“This is rebellious music, not gangster music.”
KRS-One was the man behind the old school hip-hop organization known as Boogie Down Productions (BDP). Like his contemporary Chuck D of Public Enemy, KRS-One had no illusions about the role he wanted to play in the culture of America’s streets. Education about the situation with revolution as the solution. To this end, the two hip-hop groups known as Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy broke down the beats and elucidated the history of the Black nation in America. As any objective reader knows, that history ain’t pretty. Nor is it boring.
In the late 1970s I used to find myself in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco at least once a week, usually just hanging out or meeting up with friends to get high at nearby Aquatic Park. It was during these forays that I first encountered the music that would become known as hip-hop. There were various groups of young black and Latino men who would set up their boomboxes on different street corners and, after drawing a crowd, perform breakdancing routines for the tourists’ dollars. Although I was intrigued by the choreographed moves and the DIY aspects of the music, I didn’t really pay the phenomenon much mind. Like punk rock-with which it shared a street sensibility-it continued to grow.
One afternoon while drinking pitchers of beer at the Berkeley Square-a bar on Berkeley’s University Avenue that had begun to book more and more punk bands interspersed into its standard schedule of Bay Area blues rockers like Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame-the video of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” came on the bar television. The video and song smacked me in the head. Lyrically and beat-wise it did not bullshit around. This breakdancing and the companion rap music (as it was beginning to be called) could have an impact like punk, only greater. Greater because one didn’t need a lot of expensive equipment to perform it. Like basketball, it was something the brothers could afford to play. Unlike punk, it had an appeal beyond society’s fringes.
Fast forward to 2004. Hip-hop is everywhere. I hear it in my Burlington, VT. neighborhood coming out of pickup trucks driven by white teenagers and my parents’ neighbors complain about in suburbia. When I head to Boston or another metropolis, it’s in the air and in the clubs. Hip-hop makes a lot of money for a few corporations, just like every other entertainment form in capitalist America. Most of it talks about drinking, jewelry, and women. The days of political rap making it to the top of the charts are gone and have been gone for at least ten or twelve years. It’s all about the bling-bling.
Then why am I listening to an unreleased hip-hop CD with songs about Toussaint L’Ouverture, Malcolm X, the nature of capitalism, and the black rebellion on what would have been Malcolm’s 79th birthday? Who would have the audacity to take our minds off Tommy Hilfiger and the forty-ouncer, and bring us back to history? Who would send me an email that included this statement?
Be thankful in your antiquated experience with Roots-Hip Hop; the golden era is missed by all possesing the slightest sense of artistic integrity, still romanced by the awesomeness, the Urban puissance of Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Afrikaa Bambaatta… How far the genre has fallen – whored indiscriminately by the corp-pimps, consumed by a hopelessly detached white America, with no conception as to Black Culture; a lifestyle adopted by this generation of African Americans, allowing themselves to be assimilated by a hyper-masculinated sub-breed of what was once recognized as the “beat street beat. Yeah, I’m dissatisfied with the music form encapsulating my talents. It’s so fucking embarrassing Ron, witnessing new-age minstrel en masse.
Where’s the money in that? I mean, isn’t the money what it’s all about? Snoop Dogg thinks so.
JG is the emcee. He is a member of the hip-hop duo Over the Counter Intelligence (OTCI)-the other member being Haviken Hayes. Political radicals and hosts of a show that incorporates America’s other history. OTCI headlined the Taco Bell Truth Tour, a part of the campaign to force YUM Foods (the multinational that owns Taco Bell) to pay its workers a decent wage, beginning with Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes at a piece rate. OTCI’s song “Hunger Days” became the official anthem of the boycott. After this tour, OTCI performed (and continues to perform) at antiwar rallies, protests against the IMF and World Bank, and various festivals, including one dear to JG’s heart, the 2003 Haitian American Festival, in Miami, Florida. Dear to his heart not only because it is in JG’s adopted hometown, Miami, but because JG is of Haitian descent. He has shared the stage with hiphop heroes like Dead Prez and Boots Riley of The Coup, as well as former Rage Against the Machine members Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha.
Raised in Nebraska, JG had his perception of reality rearranged after his move to Miami. Faced with the new capitalist order of that city, something akin to a comprador arrangement like in Latin America, his “concept of prejudice (was) revolutionized taking full view of a bizarre socio-political model in diametric juxtaposition to the majority of US cities. The hierarchical structure remains intact, however the super villains atop are in fact minorities; displaying the hubris of the most refined xenophobe.” Like any real radical, he went to the root of the problem to figure it out and it all came down to who had the cash. From there, a synthesis of an anti-capitalist, anarcho-syndicalist, and anti-racist viewpoint was created. And a beat was added.
I’m tha anarcho-syndicalist deconstructor /
I’m tha first field hand in terror to flee
I’m tha white face in tha S.N.C.C. /
Tha bruised cervix of a wedded Seminole
Tha lungs of an Irish chap hauling Brit coal /
That from the title song to his upcoming solo project, Insurgent. This work does not relent. Nor does it disappoint. Topically, it ranges from a poetic tale of the Haitian rebellion against the French in 1804 to an indictment of (to use JG’s words) “the “Jiggy” Hip-Hop of today.” A little guitar work here and there mixed in with the scratching and other rhythms creates a sound that demands a place in your CD player. Let’s hope that it finds one there and in millions of others.
There’s bound to be some critic out there (or an entertainment executive or maybe even an entertainer) who’s going to call JG’s music and mission passé. Who cares about revolutionary politics in this post-911 world? Get on track, brother. Rap about wine, women, and bling. Politics is an ancient thing. Here’s some news: those folks got it wrong. JG isn’t going back in time. He’s dragging us ahead. If there’s one thing that is clear in this music, it’s that people like us make history. If we don’t take up that mantle, we are reneging on our duty.
Through collective communities
Resolve and solidarity we discover the unity
We discover the unity
True change doesn’t come from the power of one
Like KRS-One says at the beginning of this piece. It’s rebellious music. The culture of rebellion and resistance can do more to foster the changes we need than all the economic analysis in the world. JG intends to do his part.
For starters, check out his website: www.insurgentjg.com
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.
He can be reached at: email@example.com