By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
"Is our destiny something we control?" asks Immortal Technique. "Or are there an infinite amount of ones we can pick from? That would mean that our destinies are sort of preordained anyways, no matter what we pick at the end of the day, because if God is limitless and infinite, then He would know every infinite possibility that we could possibly have to choose from."
He pauses to inhale without breaking eye contact, not for a flinch. Not even for a forkful of the yummy rice, black beans, and baked chicken laid out before him. Instead, he continues to build: "And I think, because we don't have the ability to deal with that, and because we haven't come up with a way to conquer ourselves, we overcompensate by trying to control other people, our women, and other lands that don't belong to us."
Passionate? Yes. Heartfelt? Si, refreshingly so. Freaking intense? Absolutely. Immortal Technique, born Felipe Coronel in a military hospital in Lima, is sitting at a table in Mi Floridita, a popular Cuban eatery in Harlem. Clad in a black baseball cap and a T-shirt with a bright-yellow graphic depicting Harlem (his home since he was two years old), the 30-year-old rapper is forthcoming and brimming with introspection.
"I read everything I could get my hands on," he recalls, "whether it was about our people or wasn't. Because if you want to understand the black and Latino struggle, and not just have some idea about the pain we've endured, but the possibilities for a real change—we throw that word around a lot, you know. . . . " His freight train of thought is briefly held up by a waitress bearing two cups of café con leche. "I think in terms of change, what's going to eventually happen is not that we're going to stop the war in Iraq, we're just going to change it." Yes. His interviewer nods in agreement. Internally, she is ecstatic not to be stuck in another boring chat with a boring rapper. Whenever she recalls hip-hop's versatile landscape and soundscape during the '90s, she sighs.
Immortal Technique embodies those halcyon days—a man flowing with, well, infinite possibilities for shaping the world around him using hip-hop as a tool for sociopolitical change: exposing Third World police brutality and ethnic cleansing; reminding us about the monstrous effects of Agent Orange on Vietnamese children born three decades after the American invasion; warning black and Latinos here and abroad about neocolonialism and recidivism. You may not be ready for the ominous truths he speaks, but you need to hear them nonetheless.
Once you're through the egress, however, you might come to a different conclusion regarding man's power to shape his own destiny. As a teenager, the Peruvian ruffian-cum-MC-cum-international- activist spent a year in jail for aggravated assault: what other rappers might call "street credibility." But instead of glorifying the hyper-violence that's had mall rats creaming in their panties like forever, Technique chose to veer left and push self-determination. His rapping style mirrors who he is as a person: exigent, rapid-fire, and—you guessed it—intense, babies. With each listen to any of his tracks, you'll pick something up that you missed the last dozen times. This is especially true when diving headfirst into Technique's latest bilingual contribution, The 3rd World: a disc likely overwhelming for Hannah Montana and Nelly fans, but trenchant and necessary political and social fodder for everybody else. Released in June on his own Viper Records imprint (because "I realized that a record deal is nothing but a loan with terrible interest rates"), it's his first full-length album in five years, and it has what's been missing from his other joints: Made in collaboration with DJ Green Lantern, the sound is uncluttered, but still catchy and playful enough to bounce, too, while nicely underscoring its star attraction's rapid-fire delivery. The result is musically superior to earlier efforts like Revolutionary Vol. 1 and Revolutionary Vol. 2, which makes Technique's message all the more digestible: a sweet spot similar to the work of Public Enemy, Sao Paolo's Racionais MCs, or Fela and Seun Anikulapo Kuti.
"You had N.W.A., Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy all co-existing on the same scene, and that balance is gone," writes Green Lantern in an e-mail. "Tech provides that other side of the coin to rappers who just rap about making coins, which helps me keep my sanity."
Technique also shows us, on any given bar of any given track on the album, the insanity that's resulted in the West's distorted foreign policy. Consider a few lines from the title track: "I'm from where people pray to the gods of their conquerors/ And practically every president is a money launderer/From where the only place democracy's acceptable/Is if America's candidate is electable." Oh, and then there's the locally relevant "Harlem Renaissance," which strikes a chord with folks who don't necessarily hate The Man (it's way too easy), but rather all the shit that happens when The Man takes over your 'hood: "So they start deporting people off the property/Ethnically cleansing the 'hood, economically/They wanna kill the real Harlem Renaissance." Consider The 3rd World a Nuevo Internationalist manifesto; Ban Ki-moon might consider taking a listen or three.
Immortal Technique is unlike many of today's "socially conscious," fashion-forward MCs. Trust. Not only does he frequent prisons here and abroad, but in a show of hip-hop's transformative mojo, the MC announced, via a MySpace post the day his record dropped, a partnership with a human-rights nonprofit organization called Omeid International to build an orphanage/clinic/school in Kabul, Afghanistan. "Hip-hop already is a bridge between cultures, and we have seen it transpire throughout South and Central America, Palestine, and from the Iraqi diaspora, with young kids using hip-hop to tell the stories no one else cares to report on," says Shamsia Razaqi, Omeid's co-founder, vice president, and chief operating officer. "Being a man of great conviction, [Technique] promised to help us upon the completion of his album—and sure enough, the day his album was released, he pledged his support to us."
Our interview over, Immortal Technique is ready to exit stage left, but not before opening the window into his mind's eye once more: "America is not the Great Satan, but finds a lot of little Satans around the world to do its work. People like Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, who they needed to finish what they started; people like the Taliban, who we worked with, gave money to. It's not just us being prostituted by white people—it's us prostituting ourselves."
It's a matter of fact, he says. "There is much work left to do." He rises, and heads off to do it.
Immortal Technique performs at the Rock the Bells Festival at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater August 3, along with A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Mos Def, and myriad others