May 6, 2004

The Revolution Goes Soft

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Dead Prez don’t frighten people because of their lyrics, violent Pan-Africanism, or repeated used of the word “cracker.” What’s so frightening is their accessibility.

Ever since and M1 threw 2000’s Let’s Get Free like a molatov cocktail into the hip-hop machine, Dead Prez has predictably felt the brunt of public controversy and label difficulties. It’s not easy to market a group who would sooner identify themselves with the Mau Mau and Black Liberation Army than Rolex and Versace. But after a four-year hiatus, rap’s last guerilla warriors are attempting another coup.

RBG (an acronym for Revolutionary But Gangsta, and a play on the colors of the African Liberation flag) is another wind-kick to America’s collective testicles. Acerbic, lurid, and uncommonly literate, it weaves socio-political manifestos into soot-black bass lines and knifing synth rhythms. It’s like a fourteen-chambered glock, each song a terse, punctuated burst of throbbing, grinding sound. The revolution has never been so danceable or crunked out.

DP’s rhetoric has retained all the sound and fury they made their reputation on. “I Have a Dream, Too” lays well-deep bass beneath a cop-killing fantasy, with staccato gunshots accentuated by the scream, “Yeah, Motherfucker, Yeah!” “Hell Yeah” romps over an infective rhythm, espousing on how to pull credit card scams and bank robberies.

The album’s highlight lies in the anti-mainstream hip-hop rant “Radio Freq,” which burns the mantra “Turn off the radio/ turn off that bullshit!” into an electric hurricane of war drums, cell phones, and woo woo woo Indian war cries. I myself was about ready to dance my way into Clear Channel’s headquarters with a shotgun and start spreading the gospel. But moments like “Radio Freq” are matched by such absurd histrionics as “Walk Like a Warrior,” which features the cartoonishly annoying talents of Krayzie Bone, while “Way of Life,” despite it’s lyrical sharpness, uses freeze-dried guitar rifts to build an intensity that trips and staggers. One would expect that after four years in the hills, and M1 would emerge with more volatile ammunition, but too many tracks on RBG feel like a revisitation of past successes. To anyone familiar with the duo, nothing here will come as surprising; it’s just your average pipe bomb tossed into DEA headquarters.

But most perplexing is the guest appearance of Jay-Z on a “Hell Yeah” remix. Jay-Z is the epitome of what Dead Prez have spent their last two albums attacking. If The Black Album is a Benz, then RBG is a Benz with 400 pounds of C-4 in the trunk, speeding down 5th Avenue toward the Sean John storefront. As they so righteously waxed on Let’s Get Free’s “Hip-Hop,” “Would you rather have a Lexus or justice/ a dream or some substance/ a necklace, a beamer, or freedom?” It looks like they went for both.

And therein lies the crux of DP’s persistently antagonistic stance. You can try to go on fucking the system, but you eventually have to make concessions to it, or it will swallow you. DP is only trying to survive in an industry that hasn’t seen something this radical since the heyday of Chuck D. Guerilla warfare isn’t one of attrition, but adaptation. RBG somewhat concedes to the mainstream sensibilities Let’s Get Free ripped and tore at. But, then again, even revolutionary gangsters have to eat, right?

Archived article by Zach Jones
Red Letter Daze Associate Editor