[6 April 2006]
When M-1 and Stic-man of Dead Prez released Let’s Get Free in 2000, the album offered scathing social commentary. Dead Prez wanted to free us from oppression, from record contracts, from bad relationships, from eating the wrong food, and especially from the school system. While the collection created a positive buzz, it seems the world was unprepared for Dead Prez’s brand of revolution in rhyming couplets. By “world”, I mainly mean record companies. Ideological and economic beefs between Dead Prez and their label delayed the release of their sophomore album and threatened to stymie their future. At one point, they were recording new material while still battling to release the old. At times, their lyrics told us they were frustrated with, and tired of, trying to reach an audience of mainstream radio addicts. In fact, they made two volumes of “mixtape” material about it called Turn Off the Radio. And, of course, they eventually released that sophomore album, Revolutionary But Gangsta, in 2004.
For all of their efforts and activism, I have a theory about Dead Prez’s inability to capture a wider audience. It’s not their “revolutionary” status or that they may espouse controversial philosophies from time to time. Other artists and bands have done both and have gained more publicity. Public Enemy, KRS-One, Paris, and Brand Nubian immediately come to mind. It’s not that Dead Prez hits us with heavy doses of so-called “gangsta” lyrics; we loved N.W.A., didn’t we? At least Dead Prez will tell us to do our push-ups.
Maybe the truth is that nobody’s really interested in improving the sociopolitical status quo (I know I’m not interested in giving up my PlayStation) but, in my humble opinion, M-1 and Stic-man have met opposition—from audiences, from record execs, from “the powers that be”—not because of their madness but rather the method to their madness. Remember Chuck D? His raps and bebops might qualify as lectures, but we felt empowered enough to “Fight the Power”, or at least nod our heads to the concept. Remember KRS-One? He calls himself The Teacher, and his lessons always gave us something interesting and unfamiliar to consider. Paris loved pointing out the system’s many contradictions and, on occasion, a few of our own.
Unlike these others, Dead Prez has sounded preachy. They put their agenda right in your face, with only an occasional glimpse of finesse or nuance. They were convinced we were killing ourselves by not exercising or eating our vegetables because the government was on a mission get us all, starting with the unfit and the unhealthy. They often sounded like parents—albeit with (hopefully) rougher language—telling us, “We told you so,” as an explanation for the poor state of the world.
Recognizing this, they spent the time following Let’s Get Free packaging their messages in various forms and permutations in order to sneak the musical revolution into the public consciousness. On Turn Off the Radio: Mixtape Volume 1, they went so far as to rap over Timbaland’s beat from Aaliyah’s “We Need a Resolution” while posing the question, “What I gotta do to make sure you understand? / Spit it over a beat by Timbaland?”
This year, M-1’s solo project—which is still presented by Dead Prez—takes the Trojan Horse maneuver a step further, blending R&B with its well-established brand of hip-hop. The set features Cassandra Wilson, Q-tip, Styles P., and Ghostface—a mixture that hints at the musical range M-1 is aspiring to. Considering the “Hell Yeah” remix they made with Jay-Z a couple of years ago, you can bet our rapping rebels are looking for mass appeal. That he’s also looking for radio play isn’t surprising, considering the album cover’s description of the single “‘Til We Get There” as “inspirational”. Moreover, the double-sided disc features a 30-minute documentary with M-1’s comments and a music video for “‘Til We Get There”. The question is: can Dead Prez be popular and revolutionary at the same time? Assuming the answer to that question is “Yes”, the next question is, “Should they?”
The answers to both questions are found on M-1’s Confidential, a brilliant and seemingly effortless Art of War maneuver wherein M-1 succeeds in pimping the system. The secret? He turns down the blunt political commentary and imbeds his messages in R&B hooks, melodies, and metaphors. On the DVD side, M-1 states that he is more than a musician and that “the world requires us to be more than rappers; we have to represent our communities.” No argument there, but whether he meant to or not, Confidential proves how revolutionary it is to produce great songs. By sidestepping the direct approach, M-1 and friends show us just how good they are at making music. Not only that, but M-1 is a talented emcee. Sure, M-1 wants us to know revolution could be right around the proverbial corner but, in the meantime, he knows we need good stuff to listen to “‘til we get there”.
He also knows we love catchy hooks and tight beats. All he’s got to do is sneak in with the message. The title track exemplifies the strategy. Here, we find M-1 making telephone calls to political prisoners and delivering his verses in near whispers. Yet, as he admits on the DVD, he intentionally obscures the message by employing guest singer Raye’s soulful choruses to create the illusion of a male-female interaction. On the Sly and the Family Stone-inspired “Love You Can’t Borrow”, M-1 gets assistance from Q-tip and Cassandra Wilson to share his theme of eternal love. This theme, he says, is “gangsta”. And you know what? He’s right.
Other hot tracks include: “Early”, featuring Dead Prez’s other half, Stic-man; the spare “5 Elements”; “Comrade’s Call”, featuring Styles P and Bazaar Royale; “Don’t Put Down Your Flag” (no, not that flag); “The Beat”; and “Been Through”. M-1 grew up in North Carolina, attended college in Florida, and has worked in New York. Musically, his geographic influences shine, from the Miami-flavored “Comrade’s Call” and “For You”, to the production work on “5 Elements” that would probably get DJ Premier’s stamp of approval.
Although it’s well crafted, Confidential does have a few flaws. One is “For You”, which works lyrically, but musically sounds like a hive of bees broke into the studio and swarmed the microphone during the recording. Then there’s “Gunslinger”, a slapstick jingle for a hip-hop spaghetti Western. At first it’s amusing. After a few more listens, it’s funny. After that, it’s definitely irritating and breaks the flow of the song order. Finally, “Too Smart” brings a weak finish to an otherwise fresh and eclectic collection.
Don’t let the more mellow tone of Confidential fool you. M-1’s got his priorities straight and his agenda in motion. He’s gathering momentum. If the next Dead Prez album follows this trend, M-1 and Stic-man may at last achieve the recognition they deserve.