Hip-Hop at the Crossroad: Time, Testimony, & Identity


In the '90s, X-Clan took us "to the east". This year, the group returns from Mecca in "vanglorious" fashion.

At the beginning of Zeph & Azeem's "Everything's Different", from this year's Rise Up, Azeem points out the difficulties of proclaiming oneself a "rapper". "Imagine meetin' your girl's parents," he says, "and they ask you, 'What do you do for a living?' Now how the hell do I sound, talkin' 'bout, 'I'm a rapper'?...Now look at the frame you place yourself in right there."

Funny, right? And there's some truth to it, too, since I imagine "I'm a doctor" or "I'm a lawyer" would be more appealing to your date's parents than "I'm a rapper". But let's take that same scenario and fast-forward it about 20 years. It's one thing to say, "I'm a rapper" when you're in your teens. You're swatting at an entirely different hive of bees making that claim when you're pushing 40 (or a walker).

For one thing, the music business isn't known for encouraging longevity. You don't get into it (or, rather, you shouldn't get into it) expecting the royalties from your record sales to provide the basis for your estate planning. Read the fine print, dawg. You don't get health care, a pension plan, or stock options when you sign a record deal. The game ain't played that way.

For another, the idea of an "old rapper" brings to mind a dude with a potbelly, rocking the solid-colored jogging suit that has the three stripes down the side, going, "Up jump da boogie to da bang to da boogie da beat." He's the guy Nas describes in Hip Hop Is Dead's "Carry on Tradition" as one of those "crackheads" with "missin' teeth", guys who are "your grandfather's age" with their "pants still hangin' off their leg, talkin' 'bout they ain't paid".

There are plenty of examples to suggest this stereotype isn't true. Whether you dig their records or not, I don't get the impression that "old" rhymers like Ice Cube, KRS-One, and Rakim are embarrassing themselves when they show up to rock the party. Nevertheless, the "old school" image persists and, quite frankly, I'm not sure I want to see Ice Cube and Das Efx limping across a stage, chanting, "Chiggity check yo'self before you riggiddy wreck yo'self" as senior citizens.

As hip-hop gets older, so do the standard bearers of the culture's element of emceeing. It's an interesting development, really, when you consider the fact that the earliest critics of "rap" declared that it wasn't music and it wouldn't last. Some are still saying "it's not music", and I've got a really, really funny zinger I'm dying to tell about one such individual whose first name rhymes with mine, but I won't. Maybe some other time. But while "lasting" is an accomplishment, hip-hop's very existence at this juncture raises a valid question: how do you maintain a career as a "rapper"?

This year, X-Clan helps us explore the topic, as the group's latest, Return from Mecca, showcases righteous rhymes over supremely def beats. Propelled by Brother J's vision, Return from Mecca provides us with a "funkin' lesson" on how to keep your music relevant for the long haul. And for all of you fans of "conscious hip-hop", I'm including pop quiz questions throughout this piece so you can test your X-Clan knowledge.

* * *

The Lineup

"One man is not a nation / Brother builds a Clan"

--Brother J, "Raise the Flag"

It's been awhile since we last heard from X-Clan or from its central lyrical voice, Jason "Brother J" Hunter. Although X-Clan was founded by Brother J and Sugar Shaft (Anthony Hardin), our official introduction to the rap band came with the release of To the East, Blackwards in 1990. By that time, Brother J and Sugar Shaft had invited Lumumba "Professor X" Carson and "Grand Architect" Paradise (Claude Grey) to join X-Clan's ranks. Earlier, Professor X, son of community activist Sonny Carson, had created the Blackwatch Movement, a sort of hip-hop/community mobilization organization that paralleled Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation. To the East, Blackwards was followed by Xodus in 1992. In 1994, Brother J spearheaded his Dark Sun Riders project, Seeds of Evolution, another group and community-oriented production with Brother J again handling the microphone ("verb stick") duties. Since then, the Blackwatch and the X-Clan camps have been rather quiet.

