Chicago's BBU prove they're far more than one-hit wonders with a breakout mixtape.
"Too many conscious rappers can't face facts / the drug dealers happen to make better raps" intones Jason Perez midway through "The Hood" before assuring the listener "but I’ma bring it back". This verse perhaps best sums up the ethos of his BBU crew, and their latest release, the bell hooks mixtape. Comprised of Perez and fellow rappers Epic, Illekt and DJ Esquire, BBU (standing alternately for Bin Laden Blowing Up or Black, Brown and Ugly) already managed to score a local Chicago internet hit with "Chi Don't Dance" from 2010's Fear Of A Clear Channel Planet and they bring even more focus, energy and acumen to their most recent outing.
It's no surprise the mix's title borrows the pen name of feminist writer Gloria Jean Watkins, a woman who opened up every part of life (right down to word capitalization) to scrutiny in order to better understand the world and challenges unspoken norms. Every song and sketch on the album aims to shed light on grinding injustices of racism, poverty, greed, securitization and other American afflictions for all to see. Everything from how to pick up girls to rap's conspicuous consumption to a person's dialect is used as a window into understanding politics, economics and (in)justice on bell hooks.
Such an approach might sound exhausting but what makes bell hooks such a compulsively re-playable album is that Perez, Epic and Illekt never take themselves so seriously that they forget to have fun or allow their music to suffer. In fact, there are sketches here with funnier, more insightful political commentary than can be found on the lead singles of other more ham-fisted but well-intentioned conscious rappers.
Of course, like any good "revolutionary" rap crew, BBU does delight in the opportunity to engage in some lyrical bomb-throwing, tossing "cracker" around nonchalantly and pulling no punches in talking about Jan Brewer or (the now-deceased) Andrew Breitbart. But BBU provokes anger in these cases not to spread hatred but to illustrate larger points about racial double-standards or media control of the standards of discourse. In fact, as if wearily preempting the inevitable complains, Perez at one point spells out their intentions (albeit in a petulant sing-song) - "no, not a racist, no, not a terrorist / just want white America to go and see a therapist".
In hip-hop is a world that often seems like one must choose between party-and-dance jams or politically conscious rap and ne'er the twain shall meet but BBU reject that distinction out of hand, instead embracing the appeal of both commercial hip-hop and underground rap, slam poetry and other art forms as equally legitimate representations of the black (or Latino, or other) experience. Indeed, in a recent radio interview, BBU laid out their feelings on race and culture, saying "we are black, we are skinny jeans, we are afros, we are punk rock, we are soul, we are… we're everything". Living in the most segregated city in the nation, this isn't a small statement and bell hooks seeks to push as many musical boundaries as political ones.
With such uncompromising lyrics it's an impressive feat that bell hooks features as many potential party anthems as it does but this is an tape with something for everyone from hardcore hip-hop fans to club DJs to record nerds. The heaviest hitting of their "party" songs is their collaboration with indie rap crew Das Rascist and Chicago mashup artists/producers the Hood Internet, "No Pictures", which rides a chirpy hook straight into your brain's pleasure center amidst lyrics that are equally goofy and unapologetic (who else would talk about "go[ing] into AIPAC / yell[ing] 'free Gaza'"?). More astringent but equally catchy is "The Wrong Song" which presents all oppression be it musical or political as part of the same intertwined network. The "what’s your major" chorus to "Beau Sia" (named after the beat poet from whose routine they lifted the phrase) is bound to either instantly delight or annoy but anyone whose seen the source material is surely to be in the former camp.
On Fear Of A Clear Channel Planet, BBU described themselves as "Bad Brains mixed with a little D[ead] P[rez]" and songs like the gut-punch trio of "26th & California" (the address of Cook County's notorious lockup), "Cormega" and "Spaghetti: certainly uphold that defiantly revolutionary tradition. But BBU also channels the political-pop sensibilities of the Clash with songs like the genre-bending "Kurt De La Rocha" or the surprisingly tender portrait of mutual heartbreak and despair, "There's Something About Mary". They even pause for a few minutes to muse about mortality while riding a laid-back guitar sample on the incredibly affecting "Jumpers".
With bell hooks, BBU has produced a statement of musical purpose that places them firmly above the legions of mixtape-hawking MCs and wannabe message rappers. They spend much of the album listing their influences like an encyclopedia of radicalism, hood culture and cultural icons - Mumia, Malcolm X, Lil' B, Cypress Hill, Prince, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and NPR are all part of BBU's universe. That mixture of righteous anger, musical savvy and self-aware humor make bell hooks one of the most arresting musical and political statements of 2012 and point to BBU as one of the most compelling up-and-coming forces in hip-hop.