Agit Disco 7 by Tom Jennings

Agit Disco 7 by Tom Jennings

1. Akir, featuring Abiodun Ayewole – ‘The Initiation’ (2006)

Among many younger hip-hop musicians, these trends (of class consciousness

and collective effort) are exemplified in the work of producer/MCs

Immortal Technique and Akir (‘always keeping it real’). Swerving

between Washington and NY, Akir’s early mixtape hustles catapulted

him to cognoscenti attention with the ‘Unsigned Hype’ accolade in

The Source magazine. Fulfilling the promise, Legacy’s astonishingly

accomplished achievement marries music and message in intense

introspection and wise social awareness with perfectly pitched

production overseen by partner Southpaw (relieved from providing

superior beats for P. Diddy to call his own). The MC’s relaxed style is

equally on beat tackling personal (‘Rite of Passage’, ‘Change of the

Seasons’) or interpersonal growth (‘No Longer My Home’, ‘Tropical

Fantasy’) with warmth and wistfulness, while demonstrating hard-

hitting appreciation of past and present constraints on communality

(‘Treason’, ‘Kunta Kinte’). Yet the interrelationships among diverse

levels of analysis emerge without pretension from an intoxicating

brew of ambience, rhythm and lyricism so that – though exasperated

by apt comparisons with Nas – Akir actually transcends the circular

arguments new-school rap in general has remained hypnotised by,

gesturing towards a future with far fewer illusions.

2. Tanya Stephens – ‘Welcome to the Rebelution’ (2006)

Tanya Stephens continues her de facto ambassadorial role for hip-hop’s

older Caribbean sibling. 2004’s Gangsta Blues transformed reggae with

its critical (and self-critical) intelligence and hatred of all oppression

and in combining the passionate lower-class patter and panache of the

ragga dancehall with roots, lovers rock, and lighter, singer-songwriter

instrumentation. Now, Rebelution articulates a clear agenda for present

conditions in culture and politics. From the intro:

Came to pass in the days of glorifying everything wrong

That the standard for girls became a bra and a thong

Wholesome values like curling up with a good book and a bong

Went out the window along with making a good song

… So I say to you now, the Rebelution is urgent

Stand before you not as queen, but as your humble servant

Fake leaders claim thrones without building kingdoms

Same as the music business in Kingston

We need to fight for the future for our daughters and sons

Instead you’re tripping your brothers, fighting for crumbs

But we will not be deterred by knives or guns

Go tell it on the mountain, the Rebelution has come.

Stephens’ strident street-level soap box pronouncements are placed

pithily in the history of black struggle, with other tracks amplifying

the implications of prejudice in weaving together the baleful power

of dominative discrimination. Then, having scathingly critiqued

organised religion’s mystifications, ‘Warn Dem’ muses furiously on

ghetto desperation, with its video showing a young carjacker robbing

a pharmacy and using the proceeds (an oxygen mask) to save an

asthmatic baby’s life. The epilogue reiterates the artist’s trademark

humility seasoning her most trenchant insights:

You know what? Me can’t promise you say the youths dem a go drop the

Beretta

Hell, me can’t even promise you say ME a go act better

But one thing’s for sure, we can mek a effort

And that a the least we can do before we lef earth.

Her early career yielded some of the most pleasurably barbed

highlights of the obscene ‘slackness’ subgenre, and several tracks here

explore personal intimacy and the pragmatics of sexual relations,

emphasising womanist strength and autonomy and emotional and

sensual directness and honesty – with no PC pieties and arguably the

sharpest tongue and most hilarious wit ever put on wax on the subject.

Throughout, her personal narratives reliably correlate – naturally,

unpretentiously and effortlessly – with wider levels of analysis too, in

a rare appreciation of the complexities of class, gender and race with

recourse neither to righteous mysticism nor simplistic faith in better

leaders. And such meldings of class-conscious ethics with collective

effort are exactly what resonate widely among younger generations of

hip-hop affiliates – both within the musical arena, and as DIY activists

outside –  aware of the hypocrisy of orthodox political forums, and no

longer pandering to egotistical, self-righteous power.

