Like a Hip Hop Tony Robinson, Ed Martin is scouring the charity shops of St Andrews for musical artefacts, appropriating the taste of a previous generation and giving new life to the albums that we would all be worse off for having lost.
dead prez, ‘Let’s Get Free’ (2000)
£1.50 at British Heart Foundation
From the violent parable ‘Wolves’ that starts the album, there is the feeling of being an outsider which accompanies listening to ‘Let’s Get Free’. As if I’ve sneaked into a Black Panthers’ meeting, I feel like a voyeur; seduced by the sentiments present, yet unable to truly relate. Wearing a single black glove throughout listening may have been a step too far, but it did feel daring to be a sheep in panthers’ clothing.
I suppose the easiest way to frame this album is to say that it would be Huey Freeman (of The Boondocks)’s favourite album. Think Rage Against the Machine accompanied by prescriptive social instruction. Imagine Easy E giving tips on how to ‘Fuck the Police’, or Zach de la Rocha explaining exactly who is ‘Killing in the Name of’ what. It holds the world to rights, start to finish. Minimal instrumentation, simple yet sublime, provides the soundtrack to lyrics as didactic as the Omali Yeshitela lectures which punctuate the album. This is an album with real force, stic.man and M-1’s combative style riles you up and politicises its listeners. After listening, politics becomes relevant and it seems that the world reveals itself unto you.
The genuine compulsion to act on the messages contained within is something that the overwhelming majority of political authors could only dream of. They even retell Orwell’s iconic ‘Animal Farm’ in the track ‘Animal in Man’, placing themselves in lineage of political work just as they place themselves in Hip-Hop context with references to preceding artists. There is something so honest about the style and delivery of the two MCs that makes you ally to them easily. The coherency of their views comes from real conviction in their opinions, and the many years spent together before producing this début album really tell. These two know exactly what they want to say, and exactly how to say it.
In pointing their lyrical armoury at the music industry itself, dead prez spawned possibly the biggest, most iconic track in Hip-Hop history. The first step of the modulating single bass note of ‘Hip Hop’ hits the listener with such a force, it is never forgotten. It is a track which everyone recalls, and, despite uncomplicated production, captures an energy and attitude which so many have strived for but never bettered.
It would be easy to dismiss the political massages of the album, due to the manner in which opinions are expressed. Then again, the use of Hip-Hop’s lexicon to communicate serious political messages works incredibly well. They seamlessly weave revolutionary imagery into their analyses of various topics, and in doing so make the political both accessible and involving. In songs such as ‘They Schools’ they state a Hip-Hop friendly hook for thier opinion, namely ‘They schools can’t teach us shit ‘, but back this up with serious content. Similarly songs such as ‘I’m a African’, ‘Police State’, and ‘We Want Freedom’ do not lose venom in being clear and informative.
Placing dead prez within the Hip-Hop canon is quite easy, they declare it themselves on their song ‘I’m a African’ that they are “somewhere in between N.W.A and P.E (Public Enemy)”. I suppose they couldn’t have captured it more succinctly, as they espouse the advancement of their culture as Chuck D (of Public Enemy) did, and use a similar lyrical style and adopt the gangsta attitude of N.W.A. I suppose their follow-up album to ‘Let’s Get Free’ gives you a motto to describe them by: ‘Revolutionary But Gangsta’.
It is easy to find certain parts of this album comical, as with any work of such honesty. ‘Be Healthy’ is a fundamentally funny song, the humour lies in the contrast of their directly aggressive delivery and the content about good health. Lines such as ‘I drink water… 8 glasses a day” and “lentil soup is mental fruit and ginger root is good for you”, can instigate a knee jerk response of ridicule. Although this all fits into their ideology, and is a serious appeal to improve the health of those listening and remedy a pervasive attitude towards health prevalent in black communities in the US. It is a song which comes from honest concern, its sentiments are noble, and it finishes with an impassioned plea for people to look after themselves. I now find it such a perfect Hip-Hop track; one which doesn’t involve any cliché that is regularly applied to Hip-Hop in general. In fact, despite having the genre-defining hit “Hip-Hop”, dead prez, paradoxically, could be seen as fundamentally anti-Hip-Hop. Their songs eschew aspirations of wealth, sex, and partying in favour of good health, wisdom, and love. In their own words, “true wealth comes from good health and wise ways” while other artists merely “try to copy Master P”.
‘Mind Sex’ is a touching track explicitly about ‘good conversation’ and mental connection in addition to sex. Again there is an almost jarring effect to some of the lyrics, as they can seem so alien to Hip-hop. This is typified in the lines “how bout we start, with a salad, a fresh bed of lettuce with croutons. Later we can play a game of chess on the futon”. Although I feel these deviations endear dead prez even more to their listeners, their lyrics capture frankness and relatability. The song also captures the duality present in attraction and lust with the line “I ain’t tryin to say I don’t wanna fuck, cause I do”, which is a sentiment which is often overlooked in tender songs. Artists often idealise tenderness and affection, which leads them to isolate it from lust. It is refreshing to see them intertwined lyrically, as they co-exist constantly in reality.
dead prez are definitely a magnet for controversy, as they refuse to allow their culture to be dictated to them. They rebel, and take every chance to define themselves in lieu of being labelled. There is little that is vague about dead prez; they tell you straight that “I am an African, never was an African-American”. Although in truth, they would be all the worse if they tried to soften any part of their attitude. Also, any album which includes a direct appeal for its listeners to storm the pentagon, armed, and use the platform to assert that “man made God” will probably garner some controversy. Just watch their video for the later single ‘Hell Yeah’ which encapsulates White America’s fears about rap music and Hip-Hop culture to see this attitude captured.
This album even has a production credit for a young Kanye West, as he produced ‘It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop’, a remix of the similarly named hit. Although the Dirty-South influenced production is nowhere near the heights he scaled later in his career, the song is a great curio. It is also testament to dead prez’s lyrical repertoire that they can produce another song on the same topic of equal lyrical interest as ‘Hip-Hop’. Kanye has stated in interviews since that he learnt how to write songs from watching dead prez’s writing process at this time, which maybe means their influence is far more profound and far reaching than it seems on first consideration.
Even if I didn’t value the (often live) instrumentation of this album and its unique in-house brand of production, even if I didn’t consider it full of coherent philosophical and political theories that are worthy of discussion, and even if I didn’t feel that this was a record of real importance and value, at least I could take away some great advice from this album:
1. “Discipline makes things easier, organise your life”
2. “Be careful how you season and prepare your foods, because you don’t want to lose vitamins and minerals”
and some direct advice for the then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani:
3. “Guiliani you are full of shit. And anybody that’s down with you. You could make things better for us and you’re cuttin the welfare knowing damn well that when you cut the welfare, a person gon’ do crime”.
It would be a tragedy for this album to be forgotten, even just the iconic opening speech in ‘Wolves’ was worth the price alone. So, yeah, I suppose it was pretty good value at £1.50.
Words: Ed Martin