Two of the group's founding members are no longer with us: Sugar Shaft died of AIDS-related complications in 1995 and Professor X died from spinal meningitis in 2006. On Return from Mecca, Brother J has organized a "millennium cipher" to energize a rebirth of the X-Clan aesthetic.

* * *

The Look

"I travel with my bag with my books and fruits / Robes of the Pharaohs, not jeans and boots"

--Brother J, "In the Ways of the Scales"

X-Clan's clothing consisted of long ornate robes, large beaded necklaces and medallions, black boots, and really cool looking walking sticks. The Black Nationalist colors -- red, black, and green -- were of course prominent, conspicuous, and quite fly. Judging from the photos in the covers of To the East, Blackwards and Xodus, you get the feeling that meeting X-Clan would be like being transported a few hundred years ago to Timbuktu. Today, X-Clan still looks like they're "livin' off the earth, eatin' herbs and fruits".

Speaking of cover art, To the East, Blackwards's graphics, in particular, reinforced the imagery in Brother J's lyrics. To the East, Blackwards displayed the "X-Clan" name as solid gold bars etched with the Medu Neter (mortals call it "hieroglyphics" -- sorry, I've just always wanted to use "mortals" in a sentence). A pink Cadillac, X-Clan's vehicle of choice, drives into the center of a black X that splits the cover into quadrants. In each quadrant, there's a band member's face (Brother J. at 12 o'clock, Sugar Shaft at three, Paradise at six, and Professor X at nine); each face is surrounded by other faces, mostly historical freedom fighters, male and female, from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to Adam Clayton Powell and Marcus Garvey (although I've always been curious as to why there are two pictures of Garvey).

Other hip-hop acts have used similar imagery, albeit for different purposes. Take, for instance, the cover of A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders (1993), which used the headphone-wearing heads of rappers as its background. Between the front and back covers, you've got a veritable Who's Who of Hip-Hop: "Hey, there's Chuck D.! Wait, there's Doug E. Fresh! Oh, snap, there's Heavy D!"

In 2002, Common employed a similar technique for his wildly inventive Electric Circus, but instead of restricting the Sgt. Pepper's-esque photo collage to rappers and freedom fighters, the cover shows a variety of inspirational figures -- images of Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Thought share space with pictures of Richard Pryor, Fred Hampton, Jr., and Assata Shakur. Even Jimi the Cat (an actual snow white-colored cat!) got a spot on the cover -- number 37 in the back cover's headshot map.

Return from Mecca's cover reminds me of Xodus's album design. Xodus, subtitled "The New Testament", displayed a book with the gold "X-Clan" name, again adorned with hieroglyphics, centered above a circle of gold symbols: the ankh, the star and crescent, the seven-and-star emblem of the Moorish Science Temple, the ruler and compass of the Masons, the six-pointed star. In the middle of the circle was the Eye of Horus (sometimes referred to as the Eye of Ra). That design, I think, worked a lot better in CD form than it did as a cassette. Finally, the album title was at the bottom.

Return from Mecca keeps the circle motif, but makes it a brownish gold backdrop for the group name and album title. The words "Mil Cipher" appear in the lower curve of the circle. The background is black like the Xodus cover, and the backs of both CDs employ a wallpaper of hieroglyphics. The new imagery forms a visual link with X-Clan's productive years, implying a sense of preservation and continuity.

Pop Quiz Questions 1-2:

1. Which of the following was an album by X-Clan?

(a) Black on Both Sides

(b) To the East, Blackwards

(c) Fear of a Black Hat

(d) Criminal Minded

2. Of the following, which historical figure appeared on the cover of an X-Clan album?

(a) Nat Turner

(b) John Brown

(c) The Scottsboro Boys

(d) Harriet Tubman

* * *

The Literature

"We are messengers of Ra, whispering the secrets of the ages"

--Professor X, "Earthbound"

I can't make this anymore plain: X-Clan's music is about freedom and liberation ("Freedom or death", they say). The concept of "freedom" is, I think, at least partly in the mental sense, unless I'm just thinking that to convince myself not to join in the "revolution", which I'm convinced will not only be televised but will be in syndication and accompanied by a DVD box set.

