Interview: DEAD PREZ

It’s Bigger Than Bush’
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
Dead Prez, with their outspoken views and activism – literal and lyrical – are many peoples’ personification of political expression in hip hop. Backstage before a Love Music Hate Racism concert in Manchester, UK, M1 and lounged amongst bowls of fruit and bottled water and divulged their views on ‘the system’. Their warm and serene demeanours notably different to their onstage fist-clenching energy as they relax before the show, Dead Prez talk to SoulCulture about why America’s problems go beyond President Bush, and the political implications of 50 Cent’s success.
SoulCulture: What does Dead Prez represent?
M1: We basically represent black and brown freedom all over the world and fighting back against the enemy, who is the oppressor; the white man – well it’s not just the white man but it’s a little system that I call ‘white power’ – and some black people fight for white power too, so let’s not get it fucked up.
SoulCulture: What would you say has moulded your political views and opinions?
M1: The will to stay alive has formed all my opinions. When I say that I mean that everything is political. The reason my opinions are so strong is because we’re trying to figure out, in a real way before I die, what we can do to make some changes and affect our lives in a different manner to how we’re seeing it go thus far. Basically: not being complacent with the cards that I have been dealt. That being said, my political education has been down the same road that our heroes have gone down – Mr Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther party, Assata Shakur – that we need a revolutionary change in order to be where we at. That’s the view that my politics has been moulded by. I think a lot of people have a lot of different politics – you can have punk political views, revolutionary political views, you can be liberal, you can be capitalist… I think everything is political and this is what I’ve chosen to fight for.’ve been influenced by a lot of similar things. Just knowing [M] for 14 years we formed our own organisation, we work with a lot of organisations and campaigns, doing this music… so I’ve been influenced by that. And I’m influenced by my moms, by niggas on crack – you know, I’m influenced by life. I don’t want the music to just be represented as political music, because we got happy days, we got kids, we got life to live, you know what I mean? At the same time. So we gotta have a balance to that in our music.
SoulCulture: You’re very active in your community so it’s not just political rap for the sake of it. Do you think some people are making superficially conscious rap?
M1: I think a lot of people talk a lot of stuff that they don’t know nothing about. It’s just how it is in life. You’ll find the people with the most convictions will be the people who experienced it first hand and are still here to tell you about it and are fiery about it. There’s rappers saying political words that don’t mean anything (I’m not accusing anybody, but there probably is) if it happens, I think the reason why it’s gonna happen is cos: a) the industry has made a way so that political rap can be a money-making thing, which it’s not really right now; and b) the movement, which is the people doing the real work, doing the reality about what rights we really have and which we let slide by taking away from us, that makes it legitimate. That makes what rappers talk about have some relevance to the real world. That’s the only way those things can really happen.
What do you think will make a revolution? I think when you’re talking about change, we’re constantly changing as human beings, growing in different experiences. So that’s part of revolution in itself: people changing their minds about what they wanna settle for, people changing their direction. That’s what it’s gonna be, our shit’s always about change and change can be how you look at it – not necessarily changing externally, but sometimes how you look at it makes a difference to how you act on shit.
SoulCulture: You’re very outspoken in your music. Have you always been opinionated?
M1: I developed much stronger viewpoints and opinions once I realised what I was ultimately fighting for. I really cannot remember being such an opinionated child other than about what kinda food I liked in my mouth and the kinda clothes I wanted to wear, which was very limited because I grew up below the poverty level so it was really scarce resources. You clearly can’t think much around what you don’t really have in the material world. You just like I got that so that’s what I’m working with. Once I began to see the scope of the whole world and what’s really offered it helped to develop me and shape my opinions
SoulCulture: One issue you often opinionate on is the US government. Is it specifically the current president or is it government in general? Health, family, new clothes, shelter, being protected, martial arts, tattoos, recreation. It’s the government; Bush is just the latest figurehead. America was established to exploit the land and the people and the resources. From America and from Africa and any other where else they want to snatch up people. It’s always been bigger than Bush, even though people point him out as if before him we were free – we had the same problems with a different colour with all presidents. To this day we call it the ‘White House’. To this day it’s all white male presidents and it’s supposed to be the melting point. To this day we’re still fighting for basic rights.
SoulCulture: Everyone has issues with their governments. Your lyrics are specific to your particular situations, so how do you think international listeners relate to your issues?
M1: It’s not my aims in vocalising my expression to tailor it to any one community. It’s intended to cross cultures, because we are more than that. It’s intended to communicate to black and brown people about the struggle, it’s also intended to communicate to white people, it’s intended to communicate to our brothers and sisters in Iraq who may not even know that we’ve got a people’s army. A lot of the terms we put out there are intended to have an international effect. When we say “I’m an African”, it’s not very popular in the US to say you’re an African. I really only know the people I know around me say that they African; consciously not African-American or just black.
