“Why do you think they call it dope? ‘Cause that’s what it is.”
—LL Cool J, “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?”
Yo, I don’t do dope, not a dope, but I’m dope
And I’m doper than anybody who tries to cope
With the rhyme I’m displayin’
And the beat that’s playin’
—Eazy-E, “Eazy-er Said Than Dunn”
Hip-hop is often perceived as being, among other things, simplistic. It has, to both its credit and detriment, turned the phrase “Keeping it real” into an art form as well as a cliché. Moreover, hip-hop creates plenty of intriguing catchphrases, as LL Cool J pointed out in his song “Boomin’ System”: “I ‘warm it up’ with Kane, ‘fight the power’ with P.E., tell the cops they ‘gotsta chill’ with EPMD”. Catchphrases, while initially packed with meaning, present bite-sized versions of reality that run the risk of being overused.
In a larger sense, though, the perception that hip-hop keeps things simpler more than it keeps things real is fueled by its persistent “us against them” mentality. While the “us” category is usually straightward (hint: it’s the emcee and whoever his or her posse happens to be at the time), the “them” category may experience fluctuations. Depending on who’s on the mic, it might include the following: other rappers, “player haters”, “sucker emcees”, “cops”, “the streets”, “the game”, “racists”, groupies, the judicial system, copyright law (see Public Enemy’s “Caught, Can I Get a Witness”), Freddie Kruger (see DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince), a paper cut, and/or the Maester Seymour boss in the Final Fantasy X videogame (okay, I made up those last two).
No group works the “us against them” worldview better than M1 and Stic.man of Dead Prez. For Dead Prez, life is a prizefight of gargantuan proportions between “the oppressed” against “the oppressor”. It’s “good” versus “evil” in a tactical war involving race, sex, health, education, politics, religion and economics. And since there are only two sides in the fight, everybody’s got to choose, because the war is on. “1Nation”, the first track on the Can’t Sell Dope Forever mix tape, addresses that view with its opening sample:
On the frontlines of any war… whoever’s on the other side… that’s who you shoot. You don’t have to negotiate and say, ‘Okay, that guy looks a little bit like me, so I’d better not shoot him’... ‘cause that person’s gonna shoot you”.
In the past, Dead Prez has had a tendency to sound preachy. On his solo album, Confidential, M1 managed to tone down the sermonizing in favor of tight hooks and smooth flows. On the Can’t Sell Dope Forever mix tape, Dead Prez teams up with the Outlawz (Kastro, Young Noble, and E.D.I.), for a couple of interesting variations on Dead Prez’s “revolutionary but gangsta” rap theory.
For one thing, there’s the collaborative aspect of joining forces with another band, particularly the Outlawz. If you are a Tupac Shakur fan, you’ll remember the Outlawz from many of Tupac’s recordings. The one that sticks out the most for me is “When We Ride”, from disc two of Tupac’s All Eyez on Me album. “When We Ride” positioned Tupac and crew much like Billy the Kid and his gang in the Young Guns movies. Like the wily band of righteous thieves on the silver screen, Tupac dubbed his crew the Outlaw Immortals. Each member took a historically significant and notorious alias and went into battle mode for “When We Ride”. Tupac, naming himself after the Italian strategist Niccolo Machiavelli, became “Makaveli” (I’m still trying to make Tupac’s spelling of the name work out to say “I’m Alive” but I’m short an “i” and can’t account for the extra “k”). Then came, in order of appearance: Hussein Fatal, Kastro, Napoleon, Mussolini, E.D.I. (also known as Idi Amin), Khadafi, and Khomeini. By aliases alone, that’s one scary-sounding line-up.
“When We Ride” was so tight, I was convinced the Outlawz would become a hip-hop force in their own right, or at least develop into a separate Tupac/Makaveli spin-off project, much like the 1993 Thug Life album. Unfortunately, Tupac’s murder in 1996 was followed by Khadafi’s murder several months later. Hussein Fatal, one of my favorites, left the group, as did Napoleon. Ultimately, a group that looked like a potential hip-hop dream team was reduced considerably, although there’s plenty of talent among the remaining members.
Over the years, those members have sought to emulate and expand the legacy of their pal and mentor, Tupac. It’s fitting, then, that the Outlawz decided to work with Dead Prez. M1 and Stic.man have expressed their affection for Tupac’s music many times over. Plus, joining forces with Dead Prez solves a musical problem for the Outlawz. Whenever I’ve heard the Outlawz without Tupac, I’ve missed Tupac’s passion and charisma. The Outlawz are talented rhymers, true, but it always seemed that Tupac was the glue holding the gang together. A good example of this occurred on Still I Rise (1999), in which Tupac appeared on every song on the album except the last one, the aptly titled “Y’all Don’t Know Us”. As solid as that last song was, Tupac’s absence was noticeable. The same thing happened on Hussein Fatal’s solo album, In the Line of Fire. Fatal always held his own on the mic, but references to Tupac made you wish things had turned out differently so Tupac could show up for a verse or two. It’s not unlike listening to Junior Mafia, P. Diddy, or even Lil’ Kim without the Notorious B.I.G. Biggie’s contributions are noticeably absent.
