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The Boston Phoenix Revolution Rap

Dead Prez's master plan

By Jon Caramanica

MARCH 20, 2000:  Revolution is a commodity these days -- the capitalist system is so accelerated that voices of dissent quickly find themselves incorporated into the mainstream, neutered by the very structures they seek to challenge. As Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions heard so often at the turn of the last decade, the very fact that major labels released their music undermined the message, since the support for their "revolution" could be withdrawn at any time.

Since that era, of course, there's been no radical movement in hip-hop to negate. Smug self-satisfaction long ago replaced righteousness as the dominant hip-hop worldview; even in these post-mortem times, few artists are challenging the status quo. Which is what makes the debut album from Dead Prez, Let's Get Free, so shocking. A Brooklyn duo via assorted stints down South, Dead Prez are the closest hip-hop has come to an ideological position since Public Enemy. And like PE, who came out on the dominant hip-hop label of their era, Def Jam, Dead Prez are signed to Loud, the label responsible for the Wu-Tang Clan, Big Punisher, and Mobb Deep, definers of '90s intelligent hardcore hip-hop.

The album cover, which depicts a group of teenagers bearing arms in rebellion, has already been a source of conflict between the label and the group, and the label has stickered the jewel case to obscure the image so that more sensitive retailers won't be offended. Controversy is always good for sales, but unlike some of the lesser politico-rappers of the previous nation time, Dead Prez offer potent messages of uplift cloaked in a hard-rock sensibility. The group's two MCs, Stic.man and M1, aren't fatherly preachers so much as partners in (metaphoric) crime. Rather than operate outside the prevailing hip-hop discourse, leaving their words to fall on deaf ears, the pair verse themselves in the genre's peculiarities -- lingo, cadences, beats, expectations. With these tools in hand, they stand the best chance of any artists in a decade to dismantle the outmoded house hip-hop has built and construct new paths, new structures, new narratives.

Take "Hip Hop," the album's first single -- though the title is pedestrian, the song is anything but. The bass line is fat and thick, deeply distorted and sustained throughout the track, penetrating the body and urging it to move. Like a Southern bass track, it's designed to work best emanating from tricked-out woofers designed for low-end theories. Yet rather than spit the same ol' game as the country boys, Stic and M1 ensnare you in a truth tale that undermines industry myths -- "Nigga don't think these record deals gonna feed your seeds and pay your bills," Stic warns. Later in the song, the chorus breaks into a chant of "It don't stop . . . " Then, just before you're fooled into thinking it's the party that don't stop, the couplet closes with the anti-authoritarian " . . . until we get the po-po off the block." Gotcha.

Let's Get Free teems with such gems. Not only are Stic and M1 conscious, they're gifted lyricists -- they may sound no different from your favorite thugs, but they use that familiarity as an entry point to more profound dialogue. Stic summarizes it nicely on "I'm a African," placing himself at the crossroads of "camouflage fatigues and dashikis/Somewhere in between N.W.A and PE." What other group ask you to "bounce to this socialist movement?"

Even when the pair turn to romance and other less radical concerns, they infuse their words with wisdom and urgency. "Eat Healthy" may be Dead Prez at their most political, even though they never refer to structures of power -- rather, they take the opportunity to enlighten their peers on the importance of nutritious food. "I don't eat no meat, no dairy no sweets/Only ripe vegetables, fresh fruit and whole wheat," M1 proudly proclaims, and Stic offers his own culinary tips: "Be careful how you season and prepare your foods/'Cause you don't wanna lose vitamins and minerals." His dexterity with food extends to the romance arena -- listen to the aural caresses he offers on "Mind Sex": "I know you think I wanna fuck/No doubt/But tonight we'll try a different route/How 'bout a salad/A fresh bed of lettuce with croutons/Later we can play a game of chess on the futon."

Not to be cynical, but those sugar-tipped lines are as strategic as the pair's cultural politics: they dip militant prose and concepts in a candy coating of gruff intonations and jeep-ready beats. If Dead Prez's politics were more overt, they might well be less successful working within the structures that have supported them. Indeed, in this second stage of subversion, the revolution may actually be disseminated by the institution it seeks to overthrow. Greed is good.

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