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The Boston Phoenix Reason Redux

Hip-hop gets political again

By Michael Endelman

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Chuck D's heavily quoted sound bite "Hip-hop is the black CNN" still gets dragged out whenever anyone's defending the music's political relevance. And back in the early days of Public Enemy, that analogy was prophetic: it portended an era in which rappers like the X-Clan, KRS-One, the Native Tongues crew, and PE themselves made dropping rhymes about Afrocentricity and Islam a priority, filling Yo! MTV Raps with political consciousness and red-black-and-green Africa medallions. Today's hip-hop video stars, however, are more likely to adorn themselves with Gucci and Versace while they build rhymes around the features on the latest high-end SUV. Over the past five years, it's often seemed that hip-hop and politics were never meant to mix. But politically motivated hip-hop didn't really vanish -- it just went way, way underground.

Recently, there have been signs that something resembling Chuck D's vision of hip-hop may be regaining a commercial foothold, mostly in the form of the Toni Morrison-quoting New York City duo Black Star. The critical praise heaped on last year's Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star (Rawkus) was less of a surprise than the fact that the album managed to finesse its way onto the Billboard charts. Def and Kweli have gone on to use Black Star as a forum for political activism, performing in several concerts organized to protest the imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal and opening the African-American bookstore Nkiru Books in Brooklyn.

The plight of death-row inmate Abu-Jamal is an issue that's helped galvanize a large segment of the hip-hop underground, most recently by way of a midsummer single, "Mumia 911." A collaborative cut recorded for the benefit album Unbound (Realized, and due early next year), the track features an all-star cast of politically conscious MCs: Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, Aceyalone, and Chuck D all drop verses. Yet it's hard to imagine the same mainstream audience that's made thuggish labels like Cash Money and No Limit multi-million-dollar enterprises laying down cash for an indie-label benefit album, or even for the nearly eight-minute long "Mumia 911" single, which is full of rhetoric like "We'll storm the prisons get the wards rockin'/Snipe all the FBI and cops clockin'/Avenge the '85 bombing eye for an eye/We'll hang 'em by the Capitol steps."

"Hardcore-rap fans think the indie movement is nerdy, and some indie folk don't respect the realities hardcore MCs try to represent," admits 24-year-old Rishi Nath, the founder of Chicago's Raptivism Records, a new indie label that's just put together a benefit compilation titled No More Prisons. (Its October 21 release is being celebrated tonight with a show upstairs at the Middle East.) No More Prisons, which benefits the Prison Moratorium Project (a national campaign to halt the proliferation of prisons), is aimed at raising awareness about America's prison industrial complex and at bringing in new supporters from outside the usual pool of left-wing activists. With tracks from old school greats (Grandmaster Caz and Daddy-O from Stetsasonic), mainstream hardcore acts (Cocoa Brovas and Puffy's new sidekick Hurricane G), the experimental underground (Mike Ladd and the Coup), Windy City independents (Rubberoom and Akbar), and even a handful of Boston-area MCs (Ed O.G. and L Da Headtoucha), the disc does reach out to a broad spectrum of the hip-hop community.

Still, Raptivism's Nath realizes that in the current climate -- one in which hip-hop "playas" and "ballers" earn the big bucks -- activist hip-hop is a hard sell. "We need to prove that activism rap is viable in the marketplace," he emphasizes. "If we can carve out a larger niche, then I'll be able to approach someone like Method Man or Redman and get him to record a single about the embargo on Cuba or Native American land issues."

It may be hard to imagine a high-profile rapper like, say, Wu Tang's Ol' Dirty Bastard dropping a serious single protesting mandatory minimums. But he certainly has had enough in the way of first-hand experience with the legal system to know that prison reform is a relevant issue for the hip-hop nation. As Jerry Quickley reflects in the liner notes for the "Mumia 911" single, "I looked around the room and it occurred to me that there wasn't a brother or sister in there that hadn't been in handcuffs or lock-up. There wasn't a gangsta in the room, but we'd all been locked up or had the bracelets put on."

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