Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Radical Critique of Dead Prez Album "Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz"

When hip-hop outfit Dead Prez released their landmark album Let's Get Free in 2000, the result was the most radical collection of rap songs since Public Enemy's Apocalypse '91: The Empire Strikes Black. Indeed, in terms of production, songwriting and lyrics, Dead Prez had established their credentials as revolutionary hip-hop. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Let's Be Free, Dead Prez have released Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz. It's an online album which can be downloaded for free. That's one of the few good things one can say about the album. 


On Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz M1 and stic.man collaborate with DJ Drama. This is the main problem with the album musically. While the turntable and mixing skills of DJ Drama are undeniable, he cannot be compared to the legendary hip-hop DJ's such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa or Terminator X. Dead Prez would have done much better had they kept Drama out of their music. To be fair, DJ Drama has shining moments. "The Beauty Within" is the best track musically on the album and is arguably the most beautiful hip hop song ever composed. "Don't Waste It" is the second best track on the album musically. DJ Drama produces too much noise on the album. The extraordinary rapping by M1 and stic.man manage to salvage the songs musically. If any other rapper had DJ Drama backing them up, the result would be nothing short of disaster. The low point of the album, if not the entire repertoire of Dead Prez is "The Game is a Battlefield", which is nothing less than a cover of Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield". More than simply sampling parts of the original and using it as a loop, DJ Drama plays the entire instrumental version of it, only cross fading it in and out with another record. Guest vocalist Antonia JenaƩ imitates the singing of Pat Benatar only with different lyrics. This surely goes down as one of the most embarrasing episodes of hip hop.

The strongest elements of the album are the raps and lyrics. Dead Prez remain one of the most provocative and intellectually advanced rappers in hip hop today. Musically, the album would have been much stronger and enjoyable had they returned to or built upon the musical foundation of Let's Get Free. There is nothing revolutionary musically about Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz. The samples are trite. The beats are weak. There is nothing new or different about the album musically. The rapping style is also disappointing for Dead Prez. What made Dead Prez stand out from the corporate commercial hip hop was their eschewing of Gangsta culture and style. They were definitinetly from the streets but Dead Prez had established themselves as Ghetto intellectuals (or in order to clarify for younger readers, intellectuals from the ghetto). The foray of Dead Prez into Gangsta rap is both disappointing and backwards. To hear Dead Prez spit the words "niggaz" and "bitches" is cringe inducing. One waits with dreadful anticipation that they will utter the words "ho" and "faggot". They aren't spoken but one feels that Dead Prez are skirting along the foul line.
One can only speculate why Dead Prez have decided to go "Gangsta". It most certainly could not be a need to establish street creditibility. This critic believes that Dead Prez are attempting to get the attention of  the kids and youth that listen to the corporate Gangsta rap that's played on MTV and radio. If this is the case, this is almost as bad as if Dead Prez had turned to political reaction. Dead Prez claims that they and their music is "revolutionary" politically. By doing so, they deserve politically revolutionary criticism.

Politically, Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz is an expression of Black Nationalism. From this reviewer's Trokskyite perspective, this is politically problematic. However, as this reviewer was the product of the peak of radical Black Nationalism of the early 1970s, Dead Prez's Black Nationalism is extremely weak and conservative in comparison.

"Soul Power" is Dead Prez paying historical homage to the Black Power sentiment of the early 1970s as espoused by James Brown. But surely, M1 and stic.man must know not only the sentiment of Black Power but also how that  sentiment found expression in the music of the time. 1972 was the peak of the Black Power movement in the United States. 1972-73 was the period of the most politically radical music that Black America ever produced. Albums such as What's Going On by Marvin Gaye, Back Stabbers by The O'Jays and Superfly by Curtis Mayfield were cultural and musical expressions of militant Black politics. There is nothing remotely close to that level of political consciousness on the Dead Prez album.

