Currently in the third week of a national tour with Joell Ortiz, underground NYC emcee Propaganda Anonymous (aka Prop Anon) is gearing up to drop his musically & politically abrasive new album Squat The Condos in the coming weeks. Recently I caught up with the emcee, whose music is as much inspired by punk rock as hip-hop and who always has some engaging socio-political message to share. I wanted to know about the concept behind Squat The Condos, and how an artist like him, who has shared bills with punk rockers and alternative hip-hoppers in tiny dive bars in NYC, would end up on tour with a more mainstream rap artist like Joell Ortiz.
Of the tour with Joell, which came together via his booking agent, he said, "This type of tour is something new for Joell. It's more of nation wide grind out variety -- the type of stuff that artists like me are used to, but that more industry cats are not usually known for doing. It's a smart move on his part, because there have been cats who have done tours like this, and those MC's have a strong and loyal following now. People like Talib Kweli and Mos Def are two who come to mind. And I've done a number of tours like this, so when they reached out, I knew it would be a good match."
But he notes that life on the road, while great and truly satisfying, is a lot of serious non-stop work. "I'm working my ass off, as I have three jobs on this tour. I am the opener for Joell. I am the main driver, clocking insane amounts of miles behind the wheel, and I am the tour/road manager," he said, adding that getting on stage every night is one part of the pay off. "It's a good feeling to watch a crowd full of people throw their hands in the air when you are killing it on stage." But how different is his show when he is playing to a more mainstream Joell Ortiz audience vs. playing some small dive club with a mixed punk/hip-hop audience? "My show is not be much different, to be honest. One thing that people who know me as a musician will tell you is that my style is extremely versatile. So, while Squat The Condos has that electro-punk hip-hop feel to it, for the past five years, I've been rhyming to a more traditional hip-hop back beat over at Sin Sin Lounge. I've been doing this for nearly every week for the last five years. Plus, the one rule for rhyming at Sin Sin is that it all has to be from the top of the head. On the last tour I was on, I had to rhyme for a half an hour straight off the top in front of an audience while the headliner was getting ready to come on the stage. The crowd loved it. When I toured the Czech Republic, I rocked many of my verses over those old style 90's boom bap beats and the audience ate it up. So, in other other words, playing to different crowds is not hard for me. And I came up on that ole 90's boom bap shit. I was raised on a healthy diet of that. I've just chosen to make my own sound when I have the chance, but rocking over styles like that is easy for me. And I see Joell's music and his fan base as a positive throw back to those times, so this is not going to be much of a stretch, I don't think."
In an extended lead-up to his album's release, for the past several months in the New York City area Prop Anon has been bombing (as in a sticker and stencil campaign) the city, mainly Brooklyn, with his "Squat The Condos" campaign. He says it vehemently expresses how he is "opposed to the aggressive movements by developers to erect these building structures and thus drastically alter the social space in all these areas in Brooklyn and NYC and across the US."
The artist said, "When it comes to the extensiveness of my stencil and sticker campaign, I will preface my response by saying that I have always held street art in high regard, and I always pay attention to how or what is getting up on walls and street signs. So my campaign is really rooted in the love and fun of contributing to an art gallery that has no walls. This is [one] of the freest forms of expression out there, and I give huge props to all the cats and crews getting up." And like most dedicated graffiti artists, who inevitably get arrested for their love of their art, Prop Anon has also gotten caught by the NYPD for stenciling "Squat The Condos" in Brooklyn, where there are numerous controversial luxury condos that have been the subject of public debate for past few years. It was on these very condos that Prop Anon posted his stencil art, reading in bold type SQUAT THE CONDOS. He admitted with a laugh that, "specific cop squads don't take kindly to seeing a 'Squat The Condos' stencil on a luxury condo. Though I will say that cops I spoke with during my time detained in their lovely downtown Brooklyn quarters have many of the same opinions on the 'Luxury' Condos as everyday people in this city. I have yet to find anyone who really is in favor of these things."
As a housing activist Prop Anon says, his opposition to overpriced luxury condos going up in once working class urban areas "is rooted in a basic formula of how to increase one's humanity. When people are breaking their backs everyday, constantly stressed out just to meet some of their most basic needs, then they have very little time to increase their own personal culture. It becomes very hard to create some art, and work on a green roof, when you are busting your ass at a shitty job just to cover rent in a shoe box apartment." He is passionate about working people being able to live a good and balanced life. "The basics like food, clothes, and shelter, once they are provided, tend to increase the energy available for the proliferation of a vibrant culture, and with that, more civilization," he said. "And to me, a culture and civilization that constantly enhances knowledge, wisdom, and understanding breeds more freedom. Both personal and collective." Community based organizations working on behalf of the working class people that Prop Anon supports include Right To The City, The Change You Want To See, and SSBX (Sustainable South Bronx).
Propaganda Anonymous "Luxury Condos" (2010)
The very word luxury, used when selling & marketing these so-called "luxury condos," says Prop Anon, is merely a "PR technique seeking to appeal to a part of people that wants to feel separate and better than others. Most commercials today promote this. In others words, it's a mis-truth." Squat The Condos is his one man protest against and his "call to attention to further point out the fact that we need to figure out better ways to provide affordable housing, and also to think more about the eco-system of the city at large. Not just NYC, but every city in America and beyond. I've been all over the country, and I have seen the same exact advertisements for these "Luxury" Condos nearly everywhere I['ve been]. And the formula is the same, from Williamsburg, Brookyln to The Mission District in San Francisco. First the 'crazy' artists move in to an area that is usually filled with Latin-American immigrants and/or African American working families. Developers get wind of all the D.I.Y. development that is going on there, they see an opportunity to 'grow.' Add a little redistricting and renaming of areas. Artists'lofts give way to construction sites advertising 'Luxury' condos equipped with big windows, swimming pool, jacuzzi, and work-out- room, all for the low price of an arm and a leg. And then not only do the previous families get phased out, so do the artists."
The album's styles range from boom bap hip-hop to punk and dubstep and beyond. It has several producers, including UFAM, Freddy Wednt, Wanderlust, and DJ Nihilist. Many of the songs on Squat The Condos, including "Koncrete Giants" and "Agit-Prop," could be adapted by displaced tenants as their protest anthems. "Agit Prop" gives a nod to foundational movements that have inspired the artist, including The Nation of the Gods and Earths, punk rock squatter movements, Moorish science, and collectives of people who are aware of how the media works. The hooks utilized in those songs would be something you might hear at a march or rally. The song "Night Like This" is an exploration of the darkness that New York City holds for Prop Anon. "There is a verse in the song about the death of a dope MC and a friend, Leftist, who was run over by an 18-wheel truck on the Westside Highway, and the truck driver never stopped. We have no idea who did this. In the context of the song, the city itself called forth the dark forces to take Leftist like that," said Prop Anon.
Invincible & Finale - "Locusts" (Docu-Music-Video)
Before winding up our interview, Prop Anon insists that he needs to "shout out Invincible & Finale. Their video "Locusts" (above) is both a dope track about gentrification and the housing crisis for many other people. It's also a documentary. I was already in the process of recording Squat The Condos when I saw Invincible present this docu-video at Rebel Diaz's space up in the South Bronx a number of months ago. And I just want to shout out her and the video because it deals with the housing situation in Detroit real well."
Squat The Condos will be released digitally first via TuneCore at the end of the month and the CD release will follow soon after.