If you are beginning to feel that the social commentary side of hip-hop has either disappeared or degenerated into bankable cliche, then this remarkable collection of rebel poetry and rap may be just what your political conscience ordered. This is an album with a message. As the extensive sleevenotes explain “When the artists contributing to this CD were approached they were simply asked to create a piece on the criminal justice system…as you can hear many of them came back with a powerful piece of art built around some kind of resistance and calls for a fundamental and basic change to society.” Partying and ghetto voyeurism are not on this menu.
Remember consciousness raising? Well, that is the deal here. Get some rappers and poets, give them a theme, write a long (and absorbing) essay on the prison crisis in the United States and donate the proceeds to Mumia Abu Jamal defence fund. Along the way the cause of revolution is duly enhanced. Of course, depending on your own politics, the premise is either anathema or worthy—but the result as a musical product is surely dull and tedious? Surprisingly, this is far from being the case. Although by no means the best rap album of Y2K, there is plenty here to enjoy as well as admire and, hopefully, learn from.
Inevitably,and understandably,the lyrics are what it is all about—and there are a lot of them. Fortunately, with or two exceptions,they combine well with the beats and the sermonising captivates more than it alienates. Any wincing is the result of the power of the invective and not, as is often the case with protest music, due to embarrassment.
Mike Ladd, Ursula Rucker and Jerry Quickley represent the poets—although the distinction between poetry and rap is here impressively blurred.All perform well but the always impressive Ursula Rucker wins out with a chilling slavewoman revenge tale. She is a major talent and deserves more than the odd guest slot and one-off track that characterises her career so far.
The track that will probably get most play and attention is the opener “THe Human Element” by the currently hot Talib Kweli & Hi Tek. A clever spoken introduction leads into a strong number with a catchy hook. That and Medina Green’s “Full Court Press” have the greatest radio and club potential. Message and music meld easily on both.
There is much use of samples from an earlier political era. The Panthers “Off the Pigs” chant, Gil Scott Heron’s “Revolution…” and even Richard Pryor’s stand-up routine on police brutality surface at various points on the album. There is a double-edge to this. Re-establishing a link between past and present struggles as well as offering a history lesson are central to this album’s project but at times the soundclips seem nostalgic, harking back to a “golden age” of political purpose and commitment.
Overall, though, the album’s focus on present injustices is effective and deserves a wider hearing than it will probably get. It would be a shame if this collection was only bought by old New Leftists to be filed away alongside Victor Jarra and Free Mandela album. Hopefully, a generation for whom politics in hip-hop means simply a repetitive devotion to “keeping it real” will pick up on the insight, anger and analysis on show here. Whether the spotlight is on Abu-Jamal, police killings, prison or contemporary American society in general, the energy and lyrical skill at least give the lie to the supposed complete loss of radical protest in the postmodern era. Of equal importance is the reminder that art and politics can mix and each work in the service of the other. The result is a satisfying and weighty album that mobilises the talent of all involved well. Whether it mobilises a wider audience in the way the producers hope is perhaps unlikely, but it deserves to attract attention on both musical and intellectual grounds. Roll on volume 2.