Record Label Entartete Kunst turns protest into art, but its latest release is heavy on politics and light on rap. The trick is to find the balance.
There are two things I love about music, but rarely get to enjoy these days. One is putting my hands on a wildly eclectic collection of artists, whether it's a soundtrack or one of those $19.95 deals that won't be available in stores and probably won't provide its contributors with their full royalties. There's nothing sweeter than listening to a mix of artists and bands on one CD. You slide that sucker in the disc changer, then you dive into the liner notes because a mix like that is bound to have somebody you've never heard of before. Weeks later, you're still running around like Paul Revere, announcing some fledging group's arrival to stardom, "Yo, have you heard the Angry Seat Cushions? They're about to blow up!" Well, maybe not "the Angry Seat Cushions", but you get the idea -- it's the simple things in life that get you through.
My other joy is having a CD that I can show off to my friends and say, "See? There are people out there who make songs about something other than rump shaking." Somewhere along the way, the soundtracks (especially the big budget ones) became less friendly to lesser-known acts, the $19.95 deals were full of songs we had already downloaded and/or were sick of hearing, and more and more of us seemed jaded about the talent and artistry in the industry. It blows my mind how often I have The Argument, the one where someone laments, "Oh, music just ain't what it used to be," and I say, "Yeah? How so?" and then comes the dreaded response, "Music used to have meaning back in the day." Usually, I roll my eyes, trying to figure out how "She's a brick house" is any different content-wise from "Baby got back." I'm not saying music in general is any better or worse "now" than it was "then". I'm just saying there will always be bad songs, but deep down (go ahead and cue the violins) there are true visionaries out there who will produce the work that'll help us think outside the box. Cute, huh?
So it was my pleasure to listen to States of Abuse, a collection of deejays, hip-hoppers, producers, and underground poets from around the world. This is the 18th release from San Franciscan record label Entartete Kunst, and it showcases indie artists from locales as diverse as London, Valencia, Glasgow, and Seattle. At the most basic level, States of Abuse lets me brag to my skeptical buddies about this amalgam of musicians crafting tunes about "government corruption", "economic oppression", and "corporate fascism" – you know, all the things we loved about Public Enemy before we learned how to "get jiggy with it" and before the smart people with the degrees decided "bling" should have a dictionary entry.
Like a class action lawsuit against government (in general) and the upper class (in particular), States of Abuse puts the "strength in numbers" strategy to music. The compilation represents the class well, from Malatesta and Drowning Dog (of E.K. Collective) to Monkeytribe, BC400, Emcee Lynx, and London wordsmith MC Cox. Musically, the album varies from instrumentals ("Judas Goat" by Filastine, "Shoot Ted Nugent" by Ruminant) to spoken word (the quirky "You Can't Eat Famine" by MC Cox and "Class War" by E.K. Collective) and straight out rap ("Nature of the Threat" by Emcee Lynx). Most of the songs are in English, but the international flavor of the ensemble is accentuated by Spanish lyrics on "Milano Valencia Resistenza" by Leleprox & Andrae, as well as the French and fabulous "W" by BC400. The latter features a sample from our very eloquent President W. BC400's French rap is the main event, though, and it rivals the artistry of critically acclaimed French lyricist MC Solaar.
It's a good thing the music provides the variety because, lyrically, the set leans toward monotony. The album opens with a self-described "cut 'n' paste" production by E.K. Collective called "Proudhon," the lyrics of which are printed in the CD booklet. Here's a sample:
To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue…
In the song, different people, with varying tones and accents, say each of the words or phrases. The result is a sonic collage, if not a virtual thesaurus. It's a way of hinting at the potpourri of dissatisfied voices in the world while showing that this haphazard mass of dissenters can be unified through collective rebellion against the status quo and, of course, a good beat.
After "Proudhon", there are 18 more songs of anarchy and class war -- a new millennium "We Are The World" for believers in the New World Order and the social (or socialist) construction of reality. Don't get me wrong. I dig the "rise of the common, working class folk" as much as the next guy. I don't mind a strong "Power to the People" message or even a "Fight the Power" anthem every now and then (as long as I don't draw too much Patriot Act attention to myself). I'm just not sure I can take 19 consecutive songs on those themes. Especially when the artists deliver these themes in such a laid back manner. If you think Western politics is deceiving the people and that the government is in cahoots with greedy corporations to milk the masses, shouldn't you be angry? Shouldn't the music reflect the outrage? Here, it rarely does.
Ultimately, the album's political agenda is its asset and its liability. Some artists on this disc try to substitute political prowess for actual skills on the microphone. Not a bad trade, if you have something to say. As with any agenda, however, the biggest supporters are going to be those who already believe the agenda. If you believe life is "a rich man's game", then you're going to love E.K. Collective's "Class War". If you don't -- if, for example, you believe democracy has served us all equally well -- "Class War" won't change your mind. If you agree with MC Cox's view on the East Bank-West Bank beef in the Middle East, you're likely to enjoy his song "Opt". If you vehemently disagree, he's probably going to irritate you, at best, and make you throw your disc across the room, at worst. And so the anarchist's dilemma continues -- how to bring attention to media and governmental mind control (if you believe in that sort of thing) while giving the impression your rhetoric doesn't have any particular goal of its own.
States of Abuse does a fine job of advertising an international crew of talented musicians and performers, complete with links to individual websites on the back cover. In particular, it showcases the artistry of E.K. Collective, Filastine, MC Cox, and BC400. While it's not quite potent enough to win you government attention if you're caught listening to it, you can at least show your buddies there's more to hip-hop than rims, platinum grills, and tearin' the club up. You won't get your phone tapped, but remember -- it's the simple things in life that get you through. Good music is one of 'em.