Cultural Weaponry

Chas Walker catches Dead Prez making the noose to hang capitalism.

By Chas Walker Dec 15, 2000

Chas Walker catches dead prez making the noose to hang capitalism.

Has candy-cane hip-hop, in its move to seduce the white suburbanite market, sung us all a sweet lullaby? Has hip-hop drifted off into a post-political slumber, never to awaken again?

Most chart-topping rap music today exhibits a profound disconnect from the realities of life in low-income urban communities of color where hip-hop culture originated. Too often it mimics the decadence, privilege, and ignorance of upper-class life in a highly stratified society. As an ad on the NY subway lets me know, even the Cleavers, the quintessential whitebread family, is gettin’ jiggy with it.

Stage Left

Enter dead prez, stage left. The hip-hop duo of M-1 and Sticman has stepped into the spotlight with live politics and musicality. They’ve been at it for a while, contributing overtly political tracks to the Slam soundtrack, benefit compilations Mumia 911, The Unbound Project, and No More Prisons, as well as a verse on the Hip-Hop for Respect album, which memorializes Amadou Diallo and others killed by police violence.

Yet, dead prez was entirely censored from the latter–it seems they were too radical for Rawkus Records. More censorship has come with their first full-length album, just released, Let’s Get Free, as the powers that be at Loud Records slapped a huge sticker over the cover photo of youths in Soweto, guns held high, celebrating a victory over police. Thankfully, the album’s lyrical and musical content remain intact.

Challenging the fakery of much hip-hop, M-1 argued in our recent conversation that "hip-hop today is programmed by the ruling class. It is not the voice of African or Latino or oppressed youth. It is a puppet voice for the ruling class, that tells us to act like those people who are oppressing us." Who’s to blame? "The schools, the media, capitalism, and colonialism are totally responsible for what hip-hop is and what it has become. But we didn’t intend on that–hip-hop was a voice just like the drum, the oral tradition of our people."

Reclaiming this tradition along with other denied histories of African people, dead prez offers a profound analysis of the realities of urban life in the U.S. Their lyrical insights and their honest, intelligent, and urgent delivery point to a long and substantial involvement in black political work.

In the late 1980s, as they read Malcolm X and radicalized, both M-1 and his partner-in-rhyme, Sticman, joined the African People’s Socialist Party and the associated National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. APSP describes itself as "guided by [an] understanding that [the] struggle for [African American] national liberation within U.S. borders is an integral part of the whole African liberation movement; [which] itself is a part of the great contest between the ever-emerging forces of international socialism and the dying, but not yet dead forces of imperialism."

These groups provided a revolutionary family of elders for the two, and it was here that they learned the ropes of political work–long before they ever began their career as MCs. The experience was vital for their political education. NPDUM was able to send M-1 and Stic to different regions of the country to organize and learn from the histories of struggle in the various black communities where they lived.

"We’re Making the Noose"

Eventually, they had a revelation. M-1 explains, "I’m looking at Tupac, I’m looking at Wu-Tang, I’m looking at Snoop, I’m looking at Dre, and I’m like `Wow!–Fuck Al Sharpton! Everywhere I go these are the community leaders.’ We know those raps, we feel these people. And that’s exactly why dead prez became what it is."

The two did not depart from NPDUM, but simply took its political tenets to explore what direction they might send hip-hop (and its fans) in order to realize a much larger and more important political project: a meaningful realization of freedom for oppressed people. Hip-hop is just "one finger on the fist" of their politics, says Stic, and M-1 affirms that they see their group as a strategic exercise in organizing.

If it is to work, says M-1, "We have to be clever, we have to be smart, we gotta be cool, we gotta be way cool! For real, because if we do this shit wack, nobody is gonna be attracted to it. It’s very important that we understand how to use it as a propaganda tool. Hip-hop has given us a platform. It has given us an undeniable voice that everybody not only wants to use but has to use, because of the way that hip-hop dictates lifestyle for white people now."

dead prez sees hip-hop as a marketable commodity in the capitalist world-system, but with a social use-value that can be utilized by artists who retain control of the environment for cultural production–fighting against censorship, bringing up important political issues for communities of color, doing benefit shows for community and political groups, and creating a distribution network at community organizing centers.

What about their involvement with Loud Records–run by the notorious rapitalist Steve Rifkin? M-1 sees this seeming contradiction as a tactical decision that was made in order to increase the number of radicals in the hip-hop community.

