hell Yeah (Pimp the System).
But I didn’t look them up for years, or listen to any more of their music until my recent foray. Their style is simple, their production values low, and their lyrics confrontational–explosive, even. They don’t limit themselves to bemoaning the exploitativeness of the “system.” They go further, with tracks about practicing shooting, learning martial arts, and staying fit–all with a view toward being prepared for the coming revolution. Wolves (from Let’s Get Free, their first studio album) is a recording of speech by Omali Yeshitela comparing crack addiction to a wolf licking a blade until it dies of blood loss, with the hunter who put the blade there being the metaphor’s counterpart for white imperialists.
Oh, and then there’s the cop-killing. A few of their tracks cavalierly depict the murder of police officers. This bothered me enough to merit a “delete” of those tracks.
Now, I’m under no illusions about the supposed sainthood of the thin blue line; a look through Radley Balko’s writings should disabuse anyone of that. But that doesn’t justify the stuff in I Have a Dream Too. A defender might reply that those cops are “part of the system” and therefore deserve their fate, but that is precisely the sort of collectivist reasoning that got everyone into the racism mess. Another defense could be that Dead Prez are advocating violent revolution after all, and this is just a part of it. But even if we take for granted that a violent revolution is desirable (it isn’t–link 1, link 2, link 3), and that killing people who haven’t personally done any wrong is justified, random terrorizing of the police is a bad idea. It’s not as though the police will give up on an area and leave; they are more likely to ask the government for more resources and legal power to do all the things that piss off wannabe revolutionaries and their fans in the first place. So revolutionary cop-killing is both immoral and imprudent.
Another song that bothers me is They Schools. It’s lyrically uninspired, and like “I Have a Dream Too” it its message is counterproductive. The point of the song seems to be that black people are justified in dropping out of school because schools teach submission to the system instead of useful knowledge and skills. Of course, schools do teach conformity and obedience, as well as a white-washed version of history; and a great deal of what they teach is of no practical value. However, dropping out is still a silly idea if your goal is independence.
My worry is that people will be inspired by Dead Prez to use political motives to rationalize behavior they already found appealing. “Man, I hate school. It seems so irrelevant to my life, &c. Hey, this song is cool…what, school is like a 12-step brainwash camp? That is so…convenient! Screw tomorrow’s homework; I’m going to roll myself some big ganja. [Later, to friends] Hey, guys, let’s go out to the woods tomorrow. (But what about class?) No, man! School is like a 12-step brainwash camp! To the woods!”
Cartoonish? Yes. But so is the original song.
Don’t get me wrong. Dead Prez has some seriously wholesome songs. So wholesome are they, in fact, that at first I thought they were ironic. Then I thought they were just pretentious. Now I kind of like them. I’m talking about Be Healthy (“lentil soup is mental fruit”), Discipline (“all things in moderation; plan your work, work your plan”), and Mind Sex (“share a moment with me, over herbal tea/take a walk verbally, and make a bond certainly”). Good stuff all.
And some of their political themes are easy for me to sympathize with, such as those bits that appear in Psychology and Propaganda.
But I still haven’t found anything as good as Hell Yeah (Pimp the System). Its speed and lyrical cleverness are unmatched, as far as I can tell, in the rest of their ouvre. Here’s hoping they outdo themselves soon.