It's "freedom" as in Funkadelic's "Free your mind...and your ass will follow" or Brother J's own line, "When will they realize the body needs head?" from "Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It?", which is smoothly echoed in the chorus of Return from Mecca's "Self Destruct". Liberation was implied by the symbolic colors of Professor X's most recognizable phrase: "Vanglorious! This is protected by the red, the black, and the green. With a key! Sissies!" On the new album, rapper RBX, in "Voodoo", does a fine job of rekindling Professor's X's catchphrase.

In fact, when you listen to Return from Mecca, you'll hear that X-Clan didn't have to change or "reinvent" its strategy as much as it needed to bring its message into the 21st Century. That's because X-Clan was fortunate to start off with a rather unique game plan.

We are quick to praise the late '80s and early '90s as a period for "progressive" hip-hop, although I don't remember the praise for, say, Public Enemy being quite so universal. It seems we're all on the bandwagon now. But no matter how we review the history, X-Clan's flavor was remarkable, blending wisdom from the Egyptian (Kemetan) Mystery System with ideology from the Nation of Islam, the 5% Nation, and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, not to mention facts from world history (I think Brother J. was particularly fond of General Hannibal's military brilliance in leading his Carthaginian cavalry against the Romans). Current events were potential topics as well, especially events related to the police brutality that made, and often didn't immediately make, the headlines at the time.

Brother J's rhymes and Professor X's narrations were populated with references to Orisha gods (such as Legba, the Guardian of the "Crossroad") and ancient Egyptian personages (like Osiris, Horus, Thoth, and Isis), as well as shout-outs to "modern" influences such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Patrice Lumumba, and Malcolm X. "Martin, Adam, Martin, Malcolm, Huey...there's a party at the crossroad", Professor X announced in "Funkin' Lesson". Amazingly, these allusions rarely seemed forced or contrived; X-Clan wove its quilt of information as naturally as if they'd just seen Osiris at the grocery store the other day, "Yo, what's happenin', Big O! Watch out for your brother Set. And tell Isis we said, 'Hotep'."

Egyptian lore has it that Osiris was lured into a trap by Set, his brother, who threw a big party for the returning King Osiris and then, as a party favor, challenged all the partygoers to lie down in a chest to see who could fit its dimensions. Set had rigged the sucker to fit Osiris's measurements to the exact cubit so when trusting (and probably drunk) Osiris got into the chest, Set sealed it up and voila!...the "chest" becomes a "coffin"!

Eventually, Set hacks Osiris's body up into pieces (some versions say 14; I've read others that say 17), and he scatters the pieces all over the place. Isis, Osiris's wife, the original ride-or-die chick, endeavors to recover the pieces and put her husband's body back together. And she succeeds, except she's unable to find the phallus. Most legends hold that it was eaten by some kind of fish of the Nile River. Some say it was a catfish so let's go with that.

Undeterred, Isis uses her powerful magic to create a new phallus (in the shape of an "obelisk", or "tekhen", the same shape as the Washington Monument) and she manages to get pregnant with what I'm guessing is the most unbelievably potent mix of Viagra and Yohimbe. Osiris, though dead, is her baby's daddy. Other versions allege that while Isis did indeed recreate the missing piece of his body, Horus was immaculately conceived when Osiris's spirit visited the grieving Isis. Either way, she gives birth to Horus, the savior and avenger who returns to Egypt to pull a Simba in The Lion King to dethrone Horus's uncle "Scar" -- whoops, I meant to say "Set".

Now, I mention all of this for two reasons.

One: It's no wonder Brother J. would infuse his rhymes with this type of stuff; it's way more interesting than some dude holding up the sky (how do you even do that?) like Atlas or carrying out random tasks like Hercules. And what's up with Medusa's perpetually bad hair day with her head full of snakes?

Two: It's kinda hard to work Osiris into my everyday conversations. I can only tell you, Dear Reader, that I hear Dr. Dre's The Chronic as a sort of hip-hopera to the above-mentioned tale of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. After he chops up Osiris's body, I imagine Set reciting that line from "Dre Day", in Snoop's high pitch: "Osiris was loud but his bite wasn't vicious / And them rhymes he was kickin' were quite bootylicious."

