It might well look from a mainstream glance that hip-hop today has evolved into nothing but slickly produced, bouncy, party music with mindless lyrics that are more concerned with ringtone-designed, catchy choruses than any type of political message.
We are in a time in the once widely revolutionary music that whenever you hear of an artist accused of being 'offensive' it is more likely that they are being misogynist than being lyrically threatening or offensive to the government or the economic or social system.
But there are still hip-hop artists today making politically charged, socially relevant music in the tradition of such militant rap artists as Public Enemy and Paris. Immortal Technique is such an artist and his latest album, The 3rd World (Viper), which arrived in Amoeba Music yesterday, is a prime example of an artist using his craft and resources as a platform to make powerful political, economic, and sociological statements.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with the outspoken Harlem, NY emcee, who is as critical of the music industry as he is of the Bush administration. The 3rd World, like his previous releases such as the classic Revolutionary Vol.2, is released on his own label, Viper, with carefully monitored distribution by KOCH. He told me he would rather have control of his music and his business than have some huge corporation pimp him. Not that any large entertainment conglomerate would not be scared away by such a loud political rapper. The industry won't really push political artists, he told me. "They will champion someone who is not fit to defend those positions for our people," he said, noting that this only inspires him to stick to the script. "It's very important for us to never lose sight of the revolutionary aspect of hip-hop.....that's the 3rd world: the revolutionary side, the street side, the hardcore side, and the independent."
The 3rd World, whose producers include Green Lantern, Buckwild (DITC), Scram Jones, and Southpaw and whose microphone guests include Chino XL, Ras Kass (recorded right before he went into prison to serve his sentence), and Crooked I, examines how awful conditions are in third world nations compared to ours. The 3rd World is also a metaphor for the music business. "In the same way that major superpowers come to the Third World in order to exploit natural resources, land, and labor, I drew a very similar comparison between the way that major label superpowers in the industry of music come to the underground, which is the third world of hip-hop, to exploit the resource of production or creativity and only give us a small percentage of anything in return. And they use our own people against us: to sign us and prostitute us in the same way America does as a superpower," said the artist.
"If you take a look at the Top Ten in Billboard, people who have a radio hit," said Immortal Technique, "all of these people started out as underground. All of them started out in the third world. They probably even had different names when they were underground rappers. And yet in order to get to the position that they have, lots of them had to make certain compromises with the majors, change subject matter. I know for a fact that there are lots of rappers out there who have a political opinion, who are smart but do not push that agenda."
But Immortal Technique did concede that not everyone necessarily has an agenda. "Some artists are just artists. Some artists are not revolutionaries. They're not gangstas. They're not pimps, hustlers, none of that. They just want to hang out and get high and party and make music and live the minstral life." For these artists, picking a single for radio play is easy. Others have to gear their music for mainstream airplay. "I have a lot of friends who are mainstream rappers and they really do sit there and go, 'Oh I got to make a song for the radio to get the album played'," he said. "But for me it's work. Like as soon as the album is done I'll sit there and I'll go 'Yo! What the fuck could I put on the radio? What would they accept on the radio? It's not about tailoring a song for radio, but taking a song I already have and been like, 'Fuck it! Let's put this on the radio.'"
Continuing on that same thread Immortal Technique added, "Now someone in the music industry, in marketing, would look at that and say 'Oh, he doesn't know what he's doing!' Well, that's because I care about music and you don't know shit about music. To me it's more about the message and the music. If I am willing to not sign with a major label that wants to rape the masters and the publishing, then I'd rather have full control not only monetarily but creatively of my project and then it is also going to reflect in the way that I present myself."
Does Immortal Technique see the presidential election and the rise in political power of Barack Obama as a catalyst for a renaissance in conscious hip hop? "I think it has more to do with the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, the demonization of the culture of immigrants, and the demonization of Islam -- and I think that hip-hop reacts to that more than to a presidential election," he replied. But what about Barack Obama? "Things were so bad for America with the previous administration that the country is saying, 'We tried it with an idiot, let's try it with a really smart guy'...Everything that Bush did wrong, people are looking for the next president to do right."