Against All Odds
In Dead Prez's world, politics and activism usually take precedence over the music or, to be more precise, motivate the music and give it a reason for being. Every song is another opportunity to talk about issues, whether it's the gentrification of "Hip-Hop," the transformation of urban America into a "Police State," or the ongoing antipathy toward law enforcement that results in "Cop Shot." The language Mutulu "M-1" Olugbala and Khnum "Stic.man" use is raw and strident, shorn of the dexterous wordplay typified by earlier hip-hop radicals like Public Enemy's Chuck D. and Boogie Down Productions' KRS-One. "Who shot Biggie Smalls/If we don't get them, they gon' get us all," rhymes M-1 on "Hip-Hop," "I'm down for runnin' up on them crackas in they city hall."
Other striking differences can be found between the two groups. Public Enemy marketed itself relentlessly, devising the infamous logo of a b-boy caught in a sniper's cross hairs and designing a black shadow enveloping the globe for its Fear of a Black Planet album cover. It featured Flavor Flav, who wore pastel jumpsuits complemented by a massive clock, and the Security of the First World (S1W), a group of men in military gear. In contrast, Dead Prez's M-1 and Stic consider themselves everymen, studiously avoiding the trappings of stardom. They wear plain clothes: doo-rags and sweatpants, starter jackets and black T-shirts. More important, they've never had the financial backing that PE enjoyed with Def Jam.
Since its first track, "Food, Clothes, and Shelter," appeared on a Loud Records compilation in 1997, Dead Prez has been classified as "the Black Panthers of rap," a metaphor that's thrilled hip-hop fans and critics eager for anyone to assume PE's agit-rap mantle. But while PE enjoyed a string of pop successes in the early Nineties, Dead Prez has struggled to build momentum beyond a sizable cult following. After releasing its debut, Let's Get Free, in the spring of 2000, Loud was liquidated by parent company Sony Music at the end of that year. Sony picked up Dead Prez and began scheduling a series of release dates for the group's People's Radio (since changed to Revolutionary But Gangsta) that have come and gone.
"Sony Music sucks," M-1 says during a phone interview from his office in New York City. "Sony is not a record label that can contend with a market that I think is up-and-coming and ready for new challenges."
Dead Prez has always had a contentious relationship with record labels. Years ago, the group tried to distance itself from Loud Records, dismissing the company as a necessary evil of sorts and coming up with the term "pimp the system" as a way of explaining their connection to it. More than most MCs who bitch and moan about Rule 4080, the duo seem genuinely uneasy about working with corporations to popularize their art and ideas for fear of being attacked as hypocrites who benefit from the system they criticize. "It's like a master/slave relationship," the 30-year-old M-1 notes with considerable venom.
"[Sony] wants to say, 'OK, you owe this many days in the field, this many crops. '" M-1 adds that Dead Prez's lawyers are currently trying to extricate them from their contract: "I think we'll be running away from the plantation within a week or two, hopefully even before this album comes out." The duo don't know what the eventual fate of People's Radio will be, but they may try to shop it around to big labels, or "you may see it on the streets somewhere," whichever situation benefits them the most.
Late last year, Dead Prez shortened its name to DPZ to avoid any legal conflict with Sony Music and released Turn Off the Radio: The Mixtape Vol. One through its own imprint, Holla Black Records. The album was distributed through Full Clip Records, an unassuming indie label best known for 50 Cent's hit compilation Guess Who's Back. The title refers to the "Turn Off the Radio" campaign currently being waged against radio stations by Public Enemy's Chuck D. and other New York activists (for programming content that celebrates selling crack and female exploitation, says M-1) as well as, more subtly, the group's embattled Sony project. "My idea with Turn Off the Radio was to turn off the bullshit and tune into a new frequency and reclaim what we think is really dope," he clarifies.
Turn Off the Radio isn't really a full-fledged album but a compilation of interludes; previously released cuts like "Get Up," a collaboration with radical Bay Area counterparts Coup; and new material like "Sellin' D.O.P.E." and "B.I.G. Respect," two hard-hitting reminiscences by Stic about his earlier life as a drug dealer, the latter laid over an instrumental from the Notorious B.I.G. The music is created by Dead Prez and guest producers like Kanye West; the lyrics are vivid and action-packed. "I got no faith in the Bible/I'm safe with a rifle/Raised like a slave, but I'm breaking the cycle/For survival" Stic states on "Food, Clothes, and Shelter Pt. II."
Then there's "Soulja Life Mentality," a guest track by rapper/producer Soulja Slim. "You can call me racist," he raps over a crackling crunk track. "Sick of seeing sellout niggas/Married to these white girls/Knowing they the enemy/Can't never be no friend of me/I just get my dick sucked/Nut in they mouth instantly."
What did M-1 think about the lyrics? "I loved it!" he affirms. "This is common people telling you that we got problems. This is people who got gold chains and ice and Escalades sayin', 'Man, they're tryin' to oppress me. '" This is the audience Dead Prez wants to reach; it feels that black people can be educated and reasoned with, while the white power structure cannot.
"I think white people have to offer up power roles. I don't mean give, but offer them up," he says, adding, "I'm not being racist. I can't be.
"Offer up the power resources that white people have learned through no fault of your individual self but all fault through the oppressive predecessors of white people. Black people don't have the opportunity to be computer-literate or just literate with reading and writing. That goes way back to slavery. Nothing racist about it. Just truth."
It's ironic how the media and some of its fans have categorized Dead Prez as safe, "conscious" rappers. The two rappers adhere to an admirably ascetic lifestyle -- on Let's Get Free, Dead Prez promotes vegetarianism ("Be Healthy") and chooses "a good conversation" over guilt-free trysts ("Mind Sex") -- tempered by a working-class mentality punchier than Common's middle-class amelioratives and Talib Kweli's streetwise bookishness. Their idea of revolution isn't Frantz Fanon-inspired radical chic but a practical program inherited from Fred Hampton Jr. and the New York-based National Democratic Committee's Uhuru Movement. Perhaps that's why Dead Prez has attracted a strong, multicultural yet mostly unseen audience that probably doesn't understand the full extent of what it hopes to achieve. Fans appreciate how the duo tries to discuss sociopolitical issues with anger, forthrightness, and occasional clumsiness. And they don't expect M-1 and Stic to have all the answers.
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