I don't say this to make light of these stories. In fact, I suspect X-Clan took this literature quite seriously, and they still do. In the liner notes for To the East, Blackwards, they not only send "Thank You"s to notables such as Nelson Mandela and Adam Clayton Powell, but also to Osiris, Horus, Muhammad, Jesus, and their own families. And I love in "Heed the Word of the Brother" when Professor X says, "Plato, Aristotle, Socrates...step off!" You know you're on another level in the rap game when you've got beef with Aristotle. Clearly, it's bigger for X-Clan than "Kool Moe Dee versus LL Cool J" or "Tupac versus Biggie" or "KRS-One versus, like, Everybody Else".

With Brother J's rhymes thoroughly immersed in history and mythology, and with loops from Parliament and other funk staples providing the sonic backdrop, there's a timeless quality to X-Clan's music. It makes sense, then, that producers of "timeless" material can maintain their relevance, even after more than a decade has elapsed since their last outing. Return from Mecca follows the "freedom or death" mantra, starting with the intro that proclaims, "The Revolution is now." The group's message of empowerment and positive cultural identification is still associated with the ancient deities and royal lineages. In "Aragorn", the first full track, you'll hear Brother J. say, "Pour out a little liquor, it's the cipher of the gods". Horus and Isis are mentioned in "Americans" and "Why U Doin' That?" ("Word to Horus with no blaspheme"). Attention to the spirituality and inner vision of the "third eye" comes in "3rd Eyes on Me", a play on Tupac's "All Eyez on Me".

Brother J. is still "Hannibal's descendant" ("Weapon X") and, in "Space People", he brags that he "used to teach all the Pharaohs how to humpty hump". History remains a bedrock facet of Brother J's style, evidenced by his shout-outs in "Weapon X" to Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, George Washington Carver, Sonny Carson, David Walker, and H. Rap Brown. One updated analogy that works quite well appears in "Positron", in which Brother J masterfully works his metaphor of antimatter energy and makes it relevant to his positive vibe. You don't hear rhymes about subatomic particles very often. It reminds me of Jeru the Damaja's "Mental Stamina" in which he called out the chemical formula for nitroglycerin.

At the same time, though, the message is often more direct, with less abstractions and fewer parables. And since the state of hip-hop is in a different condition from that of the late '80s and '90s, Brother J. and the Clan intend to address it, challenging "intelligent consumers" to make wise decisions and urging the wordsmiths of our generation to bring balance to the climate of thug music and drug raps. Much of what Brother J. espouses now is similar, if not identical, to what he was saying almost 20 years ago. Seriously, you might think Return from Mecca, content-wise, was a '90s album if it weren't for the references to relatively recent events (i.e. the Janet-at-the-Super-Bowl thing) and musical newcomers (i.e. a play on Chris Brown's song "Run It" or the duet with young trumpeter Christian Scott in "Prison"). I don't know if this means he's prophetic or if it means the current debate over the "negativity" in hip-hop is old news. I suspect it's a little of both. But it definitely means the climate is perfect for X-Clan's return.

Pop Quiz Questions 3-5:

3. When X-Clan's lyrics mention "Ra", they are usually referring to:

(a) The Egyptian sun god

(b) Rakim, the god emcee

(c) Rastafarianism

(d) Ramen noodles

4. In the song "Heed the Word of the Brother", Brother J explained the meaning of the "key". What is the "key"?

(a) Knowledge

(b) The Egyptian Ankh

(c) The Crossroad

(d) The flag with the red, black, and green design

5. X-Clan member Professor X was the son of which influential political activist?

(a) Patrice Lumumba

(b) Stephen Biko

(c) Sonny Carson

(d) Fannie Lou Hamer

* * *

Lush Beats

"Rattlin' the cages beyond these beats / It's the voice of the chosen, earthbound like E.T."

