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"Knowledge reigns supreme," says Killah Priest. "When Christ was on Earth, he walked among politicians and people who were ignorant. Why would I want to go somewhere where people already know?" Priest is calling from Virginia, where he's in the middle of a promotional tour with his hip-hop group Sunz of Man. A native New Yorker and close associate of the Staten Island-based rap group Wu-Tang Clan, Killah Priest recently released a solo album, Heavy Mental (Geffen), after making guest appearances on albums by Wu-Tangers the Genius and Ol' Dirty Bastard. The debut album by Sunz of Man is due this summer on the Red Ant label. Steeped in highly esoteric Bible interpretation and what seems to be visionary prophetizing, Heavy Mental is a rap album unlike any before or since. Now, out on tour, Priest sees himself as not only an entertainer but also a teacher.
"I'm a painter. I'm an artist," Priest says in reference to his image-rich rhymes. "I want to make a vivid picture. You can make a short story shorter. I want to say so much." One especially striking image from Heavy Mental is the couplet, "I saw Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush/Barefoot, sucking from the titties of a wolf." Asked about those lines, Priest explains, "Our government is involved in secret sects, like fraternities. Groups and cliques and clans -- they aren't saints of God. If that was the case we wouldn't be lied to, and people wouldn't be starving."
While lots of people can rap, Priest claims that only a master MC can educate through hip-hop. "First of all, you got to be lyrically inclined. Anyone can say 'We're going to war,' but you gotta be lyrically inclined to put the words perfectly. I'm a lyricist. This comes from rhyming. You learn how to maneuver, to put truth in things and make it sound good for the soul."
Killah Priest doesn't know if he will walk among the knowledgeable or ignorant this Saturday at Bayfront Park Amphitheater. In fact, before this interview, he wasn't even aware that his scheduled Miami performances (he'll appear both solo and with Sunz of Man) are part of an urban music extravaganza of the grandest scale. The First Annual Bayfront Bash '98, as it's called, is an all-day affair featuring some 29 acts. The lineup includes rap stars Goodie Mob, Das EFX, and rebounding hip-hop legend Rakim (sans long-time partner Eric B.), along with Priest and Sunz of Man. Also onboard for Bayfront Bash are the party-rap outfits Quad City DJs and Poison Clan, as well as Tupac sound-alike Blac Haze. The show has also booked an array of R&B acts: veteran Montell Jordan, the West Coast-style harmonies of Nu Flavor, the soulful female quartet Allure (which records for Mariah Carey's label Crave), hitmakers K.P. & Envyi ("Swing My Way"), Veronica ("Rise"), Sylk-E-Fyne ("Romeo and Juliet"), and Total (which sang on Mase's "Tell Me What You Want").
"We wanted to hit every market," says Stephen Lezcano, one of the show's promoters. Lezcano and partners Abel Paul and Max Colastin make up Phantom Entertainment, a new company that the Miami trio hopes will become a major player in East Coast tour promotion. Bayfront Bash '98, which Lezcano says will be an annual event, is Phantom's first festival-scale concert. It was arranged in association with a New York-based promotion company, Troy Marrotta, Inc.
One dollar from every ticket sold will be donated to Christ Crusaders Family Center, a nonprofit organization that provides care for women and children with AIDS. "We want to benefit the community as well as ourselves," says Lezcano. "We decided early on that we wanted to work with a local charity. We want to keep everything as local as possible. That's also why we have local groups." Among the South Florida performers are Young Lions, Walking Dead, Alliance & Gambit, Nikki Bonds, RBS, Sons of Nature, Sons of Intellect, Deep Staff, Dynasty, Urban Knots, B.A.S.I.C. Elements & N.O.B.L.E. Man, Andy Mederos, and Willow. Lezcano says some of these unheralded acts will be granted only enough stage time to perform one song, but a nod to Miami's hip-hop hopefuls can prove fruitful for Phantom down the road. "If we build a local network," he observes, "it can only benefit us."
"Sounds like there should be lot of knowledge there, a lot of truth comin' out," allows Priest after hearing about the Bayfront Bash. Priest and the promoters of the wingding might seem to make for strange bedfellows, given that Phantom chose to donate money to a religious group, while Priest is an outspoken critic of organized religion. Throughout Heavy Mental, Priest drops biting lines such as "Religion's like a prison for seekers of wisdom" and "I'm allergic to Catholic churches/Religious worship is worthless."
"Some religions are a form of genocide," he opines. "They were built up for evil purposes, for demonic purposes. You can worship anywhere. The body is a temple." He continues, "The Catholic Church was built up by Romans -- the same people who killed Jesus. A lot of their rituals come from pagan worship. I take it like it is: The Bible forbids idols and pagan worship. I don't have nothing against those people; I just take it like it is."
That statement may seem like a foray into waters too deep for a show billed as "The Biggest Out of School Jam to Kick Off Your Summer." But for a pop world that's adamant in its claims of spirituality and importance, it may no longer make sense to expect all the warm months' entertainment to remain in the shallow end.
Whatever the case, Killah Priest ends the interview by asking for Phantom Entertainment's phone number; he needs to secure his travel arrangements to Miami. To illuminate the source of his unorthodox theories and opinions, Priest answers a question about the identity of his spiritual teacher: "The Most High."
Bayfront Bash begins at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, June 20, at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd; 358-7550. Tickets cost $28 in advance, or $32 the day of show.