3. Dead Prez & Outlawz – ‘Like a Window’ (2006)

A similar consistent message of revolt has been developed by far-left duo Dead

Prez (M-1 and Stic.man), who ended a two-year hiatus following 2004’s

landmark RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta with several new projects.

Despite endorsement from rap mogul Jay-Z, Sony dropped them after

swallowing Loud Records …  . Their trajectory reinforces the cross-

pollination of post-Panther politics with street-level music and class-

based ‘reality’ rap … .

4. Conscious Daughters – ‘Woman’s World’ (2006)

The Hard Truth Soldiers compilation is more unusually successful, both musically

and lyrically, in addressing:

subjects ranging from war and police brutality to black on black crime and

domestic violence, the recent reduction of civil liberties, increased injustice

and racism everywhere, and a rise in self-censoring corporate media

monopolies hell-bent on stifling dissent and flooding our communities

with negative and escapist entertainment … we represent a united front

against bigotry, misogyny and the exploitation and misrepresentation of our

communities and culture

– producer Paris, from the liner notes to Hard Truth Soldiers, Vol. 1.

What really marks it out, though, is gathering together past-masters

of agit-prop and hardcore hip-hop with underground stalwarts

and younger voices, representing successive generations of social

conscience – including a host of gangsta rappers scarcely famed for

ideological acumen – where an unmistakable common political

denominator is class war, as consistently advocated by participants like

The Coup (Conscious Daughters are CMG and Special One).

5. M-1, feat. K’Naan & Stori James – ‘Til We Get There’ (2006)

Confidential’s melange of R&B melodies and hooks (sweetly rendered

by veteran soulstress Cassandra Wilson and initiate Raye) mixes

current NY, west coast, and southern club sonics in a succesful lyrical-

musical synthesis with MCs like Styles P, ATCQ’s Q-Tip and rising star

Somalian refugee K’naan  as well as M-1’s own mother (fresh from 12

years inside for drugs offences) on the thoughtfully downbeat ‘Land,

Bread & Housing’. These strategies dovetail with thematic subterfuge,

thinly veiling revolutionary rhetoric in everyday stories ‘making sense’

rather than ‘intellectualising’.

6. The Reavers, featuring: Akir, Priviledge, Goldenchild, billy

woods & Vordul Mega – ‘Slums’ (2005)

New collective The Reavers (with eleven ‘revolutionary emcees

advocating views [on] everyday reality struggles’) marry the avant-garde

symphonics of the Def Jux label with a sense of cold menace courtesy

of the Wu-Tang Clan. Rather than the latter’s apocalyptic visions of

Staten Island as the psychotic kung-fu dystopia of Shaolin, however,

Terror Firma’s parallel universe condenses the entire global village into

their own home neighbourhoods, matching imperialist colonisation

with the oppositional armoury of hip-hop elements. And, although

a fascinating and enjoyable listen, this vastly ambitious enterprise

overreaches itself in fragmented pacing and thematics and wildly

uneven lyricism, albeit with considerable talent and imagination on

show.

7. Jean Grae – ‘Pardon Me’ ( 2008)

‘Hip hop’s not dead, it was on vacation. We back, we bask in the

confrontation’. Jean Grae, on ‘Say Something’, Talib Kweli, Ear Drum.

8. Akir – ‘Politricks’ (2006)

The centrepiece of the album’s ideological assault, ‘Politricks’, most

satisfyingly signals a decisive advance beyond both vanguard arrogance

and tepid reform – conceiving healthy radical movement in terms

of the mutualism, individual strength and implacable resistance to

domination emphasised by the libertarian heirs of black liberation:

Politicians that be gargling that garbage shit

Bargain with anonymous officers of opposite

Doctrines for the legal tender documents

Pocketin’ the profits off of rockets

While they kick us out the projects

Logic, surprising common sense

Risin’ occupants up out environments

Survive and then they got you doin’ five to ten …

I don’t follow the news, they just add to my blues

Politicians and they big feets could never fill my shoes

They don’t care, think we all live off welfare

It’s hell here, why should I vote, like it’s ever been fair?