--Brother J, "Space People"

On Return from Mecca, Brother J still delivers the lyrical vibes, but Professor X's absence is noteworthy. To compensate, Return from Mecca brings in guest emcees for the latter half of the album. The impressive roster includes RBX ("Voodoo"), Christian Scott ("Prison"), Jurassic 5's Chali 2na ("Funky 4 U"), Abstract Rude and YZ ("To the East"), Quazedelic ("Voodoo" and "Space People"), Brad X of the Kottonmouth Kings ("Locomotion"), Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach ("Americans"), and Damian and Stephen Marley ("Culture United"). Lest you think the female presence has been overlooked, Brother J has a duet in "Trump Card" featuring Hannah Barbera. The flows are nice, but is that "Hannah Barbera" as in the Hanna-Barbera animation team responsible for the The Flintstones? Hmm....

The most interesting collaboration, aside from trumpeter Scott's soulful jazz contribution to "Prison", is the hard-hitting Brother J and KRS-One tag team called "Speak the Truth". There was a previous misunderstanding between X-Clan and KRS-One, so it's nice to see the two come together for this song. I'm not sure why KRS gets himself involved in so many of these mini-beefs, but at least this skirmish appears settled. As usual, Brother J is on point and KRS-One comes up with a nifty way to rhyme "Archdiocese" with "higher sciences", "appliances", "biases", and "what self-reliance is". Not bad for an old rhymer, right?

Most notably, the production values are cranked up for Return from Mecca. Where To the East, Blackwards and Xodus relied on the George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic catalogues, with loops from the likes of Roger and Zapp, Roy Ayers, Barry White, and of course James Brown, Return from Mecca ushers in an era of multi-layered funk, decorated with odd electronic noises, chimes, and lush beats. Variety is the watchword here, with the producers (including DJ Quik, Quazedelic, DJ Fat Jack, A.C.L., and Ultraman) moving away from loops to create interesting aural tapestries that complement the overall vision of the composition and to accommodate Brother J's booming vocals. The incorporation of reggae into X-Clan's cipher is a welcome addition, as Brother J flips his style in vangloriously rapid fashion for his team up with the Marleys in "Culture United".

"Locomotion", for instance, sounds quite like a train, with Brother J. as the Harriet Tubman-like conductor. "Space People", a sort of part two of the '90s song "Earthbound", emits an appropriately freaky high-pitched signal that could probably summon a record studio full of extraterrestrials. For some reason, I think Mos Def would have been great on this track, probably since the "Space People" refrain reminds me of Mos Def's singing/yelling in "Rock 'n' Roll". At any rate, the song should have no problem communicating with the dance floor; it's got some serious bump to it.

Meanwhile, "Weapon X" seems to be a remix of "Xodus", the title track of X-Clan's second album, but the beat used in the original is wisely subdued to make it sound less like a retread. The only musical nitpick I have is the weird, out-of-sync chime noises in "Aragorn". The noises are jarring, as if a song by someone plucking an out-of-tune ukulele bled into the recording.

Pop Quiz Questions 6-8:

6. In the liner notes to X-Clan's Return from Mecca, Brother J says "peace" to his family, including a son named Mosiah. "Mosiah" is the middle name of which historical figure?

(a) Marcus Garvey

(b) Malcolm Little

(c) Frederick Douglass

(d) Martin Delaney

7. Which of the following authors, mentioned in X-Clan's song "Weapon X", wrote an Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America?

(a) Octavia Butler

(b) David Walker

(c) Phillis Wheatley

(d) Alexander Dumas

8. This Egyptian text is one of the world's earliest known medical documents:

(a) The Edwin Smith papyrus

(b) Henry Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body

(c) The Egyptian Book of the Dead

(d) The Rosetta Stone

* * *

Language and Delivery

"I'm not known for the singin' or the common man's grammar"

-- Brother J, "Weapon X"

Brother J's use of language was, and still is, poetic, creating fantasy worlds built from Egyptian and Orisha traditions, abounding in metaphor and simultaneously steeped in streetwise lingo. One of his most quoted rhymes, from "Grand Verbalizer, What Time Is It", is, "How can polar bears swing on vines with the gorillas?" On Return from Mecca, he claims he's still "spittin' bananas". Because Brother J's voice is so strong, I don't like Return from Mecca's continual layering of his vocals so much, but there's no doubt that he's still on top of his lyrical game.