"Malcom Garvey Huey" is the most serious expression of Black Nationalist politics Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz. In turn, the fundamental political weakness of Black Nationalism is exposed. The deification of Marcus Garvey as a political leader and hero of Black people is the most wretched, backwards and reactionary tenet of radical Black politics. It's beyond the scope of this review to explain the treachery and deceit of Marcus Garvey. Garvey was a self-professed fascist who met with and collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore Garvey was a petit-bourgeois capitalist who not only exploited poor Black workers but defrauded Blacks from New York to Jamaica out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Garvey was a crook and charlatan who was exposed and bitterly opposed by W.E.B Dubois, A. Philip Randolph and  Chandler Owen. It was after 1968, that Garvey was rehabilitated as a Black Nationalist icon. His collaboration with the KKK became hushed up and his defrauding of Blacks glossed over. Dead Prez mislead young rappers telling them to "read Malcom (X), (Marcus) Garvey, Huey (Newton)." They are correct about Malcom X and Huey Newton but politically wrong about Garvey. It may not work in rap to say Malcolm, DuBois, Huey or Malcolm, Randolph, Huey. This reveals that Dead Prez really have not studied much Black History or have read the political writings of Black intellectuals very much.

As I listened through the album, I eagerly awaited to hear a blistering rap about President Obama. Dead Prez are silent on Obama. They barely mention Obama in Let The People Be Heard "Ever since Obama got into office, everything went back to normal" Later, they rap: "Everybody say we need a new president, but we all know that won't change a thing." 
Is that all Dead Prez have to say about the treachery of Obama?! Here is a president who has shown nothing but contempt for the issues of concern and the well being of Black Americans. Since occupying the White House, Obama has refused to meet with any Black civil rights or political groups. Obama hasn't lifted a finger to combat Black unemployment which in many parts of the country tops 60%. Since Obama has become president, the quality of life for Black America has deteriorated by every single indicator. Home foreclosures have disproportiantly affected Blacks. Racial profiling, murder and violence at the hands of the police have esclatated. Obama's education policy is on target to destroy public education once and for all. Not to mention that Obama has moved to the right of George W. Bush in terms of human rights, war, imperialism, etc. Obama is a war criminal and commits crimes against humanity. Yet in spite or this and their claim to be political revolutionaries, Dead Prez are silent. Their silence is criminal. No Black artist or intellectual can claim to have revolutionary politics without exposing Obama. Obama must be overthrown no less than Bush and the entire American political and economic structure. Obama must be opposed and fought against. It is imcumbent upon Black artists, especially those such as Dead Prez to challenge, critique and destroy Obama.

Glen Ford and Black Agenda Report are correct when they have stated that Obama has been the most destructive figure for Black people in the history of the United States. Black people cannot understand that they face a deadly hostile enemy in Blackface. Obama represents not only the dead end of liberal politics but the ultimate dead end of Black Nationalist politics. Just as Black Nationalists are silent about Garvey's despicable politics against Blacks, they are silent on the genocidal destruction of Black people that Obama is implementing.

Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz is the loss of political credibility for Dead Prez. That an album like this was released to commemorate the 10th anniversary release of a truly revolutionary album is a scandal. However, this is merely a symptom of a general widespread malaise of American society. Indeed, Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz is a damning indictment on the  current state of the American intellectual and cultural landscape. I would have never believed that Dead Prez would vindicate my analysis that North Americans are organically incapable in the 21st Century to think critically, produce edifying cultural output and utterly crippled when it comes to effecting radical political change. The album is a political disgrace.

The one rapper in the United States with any significant following that is truly radical is Immortal Technique. There may very well be underground rappers and others with political awareness and consciousness but I suspect they are few and far between. KRS-One has associated himself politically with the right winger Alex Jones and agreeing that abortion is an act of genocide against Blacks. Personally, I have always found most rap music alienating, pariticularly since 1990 when N.W.A and the West Coast gangsta rap first appeared. Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls never spoke to me. I could relate to Dead Prez in 2000. 

Hip Hop is the ultimate cultural degeneration not only of Black American culture but more significantly, of Black American political awareness. Blacks  have been the fabric of American culture since the founding of the Union. America's greatest writers, poets, intellectuals and political philosophers have all been Black. Indeed, Blacks were the moral conscience and soul of the United States. Within the span of 20 years, hip hop has destroyed that all. Dead Prez have put the final nail in the coffin of Black political consciousness.

 

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