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
Much has changed in the five years since those articulately belligerent Brooklyn bad boys known as dead prez were last licking shots at the establishment on wax: Kanye West had just debuted, and Jay-Z had just retired. And that's just frivolous music-business comings and goings. In 2004, Bush got re-elected. The war raged in Iraq. And, in Brooklyn, Timothy Stansbury, 19, was killed in a friend's Bed-Stuy apartment building by a housing cop walking his beat with his gun already drawn. The cop was never even indicted.
Straddling these musical and sociopolitical worlds, dead prez delivered their sophomore record, RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta. The time was ripe for an LP of that caliber—overdue, even. The masses seemed to have had somewhat of a political awakening. (Remember "Vote or Die"?) Channeling Bunchy Carter, dead prez reasoned that the most gangster shit you could do was whoo-ride on the system responsible for the conditions that birthed gangsters in the first place. On "I Have a Dream, Too," they pulled drive-bys on police; with "Hell Yeah," credit card scams and welfare fraud. (That concept worked so well artistically that even Jay-Z got his diamonds dirty on the remix.) Unfortunately, the record didn't really catch fire like it should've, and Sony eventually dropped the group.
Now, it's 2009. Some things have changed: We've got a recession, and a black man in the White House. But some things have not: Africa is hotter than ever, and these cops are still a problem. So dead prez have resurfaced, after a half-decade of solo and collaborative projects, to comment on the times. The aptly titled Pulse of the People: Turn Off the Radio Vol. 3 is their latest and greatest, a mixtape masterminded by evil genius DJ Green Lantern. With material like "Stimulus Plan" and "Warpath," you're getting vintage dp'z, though they seem to have mellowed a hair (with age, perhaps). As a result, collaborators like Styles P (on "Gangsta, Gangster") and Bun B ("Don't Hate My Grind") complement them better.
I recently took a stroll through M1's old Brooklyn neighborhood with the duo. They haven't lived in the borough for years, but it still holds a special place in their hearts, especially for him. So, from a stoop in Bed-Stuy come dead prez . . .
When RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta hit stores, George W. Bush was on his way to being re-elected. Do you find people more receptive to revolutionary ideas then or now, with this Obama optimism?
M1: Not necessarily. There is an air of optimism right now, a liberal wave, if you will, that change is happening. However, that is completely disconnected from any real study of Obama's policies. People are just pulling this hope out of their ass without looking at the fact that Obama is putting $3.2 billion toward prisons as part of his stimulus package, without looking at the money he's giving Israel.
You mean we're not saved because a black man is at the helm?
Stic: People who think that are devoid of any political analysis. If they think that we're all good now, with Obama, then those individuals obviously have race-based politics, something Stic and myself do not have. Our politics are based on power and the struggle to obtain power for our people. We had somebody tell us, "Now you guys should call yourselves Black Prez." I was like, "Fuck you." Realistically, the white power structure is still very much intact.
So, is Obama going to catch it, just like George W. did?
M1: Well, no, not like W. caught it. We have to be critical of him, but it's still an African man who has set the precedent for achievements by Africans in the U.S. Plus a lot of our listeners are feeling that optimism I mentioned earlier. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, a lot of our fans are like, "But wait! Give him a chance!" My analysis stems from observations I've made. I'm not just pulling remarks out of thin air. I shape my views from studying society. I am a social scientist, so to speak.
Did you take that into consideration when recording—that people might be put off by your views and consider you pessimists?
M1: We have our official album, Information Age, which we're putting out after Pulse. On it, we address that very issue with a song, "Politrikkk." We know people are gonna be like, "Oh, here come the haters, here come them dead prez haters." So on this song, we let them know, as always: Don't be fooled by what the establishment feeds you. Like Fred Hampton Jr. says, "No investigation, no right to speak." Read up on shit, then try and tell me I'm crazy.
Going back to the first question, "Broke is the new Black" in more ways than one, it seems. Are issues outside of the African struggle being addressed?
M1: Not really, no. Africa is still at the center of the equation: Darfur, Somalia, the Middle East, which is just an extension of Africa in many ways . . . dead prez has not changed the focus. All the shit we were kicking about the power structure that people were ignoring when times were better, people are waking up to now. All the shit we were kicking about the evil, exploitive relationships between artists and major labels? Now look at the majors. So are we going to make our message more inclusive? No. When we first came out in the late 1990s, no one was kicking that revolutionary shit. We rocked through the "bling" era with our message. After 9/11, when a lot of people lost their minds and started waving flags, we kept it protocol. We're not going to change it now.
Dead prez play the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival June 20 and Highline Ballroom June 21.