His crisp, succinct delivery is almost professorial in tone, yet his name "Brother J" -- rather than being something "Big" or somebody "Kool", or being a "Doctor" or a "King" -- indicates his intention to remain a team player rather than an "emcee" to be placed on a pedestal. In the '90s, he explained that his "lyrics flow different than a hip-hop be-bop" ("Raise the Flag"). In Return from Mecca's "Respect", he rhymes, "I don't care who's the tightest, I'm seekin' cultures united".

The quote from Azeem at the beginning of this article, relaying the inherent perils of calling oneself a "rapper", suggests that great care must be taken in the ways we define ourselves. Perhaps our ambivalence to the power of language stems from the fact that while words operate as tools, the moment we name something, we define it and thus create boundaries, summon expectations, and stir connotations.

Maybe that's why X-Clan created its own unique vernacular, with Brother J. donning the title of "Grand Verbalizer" rather than calling himself a "rapper". Likewise, Sugar Shaft wasn't a "deejay", he was the "Rhythem Provider". Paradise was an "Architect" and a "Tractitioner". The group proudly waived the "key" (the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life) and preferred the "sun dial" to the "clock". While Rakim is a "microphone fiend", Brother J. wields a "verb stick" (although he does suggest that he could "make a difference through a mic and speaker" in "Raise the Flag"). Brother J's rhymes are his "scrolls" and in his mental and physical travels he communes with "elders" and "gods" as he seeks to civilize the "mortals" and bring light to the "originals".

In Xodus's "A.D.A.M.", the Brother packed all seven principles of Kwanzaa (Nguzo Saba) into his final verse: that's Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). Not even Jesse Jackson, who I consider an unofficial emcee, has managed a rhyme like that. Return from Mecca adds a few new vocabulary words, namely, "millennium cipher", and the use of the term "Indigenous" to supplement older standards like "originals" and "gods". That's right, even timeless material needs an upgrade.

Pop Quiz Questions 9-10:

9. Kwanzaa is:

(a) A Swahili word that means "Christmas"

(b) A festival that commemorates the occupation of Rome by General Hannibal of Carthage.

(c) A ritual practice by the Zulu to celebrate the annual harvest

(d) An African American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture.

10. In 1944, this woman was arrested for violating a segregation law requiring black people to relinquish their bus seats to white passengers. After challenging the law in court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the enforcement of the segregation law on interstate buses placed an impermissible and unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce. This woman's name is:

(a) Rosa Parks

(b) Sojourner Truth

(c) Irene Morgan

(d) Josephine Baker

* * *

Lingo and Identity

"I'm like the gun of Charles Bronson in the hands of Gandhi"

--Brother J, "Respect"

In the '90s, in the midst of all this righteous verbalizing, you'd hear Brother J. talk about doing a "pimp strut". Professor X would chime in about driving the group's tricked-out pink Cadillac. They would "step to you in blackness", but with a "gangsta lean". While Brother J. was "African, very African" when he invited you to step into his "temple" to see "what's happenin'", he would also call himself a "pro-black n*gga". Occasionally, he would express this duality in a single sentence, as in "Fire & Earth (100% Natural)" when he says, "I'm that n*gga that they can't stand / Be teachin' Africans how to say 'Black Man' / And I'm that n*gga they can plainly see / With the Nationalist colors of the red, black, green, yeah".

Within this synthesized formulation of identity, X-Clan's presence is most fascinating, at least to me, and the strength of its intellectual position fuels the new millennium dance fest of Return from Mecca. The juxtaposition of X-Clan's African "god in the suit of a warrior" and the "pro-black n*gga with the pimp strut" dramatizes the black identity crisis W.E.B. Dubois described in The Souls of Black Folk. Dubois characterized the crisis as a "twoness": a split between "black" or "African" identity on the one side, and "American" identity on the other. It's "two warring ideals in one dark body". The goal, according to Dubois, is to "make it possible for a man [or woman] to be both [black] and American, without being cursed and spit upon by his [or her] fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his [or her] face."

