If rap is the black CNN, then Dead Prez is the anti-Bill O’Reilly. Like the Fox News announcer, they’re brash, outspoken and controversial. But unlike O’Reilly, you’re confident that their heart is in the right place.
That heart is the key to Dead Prez, which is just as important as their political rhetoric. The rap duo from Florida deliver stinging indictments of the system and institutionalized racism, but they’re more than talk, they’re neighborhood activists as concerned with enjoying the finer points of life as identifying the fault lines in our culture. Sure, they are brave enough to take a stand and tell you what a bi-atch Bush is, but with most of the press focusing solely on their incendiary intelligence, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that M-1 and Stic.man are, in fact, normal.
That’s why on their 2000 debut, Let’s Get Free, you’ll find a song like “Happiness,” which venerates a summer day, soaking in the beauty of nature, walking, chilling and smoking some of the chronic, next to manifestos like “They Schools”: They ain’t teaching us nothing / but how to be slaves and hard workers / for white people to build up they shit / and make they businesses successful / while exploiting us.
Dead Prez understand the struggle, but it doesn’t blind them to the wonder of the world around them. If you don’t believe it, check out “Mind Sex,” which sidesteps the stereotypical booty-bumping paean to exalt the merits of good conversation and a beautiful mind.
“The personal and political are like yin and yang,” says Stic.man. He’s on his cell phone, manning the streets of New York City. “They’re inseparable, you know? A lot of people out there don’t understand that, because the intellectuals and the college generation are separated from the hood, the working-class, everyday, street living and daily life. We are the embodiment of both of those things. Not because we are special, just because human beings — that’s what you are — you’re dynamic. So ‘Mind Sex’ doesn’t stand out to be something special or different, but I recognize that it challenges the normal stereotype.”
Defying stereotypes is something Dead Prez seem to enjoy doing, and they rebel without a pause against the press’ attempts to pigeonhole or classify them.
“They try to put on you this whole idea of ‘conscious rappers,’ as though as human beings we’re walking around and not conscious,” laughs Stic.man. “We always say that we didn’t come to be on the white-black pack chitlin’ circuit. Those people who can relate to the music, that’s great, but our main concern and focus is our hood, our people, and the people who have concern for the hood and our people.”
There is more than a hint of black nationalism in Stic.man’s words and lyrics. Right off, he scoffs at Bob Marley’s idea of “One Love.”
“In my community we say one gun, we don’t say one love. You say that on my block and the niggas would be, ‘What?! What kind of peace shit are you talking about? Tupac says fuck peace until my niggas get a piece.’ So there’s no one love, it’s one gun. One gun is each one, teach one. A gun is a weapon, it’s not just a gun like you think. A gun is, you pool your weapons unless you’re in power, straight up,” he continues, referring back to the censored Let’s Get Free cover which features a band of blacks, rifles raised in the air. “There’s many guns, but it’s one gun.”
Pimping ain’t easy
Still, Stic.man’s beliefs are more complex than his expressions of solidarity and black power indicate.
“This culture taught us to be so race-conscious, but at the end of the day, race is a limited concept like anything else, and there’s exceptions to everything,” he admits. “That’s why the Pan-African thought is kind of limited. Like if you say all black things, that’s what we need — all group black. I don’t believe that, because you’ll have black police who will lock you up. Black judges who will sentence you to three strikes. It’s like you have to choose your side, whoever you are.”
Instead, Stic.man poses his arguments around the idea of oppression, and a nearly Marxist critique of capitalist oppression. He expresses his resistance with the phrase “pimping the system.”
“That’s a philosophy that we coined from our experiences and our community about how to survive when the system of capitalism is designed to pimp the people. Pimping means exploitation, right? We believe the system should serve the people and not that the people should serve the system. So if the system is pimping people, we say, pimp the system,” he says. “Pimping it means putting yourself in a position where you can use the resources that the system is monopolizing to your own benefit and the benefit of the community.
“A small example on an everyday level is where you work at McDonald’s, and your family comes in there and you give them free fries. That’s pimping the system. You feel me? That’s a simple way, and you can take it all the way up the power structure,” he continues.
Conversation turns naturally to bling-bling, the subject of the title track from their recently released CD Turn Off the Radio, which lays Dead Prez lyrics over a series of commercial hip-hop tracks. On it, M-1 raps: It’s part of they plans to make us think it’s all about party and dancin’, yo / It might sound good when you spittin’ yo rap, but in reality, don’t nobody live like that.
Talking about the recent rap movement that exults Donald Trump symbols of wealth, like fine cars, cribs and Courvoisier, Stic.man is careful not to indict his fellow rappers for their seemingly shallow fascinations.
“Bling-bling is about a people who are starving for resources and material things,” Stic.man offers. “The cause is the capitalist mentality and the capitalist directive. That’s the system, and it’s based on exploitation: pimping. So you’re going to produce pimps and hustler mentalities, especially when you’re the people getting pimped.”
He quickly draws an analogy to illustrate his point.
“During slavery times the master would come and take the women and have sex with them at their will. Whenever they feel like it. That might be your wife, your sister, your daughter, but you have no control over that because you’re a hostage. What happens is that at a certain point in time, it’s ‘next time you go to the bedroom see if you can bring some biscuits.’ We become pimps of our women, you know what I’m saying, because of these circumstances. So it’s about healing communication, not about judging and condemning people.”
“People worry if I become president, I’ll kill all the white people. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’ll need workers.”
—Former presidential candidate Rudy Ray Moore, aka Dolemite
Turn Off the Radio is just a taste of what’s to come from Dead Prez, a teaser of sorts for their forthcoming album on Columbia, Revolutionary Black Gangster (due May 20).
“It’s a new expression of our collective struggle. We try to be creative,” Stic.man explains. “We try to offer solutions. We try to not be preachy. We try to be humble, instead of putting yourself up like you have all the answers when you don’t. And we try to let people know who Dead Prez is as opposed to how the media has categorized us and stigmatized us to be. Everything on there is not so political, because as I say, you can’t separate personal and political.”
Besides performing tracks from Let’s Get Free and Turn Off The Radio, Stic.man promises the Detroit show will feature several songs from their forthcoming album. They’ve also added slides as backing illustration for their songs, and are bringing along a pair of fellow Southerners, Young Blood and Killer Mike, both from the Atlanta area.
“I enjoy Young Blood’s music a lot. Killer Mike is from the Outkast camp and is new to the scene,” says Stic.man, “but you know he’s been getting a lot of love in terms of what he’s got to say.”
As for the revolution, Dead Prez isn’t so much waiting to televise it as they are working to keep it going. They’re rabid activists who work on everything from community martial arts programs to political education courses (natch!) to food cooperatives that buy food collectively from black farmers.
“The revolution has already started. The revolution is a process … it’s not a big moment of military bloodshed and all that shit,” Stic.man says. “The reality is that revolution is about building through the division that you have and not letting anyone stop that.”
Sure, they’re mad at a culture that’s oppressed their people for hundreds of years, and sees most blacks as gangsters and drug-users, but their vision’s wider than that. They live, love and party just like the rest of us.
“We reserve the right to speak freely and honestly,” he says. “If that means we’re talking about George Bush’s punk ass then that’s what we’re talking about. And if that means I’m talking about me drinking too much alcohol, then that’s what I’m talking about.”
Dead Prez will perform Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the Shelter (431 E. Congress, Detroit) as part of the Lyricist Lounge tour. For information, call 313-961-MELT.Chris Parker writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org