9. Stic.man & Young Noble – ‘Time’ (2007)

With M-1 positioned as a remotely radio-friendly quasi-mainstream

rapper, Stic.man and California’s Outlawz explore inner-city black

youth options in two albums. Soldier 2 Soldier fruitfully deploys military

tropes and metaphors in crosscutting between the failed promises

of both ghetto strife and armed forces careers; whereas Can’t Sell Dope

Forever is more fully accomplished in dissecting the deadly fascination

with the drugs game. The subject has intimate resonance with all

concerned – several of the Outlawz are former dealers, including Young

Noble whose mother and brother were both addicts. Also involved are

Stormey, Kastro and Edi Don (ex-members include Napoleon and Fatal,

with 2-Pac and Khadafi both murdered), the group being most famous

for Still I Rise (1999). They have a long-standing collaborative ethic,

though previously stressing the ‘gangsta’ side of the equation.

10. Immortal Technique, featuring Chuck D & KRS-One – ‘Bin

Laden’ (remix) (2005)

Immortal Techniques’ chaotic early days included escaping Peruvian

civil war to refugee status in Harlem, violence, crime and prison time

– before passion for hip-hop channelled rage into battle-rapping and

a virulent blend of bare-knuckle inventiveness and insurrectionary

propaganda. Gangsta and underground hip-hop heads alike recognised

the prodigious skills in Revolutionary Vol. I and 2, morphing doses

of bitter street paranoia into the common lore realism of Black

and Hispanic ghettoes concerning US government and corporate

responsibility for the heinous horrors across the hemisphere.

With the notorious refrain on 2006 single ‘Bin Laden’ (featuring

Chuck D and KRS-One): ‘Bush knocked down the towers!’ (not to be

taken literally, of course…). The depth, breadth and integrity of his

political orientation and its fearless public expression have earned

the trust and respect of, for example, framed political prisoner Mumia

Abu-Jamal, who tape-recorded on Death Row an intro and interludes

for his album. IT’s many fascinating and forthright interviews include:

‘Essence of Revolution’, Latin Rapper magazine, 6 October, 2004 and

Brendan Frederick, ‘Rock The Boat’, XXL magazine, 4-5 April, 2006.

11. T-Kash – ‘Made in America’ (2006)

Bay Area activist and KPFA radio host T-Kash (‘keep a steady hustle’)

himself turned from shady street business to guesting at Coup gigs

before hooking up with journalist and webmaster Davey D; now

inspiring Paris to provide his most varied G-funk hi-jinks so far

for Turf War Syndrome. Declaiming authoritatively on wider forces of

political economy refracting into ghetto hopelessness and destructive

criminality, his direct street-corner pedagogy ‘thinks globally; acts

locally’ in conversation with neighbourhood peers. Straightforward,

effective metaphors engage populism without risking patronisation … .

12. Mos Def – ‘Beef’ (2006)

Mos Def has a history of engagement in radical causes, including the

late-1990s Black August visits to Cuba with the likes of Common and DJ

Tony Touch, and no truck at all with the political establishment, but even

less patience with music industry bullshit. Mixtape CD Mos-Definite’s

energetic envelope-pushing, eclectic populism and newly-rediscovered

lyrical playfulness and ferocity perhaps reflect both the influence of

and relief from the regimented rigours of growing Hollywood stardom.

Somewhat ironically, given this dream factory provenance, ‘Beef’ is

a meaty lambasting of commercial rappers’ abdication from reality,

wherein (after Talib Kweli’s historical contextualisation) he punctures

their pumped-up ego dramas:

… Beef is not what these famous niggas do on the mic

Beef is what George Bush would do in a fight (that’s right)

Beef is not what Ja said to Fifty

Beef is the world and earth not being here with me

When a soldier ends his life with his own gun

Beef is trying to figure out what to tell his son

Beef is oil prices and geopolitics

Beef is Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Some beef is big, and some beef is small

But what y’all call beef is no beef at all

Beef is real life, happenin’ every day

And its real-er than the songs you gave to K-Slay.