SoulCulture: So you view ‘African’ as the best term to define black people?
M1: I think the most accurate one is ‘African’. It’s the most correct thing in the world. It identifies us with the landmass that we were stolen from and the power and the power-resource which is that continent we call Africa. I think that’s the most correct understanding of where we can draw our strength from around the world. That thing we point to draw from economic strength, our army and political strength, that’s more important than something we call our self which is contradictory.
SoulCulture: On the topic of economic strength… on our website there is an article called ‘Jokes Aside’ about the role of money in creating what we perceive to be racial equality. The writer proposes the view that only money gives black people power at the moment and if money was taken away would black people be back to square one? What’s your view on this? That’s an excellent angle right there. Money is just a means to an end. It’s the infrastructures and institutions that you want to build up with that money, and more importantly with your political education. That’s gonna be your real wealth. If they snatch your dollar or block your bank account, it’s what you got set up that’s under your control. We say money is people. People that work, that’s where the value is at. This just happens to be a system that says you need green. It’s still people grinding which is making that shit have value, so you wanna control your grind. If somebody else controls your grind, then you’re a slave. That’s the struggle right there. Just to be able to live off the work that you put in without getting exploited. Whatever culture or religion you’ve got, it’s people that wanna exploit people and take advantage of your own self-determination for their interests, that’s people called government. That’s the hustle that’s going on in every country.
SoulCulture: What’s your personal view on what should people be doing to progress? Savvy your resources. Figure out what the fuck you really want to do with your life and your time, how you want to live and how you feel like you can help the situation on a day-to-day basis. You can’t wait on a million motherfuckers to do nothing. You’ve gotta do it now, what you can do. Stack your resources and keep your education coming in, get involved in your plans, and fuck everything else!
SoulCulture: What do you think about the current state of hip hop in general? Hip-hop is making mad money and as far as the culture, it’s been exploited heavily by the people who own the labels, and the distribution channels, the retail stores… All that’s a network of exploitation, but yet it’s still making a lot of people rich, a lot of people have got a lot more opportunities and resources than they had before that. So to me it’s at a stage of opportunity where we can try to harness the power for our self or we can give it away so it’s like a fork in the road with hip-hop. Which way do you wanna go – do you wanna be famous, or do you wanna be powerful? Or can you have both?
SoulCulture: Do you think political hip hop will ever sell on a major level?
M1: Well, in terms of revolutionary hip-hop. Everything’s political – it is political that 50 Cent is the biggest selling rap act right now. Very much so; the fact that he is rewarded for and awarded for what he is willing to compromise himself to do. These are things that you have to consider. That being said, I think there will be a day when music that makes sense sells. You know why? The conditions will speak for themselves, like the tired poor masses of the world will be fed up and will do whatever it takes to stop whatever kind of misery it is. Everyday a revolutionary act is happening, every day a president is united with a revolutionary force, every day a rebel army is making a deal with another rebel army to gain a new sector over their territory against colonialism. Every day a revolutionary act is happening. That said, when it happens in your home town and your living room, it might impact the culture of America and the way that for us that could be the most important thing said and in that case grab a straw for the next motherfucker they could represent everything red black and green. But in reality, we wanna do it on our own terms and make it happen when we’re ready and stop when we’re ready. So we need to get control of all aspects of how this culture is affecting our people, and that’s left up to us.
SoulCulture: What do you see as steps towards it selling?
M1: Distribution is one of the major issues at this point. It’s important for artists plain and simple, whether they’re revolutionary or not. Distribution is an important factor in that, for sure, for sure. It’s your ability to connect with the people at a fast rate.
SoulCulture: What music influences your music? We listen to all types of music from Young Jeezy to Electric Light Orchestra, Curtis Mayfield, soul, rock, blues, Portishead, Outkast, anything. We consume the music and vibe off it, get inspired by it, what’s new, what people are saying and how they’re saying it, study the craft. Country music has a lot of good stories. All music.
SoulCulture: Where is hip hop going?
M1: It’s going wherever we make up our minds that it’s important for us, as people. I’m just one person but where I see it going, from my point of view, it’s already there. The only thing it’s going to do is change. As far as places, it’s already there and it’s doing what it’s doing. With motherfuckers on top of their game, hip hop is gonna be used to the fullest for us to get where we’re going in terms of getting power and starting businesses, funding programs, taking care of our families. That’s where hip hop is going to be that much more of a resource. I see hip hop as being a lot more artist-controlled in the future.
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