Dubois wrote The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, but the dilemma lingers on, like when someone is accused of being a "sellout" or an "Uncle Tom" or, musically, when we say an artist isn't "hard enough", has "gone pop", or has "crossed over". Being "real" or "true to the game" is equated with being "black"; going "pop" is considered a form of assimilation. Under this view, the blockbuster success of MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" was simultaneously the best and worst thing that could have happened to his career. Hammer's success sparked endorsements, television commercials, action figures, and even a cartoon show; yet, the more records he sold, the more he was treated as having "sold out".

"Black", then, shifts in meaning, depending on the context and the viewpoint of the audience. For instance, some viewers think, for whatever reason, that Good Times, a sitcom about living in "the ghetto", is somehow a more "authentic black American experience" than The Cosby Show's two-parent home where lawyer Claire Huxtable and doctor Heathcliff Huxtable raise their children. I suppose Good Times was "keeping it real" and The Cosby Show was the "crossover". But both shows are important. In X-Clan's terminology, Good Times might represent the "pimp strut" and the "street knowledge", while The Cosby Show would represent activism and achievement.

It's not easy to navigate the terrain of identity in territory as fickle as the music industry. As X-Clan's solution is to embrace a wide spectrum of beliefs and merge them into a new synthesis: a "god" that drives a "pink Cadillac", "a messenger of Ra" with a "gangsta lean", and the ideological commingling of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois or Dr. King and Malcolm X. That's why, on Return from Mecca, Brother J can be "Garvey-like" but also "bossy like Kelis" ("Respect"). The ability to incorporate an expansive amalgam of concepts and philosophies makes it possible for X-Clan to accommodate the many guests on Return from Mecca without appearing to be inundated with cameos.

Thus, the group's references to "blackness" nevertheless mean more than uniting with others of a similar hue. "Let me tell you 'bout blackness," Brother J. says in the group's hit "Funkin' Lesson". "Grits and cornbread, how can you act this?" In another song, "Heed the Words of the Brother", he explains that "black is a color", while "blackness" is a state of mind. In this way, X-Clan stands for the proposition that being nourished by information, as opposed to being depleted by disinformation, will transcend materialism.

* * *

If you're into hip-hop, you should get your hands on Return from Mecca with a quickness. But before you do, check your results on the pop quiz questions.

By the way, this is protected by the red, the black, and the green -- with an answer key:

1. Which of the following was an album by X-Clan?

(b) To the East, Blackwards

2. Of the following, which historical figure appeared on the cover of an X-Clan album?

(d) Harriet Tubman

3. When X-Clan's lyrics mention "Ra", they are usually referring to:

(a) The Egyptian sun god. In Xodus's "Holy Rum Swig", Brother J. says, "I'm the vibe bringer like Ra the sun bringer, sun setter."

4. In the song "Heed the Word of the Brother", Brother J explained the meaning of the "key". What is the "key"?

(b) The Ankh

5. X-Clan member Professor X was the son of which influential political activist?

(c) Sonny Carson

6. In the liner notes to X-Clan's Return from Mecca, Brother J says "peace" to his family, including a son named Mosiah. "Mosiah" is the middle name of which historical figure?

(a) Marcus Garvey

7. Which of the following authors, mentioned in X-Clan's song "Weapon X", wrote an Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America?

(b) David Walker

8. This Egyptian text is one of the world's earliest known medical documents:

(a) The Edwin Smith papyrus

9. Kwanzaa is:

(d) An African American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture.

10. In 1944, this woman was arrested for violating a segregation law requiring black people to relinquish their bus seats to white passengers. After challenging the law in court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the enforcement of the segregation law on interstate buses placed an impermissible and unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce. This woman's name is:

(c) Irene Morgan

Number of Correct Answers:

1-3: Come back and try again. Brother J: "'Cause learnin' common sense is a must. And then you talk 'gangsta lean', silly mortal." ("Verbal Papp", Xodus).

4-7: Not Bad. Stay on the path and keep studying your scrolls.

8-10: Vanglorious! You walk with a pimp strut.






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