13. The Coup, feat. Black Thought & Talib Kweli – ‘My

Favourite Mutiny’ (2006)

Their fifth album, Pick a Bigger Weapon, continues The Coup’s evolution

from underground west coast US rabble-rousers into international

recognition and acclaim. The early-2001 cover design for Party Music – a

metaphor for the revolutionary destruction of capitalism featuring DJ

Pam the Funktress and MC Boots Riley brandishing drumsticks and

guitar tuner with the World Trade Center exploding in the background

– was hastily withdrawn by their record label after 9/11. The resulting

publicity gave Boots an unanticipated mainstream media platform

from which to air the insurrectionary class-struggle views familiar

from the lyrics of Kill My Landlord (1993), Genocide and Juice (1994) and

Steal This Album (1998). As in the new release, such views are conveyed

via pithy, witty tales of woe, frustration, anger, humour and hope in

everyday life on the mean streets of Oakland, drenched in 1970s soulful

funkadelia and the whole gamut of hip-hop referentiality. Whereas,

if The Coup’s compelling beats ever more pleasingly integrate their

musical antecedents with present political demands, Pick A Bigger Weapon

refers to the failure of our tactics thus far, with its contents reiterating

the grassroots grounds of any worthwhile future movement.

14. Akir, feat. Immortal Technique – ‘Treason’ (2006)

15. Common – ‘The People’ (2007)

The philosophies espoused [in Native Tongues’ hip-hop] mix a heady

countercultural brew from 1960s psychedelia to Afrocentrism and the

Black avant-garde, and although these purportedly bourgeois overtones

were drowned out by reality rap’s relentless rise, the production

innovators flourished – especially in alternative regional scenes in

the midwest and Atlanta, which were responsible for considerable

musical progression in both independent and mainstream sectors.

The tradition’s MCs were always already left-of-centre, but have moved

steadily away from identity politics to explicit class-consciousness,

condemning them to the margins despite widespread respect for their

integrity.

Several of the best have raised their profiles in alliance with

industry heavyweights, however, and the results are mixed. The

album Finding Forever finds Common mellifluously commentating on

communal hardship and love’s complexity.

16. Nas, featuring Jay-Z (2006)

Is hip hop dead? It’s no surprise, of course, that the usual suspects –

moral majorities, high-minded aesthetes, racists, and all the assorted

hip-hop hating hypocrites – relish sticking the boot in yet again. You’d

almost worry if they didn’t. But now, twelve years after Illmatic – his

definitive new-school debut – the eighth Nas release also declares the

party over. Hip Hop Is Dead finds the genre’s pre-eminent wordsmith

maintaining the consistent output of ghettocentric quality that has

attracted faithful support despite persistent cluelessness among

subcultural tourists deaf to its effective musical marriage of rap

tradition and cutting-edge populism and blind to the vision’s integrity

in mobilising observation and personal resonance to chronicle and

critique the anguish and aspirations of the contemporary US inner-

city Black poor. Now mature enough to question the evolutionary

status of a profoundly influential cultural movement, Nas challenges

its adherents to transcend self-importance in response.

The album opens with no-nonsense potted summaries of rap’s

hoodrats clawing their way to fame and fortune, couched in the

favoured gangsta condensation of capitalism-as-crime, before the

bravado segues into admitting its protagonists’ culpability for the

artistic price paid. Then the title track nails it:

Everybody sound the same

Commercialized the game

Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business

They forgot where it started

So we all gather here for the dearly departed

before the pivotal ‘Black Republican’ juggles Jay-Z: ‘I feel like a black

republican, money keep comin’ in’ and Nas: ‘I feel like a black militant,

takin’ over the government’, followed by the refrain:

Can’t turn my back on the ’hood, too much love for them

Can’t clean my act up for good, too much thug in ’em

Probably end up back in the ’hood; I’m, like, ‘fuck it then’.

