By now we've all heard ad nauseam that President Obama is a "fan" of hip-hop. He has Jay-Z on his iPod, he loved its "entrepreneurial spirit," and, is still famously being referred to as "the first hip-hop president."
But if anything can be taken from Obama's recent address to the NAACP, it's that his understanding of hip-hop is, shall we say, a bit different from most people's. Rehashing the tired rhetoric from his post-nomination campaign, he claimed that there were now "no excuses" for blacks not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
And though he said nary a word about the Supreme Court decision ruling against affirmative action for black fire fighters in Connecticut, he went out of his way to say "our kids can't all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne... I want them aspiring to be President of the United States of America."
It's safe to say that Obama doesn't have Dead Prez on his iPod. If he did, he might hear this:
"He go to school just to battle MCs in the cafeteria
Fellas sleep in third period to the theory that
The president is black
So he should try to be that
Better yet put a gat on your back
And go to Iraq"
The Brooklyn-based duo's new mixtape Pulse of the People is a surprisingly catchy slab of hip-hop militancy, a slap in the face to the laughable equation of "black president equals the end of racism," and a fine addition to the increasingly political turn that popular music is taking in these troubled times.
Indeed, M1 and stic.man's fifteen-year career has served as one of many influences in hip-hop's current state (despite dismissive treatment from most of the big music press). Their "Revolutionary But Gangsta" stance has served as refreshing proof that there is no iron wall between "mainstream" and "conscious" rap music--even if their method wasn't always effective.
It needs to be said: for every, let's say, five or six hot tracks in Dead Prez's catalogue--walking that fine line between the politically righteous and aesthetically satisfying--they've also put out ham-handed flops like "Be Healthy" or "Mind Sex." One is certainly willing to forgive these songs because other like "Hip-Hop" and "I'm a African" are just so damn inspiring, but the tendency to drift into preachiness often had this writer wondering when DP were going to stop singing and start swinging.
After hearing some embarrassing attempts at solo material from stic.man and M1, I was almost ready to throw in the towel on Dead Prez. Then I heard Pulse of the People. Artists are always evolving, and with things going the system failing more and more people every day, Dead Prez seem to be hitting a stride.
Good thing too, because if there were ever a time that cried out for an uncompromisingly radical narrative of urban life, this is it. "Tired of watchin' all these companies get bailed out/And the only thing that poor people get is another jail-house," they declare in "Don't Hate My Grind," a firm rebuke to the bootstraps BS delivered over a dark, organ-driven beat--courtesy of the near-omnipresent "evil genius" DJ Green Lantern.
Green Lantern's presence aids DP greatly on this mixtape. His tracks have always had an edge of defiant swagger, and go a long way in making the sounds of the gritty city appeal well beyond their confines. It's no wonder that MCs from NaS to Immortal Technique are scrambling to work with him.
The process of working with Green was "fast and fun" according to stic.man. "We did the whole thing in four days. We didn't try to edit it too much, man. We just wanted to do [something] in the tradition of the original mixtape, where you come in the booth, you spit, and it hits the streets."
Green's mixtapes have always thrived on the bottom-up immediacy that's inherent in the format. And at a time when economic crisis is devastating poor communities, the missive that he and DP have produced (along with a list of guest MCs that ranges from Ratfink to Chuck D) ties together this daily street-level reality with an urgent vision of a people's planet.
The core of "Don't Hate My Grind" is a theme revisited throughout Pulse. While Obama and company seem convinced that the current state of Black America is the result of some kind of pathology, tracks like "Gangsta, Gangster" and "Life Goes On" place the blame where it belongs, and make the novel assertion that the so-called undesirables of society might be the very people who can permanently shake it up.
Moments like these not only do a lot to dispel a few myths, but serve as springboard to more openly revolutionary tracks. "Warpath," possibly the best song on Pulse, rides on funk-metal guitar and pumping bass. It's almost shocking in its brash call to arms against the NYPD, highlighted by the memorable (and somewhat cathartic) line "so I rolled into the precinct, and I shot the sheriff."
To be sure, Pulse of the People has its flaws. "Summertime" confirms the suspicion that Dead Prez should stop writing romantic lyrics. Combined with its uncharacteristically disappointing beats, this track makes the listener glad that it's a rarity.
However, if there is any one song that sums up the timeliness of this mixtape, it would have to be "$timulus Plan." Peppered with "ka-ching" audio-clips and sound-bites of outraged citizens, M and stic put damn-near everything in their sites, from the recent bank bailouts to the war on terror to the American dream itself:
"It's a cold game
And it's the same from the top of the food chain
All the way down to the little homie in the street-gangs
Slangin' cocaine, it's how they do thangs
It's the American way
Imperialism, have it your way
Whatever it takes
Whoever gets fucked in the process, that's okay
That's how they play
So you can't blame us
Them dead white men on that paper ain't us
We still gotta hustle for the benefits, man
My grind is my stimulus plan..."
There are plenty of artists who miss the mark when trying to make relevant music. Some pile on the rhetoric but forget the craft. Others slave away for years on end, struggling to find an audience for their message.
And while Dead Prez have been keeping their head up for a decade and a half now, Pulse collides with a certain point in time that makes it all the more urgent and listenable. While their calls for revolution might not yet be on the lips of every member of the oppressed and exploited, the volatile mixture of hope and anger in American society have given us a glimpse of what is possible when people fight. With any luck, these glimpses can grow, and the "pulse of the people" might end up being a lot more than just a cool album title.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, cultural critic and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for The Society for Cinema and Arts and SleptOn.com, and a regular contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.