M1 of dead prez The debut album by dead prez, Let's Get Free (Loud), has received an amount of press attention wildly inconsistent with the impact it's making on the national hiphop scene. As far as I can tell, everyone is feeling dead prez. This interview reveals, in part, why few are writing about them.
Secondly, these two young men are ready and willing to do the dirty work the conscious hiphoppers of the 80s left behind. Those emcees galvanized the hiphop movement by connecting the music with black power, black nationalism, African-American historical revisionism and the global buying power of non-white consumers. It was a fairly joyous process for all involved. Which is probably why so many political rappers are still stuck on that moment.
But to actually go forward with a leftist hiphop cultural revolution, a few more things have to change. The soldiers have to become far more disciplined and unified than they currently are. They have to weed out the radical chic element?all those kids chanting "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me" at the Rage Against the Machine concert, directing the sentiment only at their parents and a few hockey-arena security guards. Unlike Rage, dead prez isn't letting their white suburban fans think of themselves as victims of oppression. They're hardly easier on black upper-middle-class heads, who I imagine enjoyed the almost-10-year respite since someone last excoriated "Uncle Toms" on a hiphop album. Nouveau-riche rap celebrities, comparatively, get a free ride (though they do get scolded en masse in the scathing second verse of "Hip Hop"), prompting my first question for M1.
When most rappers talk about seizing power, they're talking about making a lot of money, getting executive jobs at record labels, or in Hollywood or in the fashion industry. How do you feel about hiphop seizing that kind of power?
Well, we got to. We got to use all mediums. We got to be multimedia. We have to get on the screen where we attack the display of images of us as an inferior people, and the whole mental and psychological attack that comes through radio, tv and press. We have to combat it every way that we can. But that's not power to me. I don't want to get that twisted?that is not power. I think power, for us, is gonna be the ability to control our lives, whether they regard tv or not. Tv does not, ultimately, bring food, clothing and shelter to our communities?although it can be a conduit to express the need, even the paramount struggle, that if we don't get it there will be no peace in our communities or anybody else's communities. That's what we can use those tools for. They're not needed if we have power in our own hands. We would really not need to go to tv and try to kowtow to their standards, do things that amount to "stoop to stand" because a lot of times when you're able to stand you are not who you were when you were stooping... By the time we do certain things, try to become actors or whatever, [to the point] where we can express a serious point of view without it being blocked, then we're not the same person anymore. We have transformed. That's built into the system.
How do you feel about seizing power through electoral politics? Any hope there?
Unless we can put a point of view on the ballot that begins to make a general cry for food, clothing and shelter for the African community, economic development and social justice for our communities, there's no need to vote. There's no need for African people or Latino people?I think that more than anything the vote gets used against us because there's no accountability. The people who are elected into office?[activists] say, Elect these people into office and make them responsible. The problem is, that's backwards. That's the tail wagging the dog. You can't make them responsible when they already got the vote! What you have to do is run someone who is accountable to us first. Usually, people are accountable to the government first and then to the people. That's backwards. That way, we will always get our laws twisted, anything we're going for will come back to us defeated.
And how do feel about seizing power through armed revolution?
Well, I think it's gonna have to come through armed?the police are armed. This country was founded on armed revolution.
That's true. It'd be messier now than it was then, though.
That depends on what side you live on. Forty-one shots is pretty messy. It's already messy on our side of the field. If self-defense means that we have to get guns to stop them from shooting us, I'm not at all opposed to that. I do think that in order to feel safe here, you gotta own a gun. I know I do.
But if you're going to openly support the armed overthrow of the U.S. government, you're not gonna have much of a music career. You realize that, don't you? They'll shut you down.
Yeah, well, you have a point. You do have a point. We have been shut down in the past, but that does not mean we were incorrect.
I'm not saying you were incorrect. Just that if you get shut down there's no more dead prez. I'm not so sure about your revolution, but I know I want to hear another dead prez album.
I feel you, and I understand you too, but then what position am I left to take?
I guess you can hedge it and say you don't rule out armed revolt but you're not necessarily for it. I guess that's a little wishy-washy.
Yeah, it's a little wishy-washy! It's kinda playing both sides, which is cool, but I have a position which was my position before I came into the music business. I really believe that we can't even be called violent in the face of the violence that's been inflicted on us.
But once you get a mob of people in a revolution, there's going to be a lot of innocent blood spilled, not just on the power side, but on the powerless side, too. Are you really ready to be responsible for that?
No. My theory is, "More Sweat and Peace, Less Blood and War." That's why I'm on the front lines of issues now?that's why I do what I do. What I know is: Power changing hands doesn't happen easily and it won't happen without a fight. We have to have power. I can't go on living my life this way. I can't keep going to jail, I can't keep having my people afflicted by crack, undereducated, miseducated. I can't continue to live under the welfare system, with no community control over many aspects of our lives. That may be an option for a lot of other people, but I've come to the point?the point that's driven through my music?that we can't take it anymore. I can't go that route anymore. I've done as much as I can do. I've gone at it backwards, sold as much crack as I can sell, seen as much crack being sold?that doesn't bring power. I seen people get elected to office and then turn their backs on us?that doesn't bring power. I know how to get real power. We have to get organized. And I think that when we do become organized, whether we are armed or unarmed, that this U.S. government will come after us in an armed fashion to retaliate. So I just have to be prepared.
I'm very moved by your album and I'm very moved to hear you say what you just said. But I'm not black, and my perception as I follow politics is that as moving as I find your message and messages like it that I hear in the hiphop music I love, the black community is still this very reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party that Al Gore is counting on. If things are really as bad as you say?am I to believe that most black people are just completely deluded?
That's a misconception?that all African people are voting for Al Gore.
He can count on a majority of black voters' support in every single state.
Yeah, you're right, that's through misrepresentation, and we have been duped. A lot of times, when powerless, people turn to whatever "can work." Right now, voting is an option so I don't rule it out. I say, Let's run the next Malcolm X. And white people have a place in that. You, yourself, have a place in that. You have a similar relationship to history that I have.
How do you mean?
Your relationship and mine are congruent. The reason why you live the way you live has determined the way I live. We are directly related. Your legacy has been that of the slavemaster, mine has been the legacy of the slave. I'm not saying that you're proud of that, I'm saying that everybody has to recognize that.
Just by being a light-skinned American, I carry the legacy of the slavemaster? I can see that if you're talking about my everyday white privilege, but that's not the only legacy of mine. I also have the legacy of the slave, and of the liberator in my blood as well.
Okay, well, and I'm not being racist by saying this?I believe that white people are human beings and deserve to live, believe me, I don't know how to express it any other way?but I do know that your legacy has enabled you to live with the benefits that the slavemaster has had over my life. You have to understand, my inability to educate myself, the economic oppression that we endure, has been over 500 years. It didn't happen to me last year. I understand if you want to end it. I think that that's a humble and progressive statement to make if you say that. But I also know the way you can do it is different than the way I can do it. Because you have ownership of the resources. Your family, and your people who are related in that way have ownership of all my resources that we worked hard to build. The exploitation, this capitalist government, has made sure that it kept that power, through wielding guns, through state laws, state apparatuses, the courts?that's the statement that we're putting out.
It's a serious question that both you and I are confronted with. You have the responsibility to solve it just as much as I do. Just because I'm standing up making this statement, don't think that white people can't unite with it. You can, and so can black people are now getting a chance to hear this because those who haven't are voting for Al Gore. Once you have the ability to make a decision, well, then it's on you. You make a class decision. I hope to be in the whirlwind. I want to be part of the deciding factor. We don't claim to know everything, and I don't. But I do know that I want to be part of this change.