Implicitly recognising that individual advancement neither resolves

class contradictions nor fulfils hip hop’s emancipatory potential

leaves the set oscillating between honouring the Black traditions

which nourish struggle, and reasserting underclass self-confidence in

developing agendas expressed in their terms. With intricate wordplay

literate in urban provenance, Black Arts and contemporary reference,

Nas echoes Rakim’s cool philosophical cadence and 2-Pac’s passionate

arrogance grounded in Panther politics. Beyond their mystical

paranoia, though, he senses that the project is constitutionally

incapable of breaking on through – despite the muscular, sensuous

beats and brooding intelligence here representing living disproof of

the title.

17. Talib Kweli – ‘Hostile Gospel, Pt. 1’ (2007)

Probably the most gifted conscious rapper of them all is Talib Kweli,

whose sojourns through the range of underground, independent and

corporate production paradigms never dampen his anger at the state

of the world or enthusiasm for beats and rhymes as expressive tools

for the articulation of personal and collective visions of struggle and

change. The sheer brilliance of the writing crafts densities of allusion

with a knack for rendering complexity into narrative to rival anyone.

Added to a willingness to immerse these profound talents in the most

crowd-pleasing entertainment and cutting-edge sonic styles, you’d

have a complete ‘package’ – except for contradicting accepted sales

and subcultural wisdoms, where neither niche-marketers nor their

fanboy mirror-images can handle his refusal to kowtow to stratifying

imperatives. Shunning such straitjackets meant a reluctant retreat to

petit-bourgeois discipline and the running of a small label, but advance

to more purist practices of collaborative experimental musicianship

while allowing full furious flow for lyrics saturated with exuberance,

analytical rigour and positivity. While still permitting strategic deals

with the majors on his terms (and those of labelmates) – but as mere

conveniences for distribution rather than millstones more trouble

than their monetary worth. Thematically, Kweli stresses that his

approach focuses on:

black self-love, black self esteem, black self worth.

That translates to other communities because if you’re a human being,

it doesn’t matter what color you’re talking about. You’ve been through

some sort of struggle and you can apply it to your own life.

18. Mos Def – ‘Dollar Day’(2007)

His subsequent third studio album, True Magic, mixes fervent blues-

ridden yearning and laconic excoriations of media complacency and

corporate collusion in a sick political and social system, diagnosing

with great subtlety the symptoms of its corrupting fallout – all oriented

squarely but empathetically towards listeners who lack material means

and comforts but have untold cultural riches at their fingertips. Halfway

through, the blistering ‘Dollar Day’ is dedicated to ‘the streets everywhere,

the streets affected by the storm called America’, signifying Katrina with

the punchline ‘Quit bein’ cheap, nigga, freedom ain’t free …’.

19. Pharoahe Monch – ‘Agent Orange’ (2007)

Pharoahe Monch has collaborated with pop icons like P. Diddy to

leverage clout, and Desire brings marvellously smooth gospel-funk

to diverse topical themes tackled with his usual tenacity and flair,

especially in the harshly anti-war ‘Agent Orange’.

20. Talib Kweli, feat. Jean Grae – ‘Say Something’ (2007)

21. Akir – ‘So Much’ (2006)

This is my selection of hot left hip-hop cited in ‘Rebel Poets Reloaded’

as requested for the Agit Disco project/label. This is a sampler, and not

a party mix – for the latter I’d lean heavily on the booty shakers and,

after all, the best beats and sharpest lyrics often don’t coincide. Note

also that, in general, ‘oppositional’ rap orientations tend to percolate

throughout material rather than condensing into exemplary tracks –

in the same way that, for best effect, politics suffuses culture rather

than standing apart being conscious… .

Tom Jennings

Tom Jennings

See also:
‘Br(other) Rabbit’s Tale’ [hip-hop, Eminem and 8 Mile, dir. Curtis Hanson]. Variant, 17, May 2003.
‘Dancehall Dreams’ [contemporary urban music, gender and class]. Variant, 20, June 2004.
‘Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues’ [urban music review of the year 2004]. Variant, 22, February 2005.
‘At The Crossroads’ [trends in contemporary urban music]. Variant, 25, February 2006.
‘Rebel Poets Reloaded’ [recent radical US hip-hop]. Variant, 30, October 2007.

Variant articles are all archived here:

http://www.variant.randomstate.org/
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