"Some people may think, `Well, they didn’t know any better.’ But we did know. Believe me–I come from a place where people put out their own records all the time, and you only hear it on the block. We need the presence of a revolutionary philosophy in our music everywhere. And I want people to be able to buy it where they buy normally. So we went to Loud."

"People ask me all the time, `Well, maybe I should go to Loud, maybe they care.’ No, they don’t care! Are they sympathetic to the movement? No! They care only if they can make a dollar off of it. But that’s the thing about capitalism–[it] was born parasitic from the people. Capitalism will sell us the ropes to hang it with, just because it wants to make money off the rope. And all the time, we’re making the noose."

A Poetic 10-Point Program

Lacing militant messages of political resistance and struggle overtop of low-riding bass lines and trunk-bumping beats, the duo seeks to infiltrate as many eardrums as possible. Much of the group’s lyrical inspiration comes from the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. The still-unmet demands made by the Black Panther Party and other militant liberation groups of that era provide a central theme for Let’s Get Free’s compelling tracks, which feel like a poetic version of a 10-point program.

The first track, "i’m a african," asserts the historical links between African peoples worldwide and calls on blacks to be "internationalists–one people fighting worldwide against one common enemy oppressor." In "`they’ schools," the group critiques a racist educational system that doesn’t respect students of color as human beings with histories–that teaches them to "become immediately compartmentalized in the work-system" without teaching them how "that job gonna exploit [them] every time."

On "police state," they embark on an angry analysis of the role of police:

    The average black male

    live a third of his life in a jail

    ‘cuz the world is controlled by the white male,

    and the people don’t never get justice

    and the women don’t never get respected

    and the problems don’t never get solved

    and the jobs don’t never pay enough

    and so the rent always be late.

    Can you relate? We living in a police state.

In "propaganda," dead prez adds the corporate-controlled media to its enemies list, asking "Now, buster, can you tell me who’s greedier/ big corporations, the pigs, or the media?" "behind enemy lines" brilliantly dissects the war on drugs, the prison industrial complex, and the frame-ups of political prisoners in the U.S., and contains one of my favorite couplets ever (explaining why Fred Hampton was really murdered by the police): "They say he set a fire to an Arab store/ but he ignited the minds of the young, black, and poor."

Many of the songs detail the suppressed histories of struggle of African peoples, and the listener is exhorted to get to work immediately on meaningful and radical political projects, as on "we want freedom":

    This world is oh-so-cold

    I think about my ancestors being sold

    and it make me wanna break the mold.

    Fuck the gold and the party–

    Train yourself, clean your shotty.

    Tell me what you gonna do to get free?

    We need more than MCs,

    we need Hueys and revolutionaries!

Overall, the album provides the philosophical armament that legitimizes a violent revolutionary response to an economically stratified world that offers few freedoms for poor communities of color; a world that forcibly exhibits its institutional racism under a multiplicity of guises and uniforms–"teacher," "officer," "banker"; and a world that seeks to limit all protest to non-violence.

"Spreadin’ the Seeds"

The group’s socialist politics impel them to work in solidarity with a diverse array of community organizations, despite tactical and ideological differences. Their shows for DARE’s (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) anti-police brutality work in Providence, RI and anti-Prop. 21 organizing efforts in Oakland, CA, are among the many clear examples of dead prez’s commitment to "spreadin’ the seeds." While dead prez thoroughly engages both lyrically and politically with the multi-racial reality of the U.S. and the world, as revolutionary nationalists, they also choose to emphasize the central element of the historical development of U.S. capitalist white supremacy–the concurrent oppression and exploitation of black communities.

Identifying with the history of black political struggle is key to the group’s philosophy, but it’s also been an intense experience for them. M-1 confesses that many people still fear "that even if you mention being a revolutionary now, you’re gonna die. They think you wanna be a martyr. But really, you wanna be a revolutionary so you can live. I want to live a long and free life, and that’s what it’s gonna take, so I gotta do it." And just what is freedom? He drops it:

    Freedom is not having to sell crack to eat.

    Freedom is you can say fuck without the bleep.

    Freedom is power in the hands of the masses,

    where everybody’s free and there are no classes…

    Freedom is our collective political interest.

    Love put into action with positive goals:

    freedom is where the people play an active role

    in the policies that govern our lives…

    Freedom is the opposite of what we have lived.

    Freedom is showing love for the efforts you give.

Chas Walker is a member of the Young Communist League at Brown University and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) in Providence, RI.