Of course, Dead Prez doesn’t spend any time on Can’t Sell Dope Forever trying to fill Tupac’s position—that’s impossible. But by combining their skills as vocalists and producers with the talents of the Outlawz, the release feels complete. Likewise, guest vocalists—like Layzie Bone on the final track, “Came Up”—jump into the fray to keep things lively.
When it comes to the title, messages don’t get much plainer than “You can’t sell dope forever”. The title track takes a stand against perpetual street living in no uncertain terms, with verses such as:
It ain’t too many dope dealers retirin’.
It ain’t too many old prostitutes vacationing on the islands.
Instead of knockin’ down, my purpose is to inspire ‘em.
Stop worshippin’ money and worship somethin’ higher up.
Now, in my humble opinion, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that riding through life as a street corner drug dealer is bad news. Honestly, while the song definitely works musically (I keep it on heavy rotation)—with its memorable hook and bangin’ mid-tempo beat—I had to ask myself, “Who exactly is the target audience for this song?” Drug dealers? Well, maybe, but if the threat of arrest, illicit business disputes, dirty dealing, and prison time won’t scare folks away from selling drugs, it’s unlikely that a song from a mix tape can do the trick. I’m not even sure a drug dealer would want to hear a song called, “Can’t sell dope forever”. But, then again, you can never underestimate the power of music. A song with a positive message just might make the difference for someone. I’ve heard people say Prince’s LoveSexy album changed their lives. You never know.
On the flipside, did Dead Prez and the Outlawz intend to target people who don’t sell drugs? Maybe. But that would definitely be preaching to the converted.
On the back cover, the artists tell us their intentions directly, as they’ve dedicated the album “to those who are striving for a better life for themselves, their families, and their friends”. Dead Prez and the Outlawz reach the wider audience by employing two strategies: (1) stretching the definition of “dope” to include more than “drugs”, and (2) using street tales as parables for messages with universal appeal.
On “Believe”, featuring Ms. Nora (Stic.man’s Mama), when Stic.man says, “I believe I can / I know I can / I’m sure I can / get this dope out my veins”, he’s rapping about more than being addicted to narcotics. He goes on to say:
You ain’t gotta smoke crack to be a fiend
A “fiend” is just somebody who’s addicted, it could be anything.
Too many of us addicted to the American Dream.
We’re high from the lies on the TV screen.
We’re drunk from the poison that they’re teachin’ in school.
And we’re junkies from the chemicals they put in the food.
In this way, the album is designed to make us question ourselves. What are our addictions? What can we do to improve our own lives or the lives of our loved ones? What can we do to improve our communities? So much for convincing myself that rooting for Danielle to win Big Brother: All Stars was a rebellious act against “the system” or “The Man”. Now I’ve got to get off my rear end and make some changes. Looking at it from an introspective angle, the title could even be seen as addressing the “oppressor” group to say, “Hey, you can’t sell people junk forever. Eventually, they’ll get hip to it and overcome it.”
The “dope” terminology could also be applied to the rap community. When Dead Prez and the Outlawz say, “We need to be more creative with ways to get paper”, perhaps they are implying that hip-hop artists should be cognizant of what’s being fed to the fans. All of that sounds like Dead Prez has gotten preachy again, while dragging the Outlawz into the sermon as well, but it’s effective, whether it’s the lovely “Searchin’” or the minimalist “Came Up”. By the way, just so we’re clear on this, putting your own mother on a track is definitely “dope” (as in “fresh”). It signifies familial connections and—yo, I gotta be honest—you can’t keep it any more real than recording your mama’s voice over a phat beat. That’s gangsta.
The parables I mentioned earlier appear on songs like the bluesy “Fork in the Road”, the ever-so-gritty “Thuggin’ on the Blokkk”, and Stic.man’s account of his brother’s run-ins with street life in “Like a Window”. That last tune places much of the blame on “the system”, stating that the cops, the lawyers, and the judges are the ones that profit from the drug war waged against the black and the poor. That’s the “us against them” worldview again. But Stic.man adds another layer to it by also observing that victory in war is said to come with casualties. Here, he’s seeing his brother as one of those casualties and the song goes into detail about how to handle the situation. If you think your brother’s headed in the wrong direction, do you intervene? If so, how? Or do you leave that person alone to make his or her own decisions? It’s a real dilemma, and the inner struggle that accompanies it isn’t confined to street life.
All in all, it’s a strong effort that effectively brings together a large group of talent. Instead of being upstaged, the Outlawz shine at every turn, while Dead Prez continues to score musical points and build anticipation for Stic.man’s upcoming solo release.