REVOLUTION IS A COMMODITY these days—the capitalist system works at such an accelerated pace that voices of dissent find themselves quickly incorporated into the mainstream, neutered by the very structures they seek to challenge. It's the old argument leveled so many times against groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions at the turn of the last decade—the very fact that major labels release their records somehow renders their message impotent, if only in that the support for their "revolution" can be withdrawn at any time.
Of course, since that era, there's been no radical movement in hip-hop to negate. Smug self-satisfaction long ago replaced righteousness as the dominant hip-hop worldview; even in these post-mortem times, few artists are interested in challenging the status quo, all of which makes the debut album from Dead Prez, Let's Get Free, so shocking.
A Brooklyn duo via assorted stints down South, Dead Prez is the closest hip-hop has come to any sort of ideological position since Public Enemy. And like PE, who came out on the dominant record label of their era, Def Jam, Dead Prez are signed to Loud, the label responsible for the Wu-Tang Clan, Big Punisher, and Mobb Deep, among others: definers of '90s intelligent hardcore hip-hop.
The album cover, which depicts a group of teenagers bearing arms in rebellion, has already been a source of consternation between the record label and the group, leading to the label stickering the jewel case to obscure the image so that more sensitive retailers won't get offended. Naturally, controversy's good for sales, but unlike some of the lesser politico-rappers of the last nation, Dead Prez offer potent messages of uplift cloaked in a hard rock sensibility. Stic.man and M1 aren't fatherly preachers so much as partners in crime (metaphorically, of course). Rather than operate outside the prevailing hip-hop discourse, leaving their words to fall on deaf ears, the pair are instead intimately versed in the genre's peculiarities—lingo, cadences, beats, expectations. With these tools in hand, they stand the best chance of any artists in a decade to truly dismantle the outmoded house hip-hop has built and begin to construct new paths, structures, and narratives.
Take "Hip Hop," the album's first single: Though the title is pedestrian, the song is anything but. The bass line is fat and thick, deeply distorted and sustained throughout, penetrating the body and urging it to move. It's like a Southern bass track, designed to work best emanating from tricked-out woofers designed for low-end theories. Yet rather than spit the same ol' game as the country boys, Stic and M1 slowly ensnare the listener in a truth tale that undermines industry myths—"nigga don't think these record deals gonna feed your seeds and pay your bills," Stic warns, while later in the song, the chorus breaks into a chant of "it don't stop. . . ." Then, just before you're fooled into thinking it's the party that don't stop, the couplet is closed with ". . . until we get the po-po off the block." Gotcha.
The album is teeming with such gems. Stic and M1 are gifted lyricists—sonically no different from your favorite thugs, but able to use that familiarity as an entry point to more profound dialogue. Stic summarizes it nicely on "I'm a African," placing himself at the crossroads of "camouflage fatigues and dashikis/somewhere in between NWA and PE." What other group asks you to "bounce to this socialist movement?"
Even when the pair turn to romance and other less radical concerns, they manage to infuse a sense of wisdom and urgency into their words. "Eat Healthy" is perhaps the group at their most political, even though they don't once reference structures of power. Instead, they take the opportunity to enlighten their peers on the importance of nutritious food. "I don't eat no meat, no dairy no sweets/only ripe vegetables, fresh fruit, and whole wheat," M1 proudly proclaims, while Stic offers his own culinary tips: "Be careful how you season and prepare your foods/cause you don't wanna lose vitamins and minerals." His dexterity with food extends to the romance arena. Listen to how he aurally caresses a mate on "Mind Sex": "I know you think I wanna fuck/No doubt/but tonight we'll try a different route/how bout a salad/a fresh bed of lettuce with croutons/later we can play a game of chess on the futon."
Not to be cynical, but those sugar-tipped lines are as strategic as the pair's cultural politics, dipping militant prose and concepts in a candy-coating of gruff intonations and Jeep-ready beats. Perhaps if their politics were more overt, they'd be less successful working within the structures that have to this point supported them. However, in this second stage of subversion, the revolution may well be disseminated by the institution that it seeks to overthrow. Greed is good.