It didn’t take a nation of millions to hold Public Enemy back — just the cumbersome certainty of age. In 1990, with frontman Chuck D on the gray side of 30, the group’s social bombast began to degenerate into rhetorical ballast. Only 11 years later did a suitable heir emerge, and if Dead Prez could never hope to match Public Enemy’s social impact, they certainly equaled the group’s potency on their 2000 debut, Let’s Get Free (Loud).
You don’t make many friends when you come to the bling-bling pool party talking ’bout freedom and revolution. But that album, a manifesto from two street-reared black socialists, earned M-1 and stic.man the respect of their most important peers. Dead Prez, who headline the Lyricist Lounge tour that comes to the Paradise this Friday, became the group whom bohemians like Talib Kweli and the Roots take their cues from. They’re revered like punk icons for doing what other rappers never could: living the agenda they preach.
Like its predecessor, Dead Prez’s new Turn Off the Radio (Holla Black Records) offers contemptuous commentary on the black social and economic state. The album’s 18 songs address an agenda of familiar subjects that are framed as a radio-DJ mixtape: racial profiling, corrupt police, unfair city zoning that puts blacks at a disadvantage. Hip-hop has, of course, introduced many of those subjects into the public dialogue. But Dead Prez aren’t concerned with what the public thinks, just with the thoughts of their own people. They color in the outlines of injustice with stories of their own frustrations and life lessons; they urge self-empowerment and self-improvement. One minute (during Turn Off the Radio’s "introduction"), they’re telling blacks to "get the white man’s dick out yo’ mouth"; the next (on "Get Up"), they’re exhorting them to "Get up right now/Turn the system upside down/Supposed to be fed up by now." On "Like War!", M-1 denounces black kids who contribute to the downfall of their people ("If you young and black, sell crack — that’s war!"). On "Souljah Life Mentality," stic.man denounces rappers who engage in verbal tête-à-têtes with each other, insisting that they should be more concerned with the way they’re treated by the police, the district attorneys, and the judges of a biased judicial system.
Dead Prez give advice as if they existed outside the system and were able to see the big picture. "They wasn’t aiming at us," goes the September 11 number "Know Your Enemy," and the chorus adds that "George Bush is way worse than bin Laden is." Thoughout the duo refer to terrorism as a problem for "them" (i.e., not "us"). As for the opening title track, it’s a fleet-footed, percussion-heavy jam that blasts both corporate-controlled radio stations who brainwash people with "stereotypes" in music and the artists who play those stereotyped roles. As the title suggests, radio is a popular target on this album. Several tracks feature Dead Prez rhyming their own messages over instrumental segments of familiar R&B hits. Aaliyah’s "We Need a Resolution" becomes "We Need a Revolution," M-1 and stic.man verbally sparring with Timbaland’s syncopated beat and turning the pop song into an anthem of empowerment and resistance, complete with a seductively cooed chorus of "The system ain’t gonna change/Unless we make it change."
The implicit message is that even Dead Prez could get airplay if they hired a hot producer and toned down their rhetoric. And that’s just what they want you to believe. On the final track, stic.man borrows the familiar hook from Southern rapper Khia’s sexualized anthem "My Neck" to say, "My neck, my back/They got my neck in a noose and they whippin’ at my back." Dead Prez use the Khia and Aaliyah samples without permission, and they get away with it by shrouding their album in the guise of a DJ mixtape. But this release is illicit for another reason: Dead Prez have been caught in record-company limbo for two years, ever since a contract they signed with Loud was sold to Sony. So M-1 and stic.man went ahead and released Turn Off the Radio by themselves, on their own label, contractual obligations be damned. It’s all just part of their outlaw appeal.
Dead Prez headline the Lyricist Lounge tour with special guests Youngbloodz and Kardinal Offishall this Friday, February 7, at the Paradise. Call (617) 423-NEXT.