I recently published a piece in Counterpunch and a couple other places that I titled “Keep It Radical!” The essence of the piece was that it is important to develop and maintain a radical (in the fundamental sense of the word) analysis of the situation and that the best tactics are not always the nicest ones. I received several responses to the piece. One of them was from a hiphop artist and activist in California, who has also written pieces that appeared in Counterpunch. After I listened to a couple of his songs (which can be found at this site) and he and I traded some emails, I asked him a few questions. The transcript follows.
Ron: Hi Nate. First, can you tell the readers who you are and what you do. Where are your roots?
Nate: My name is Nate Mezmer. I’m a writer, a rapper and an activist. I’m interested in disturbing peoples senses and creating social change. I was born in Stockton, California. And I moved to the Bay Area when I was about 10 years old. I was raised in a suburban community that was influenced by an influx of people from across the tracks. Indeed the El Camino Real split the city in half and the high school I graduated from was the inspiration for the movie Dangerous Minds. Although I never had a teacher that looked like Michele Pfeifer…
Ron: In terms of your project in schools, what does it involve? Do you have a sponsor or do you go it alone?
Nate: I feel like kids growing up today are being cheated. When I was in middle school, I was lucky to be exposed to innovative hip-hop artists like KRS-One, Nas, Jeru tha Damaja, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang, Redman, Organized Konfusion and even Outkast and The Fugees. Then at the same time around 93, 94, 95 there were new underground folks making moves in the Bay Area like the Hieroglyphics crew and the Living Legends, and along with Company Flow (from NY) they began to push the independent envelope. Graffiti Art was also at its peak in San Francisco, San Mateo, Oakland and San Jose. Compared to now, it seems like there was simply a lot more innovative and creative stuff going on.
Although now days everyone thinks they’re a rapper, most kids don’t really understand the art. But its not their fault. They are being inundated with a product that doesn’t challenge them to think outside the box! If kids were not just trying to act like rappers they see on TV, but also interested in understanding how to write rhymes, poetry, freestyle, DJing, scratching, mixing, producing beats, sampling, playing drums, piano, beat-box, drawing, painting, tagging, dance, break, pop, lock and most importantly if they were interested or inspirited to take control of there future with a sense of education and business, then the world would be a better place! Not because it would create some sort of authentic and respected legacy for hip-hop but because we would have educated and free-thinking young people running around! Educated, free-thinking young people can change the world! It doesn’t matter if you like Punk Rock or Pete Rock, as long as you find you’re passion.
So as far as the project, I am in the process of organizing a group of accomplished hip-hop artists, dj’s, etc in attempts to tour public schools in the Bay Area and wherever else they’ll have us in hopes to expose the youth to these things. This venture will not be a preachy “Stay in School” type thing although besides showcasing the skills we will also speak to topics such as commercialization, censorship, ‘clear channel’ and issues like payola. As of now, I do not have any sponsors however I have spoken with a handful of schools and they say they are interested. Apparently there is still a little funding out there available for kids. Hopefully, we can create some sort of buzz and get the ball rolling. Maybe Phil Angeledes can back us? Get himself some street cred in the process for his election bid. I think the kids are our most important natural resource, thats why I want to do this, and thats why I opposed the execution of Tookie Williams and thats why I hope ‘the Govenator’ loses his upcoming campaign! Whats up Phil? Where you at?
Ron: If you had to name your inspirations, who would be the first five on your list? Why?
Nate: Woo..only 5 huh. Thats tough. Well in no particular order I’m gonna say Chris Rock, Saul Williams, Ani DiFranco, Kurt Vonnegut, and Cornel West.
Chris Rock because although he is a comedian and a major star he isn’t afraid to be political and he isn’t afraid to take a stand. Saul Williams because he is never limited. Rap is limited. It doesn’t always convey they same kind of emotion as singing or acting, but Saul does it all. He writes, raps, rocks, whatever. He’s like a hip-hop preacher or some sort of prophetic creature sent to us by the spirit world! Ani DiFranco because she is a lyrical genius; as good as any hip-hop MC! And her song ‘To The Teeth’ greatly inspired my thinking and writing for ‘Kill The Precedent.’ Kurt Vonnegut, because every time I read his stuff I’m always amazed at how good he is at writing and how smart he is with politics, hypocrisy and human nature. And Cornel West because his vision and humility is unparalleled among political figures in this country. He understands the hip-hop generation, he is down with Christians, Jews, Muslims and Atheists. And he understands that race is the biggest problem that continues to divide us however he refuses to give up his fight! And I’m friends with his brother Clifton..whats up Cliff!! That’s 5…I’d rather do a top 10 though!
Ron: You know, in the past hiphop had an explicitly political and popular element. Public Enemy and KRS-One come to mind first. Two questions: is there still such a thing as popular political hiphop and if not, why?
Nate: Well there are some notable hip-hop artists today that are political … Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Mos Def, The Coup and to a degree even Kanye West. But, unfortunately it does not receive much support from major labels and it definitely isnt supported by commercial radio or television. Remember when Kanye came out after Katrina and said on a live broadcast that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” That was very political. And Kanye is arguably the most popular rapper in the world. However, after he said that the networks threatened to take him off some sort of halftime show at an NFL game so he issued a statement through his people saying he was going to refrain from such comments and simply be an entertainer. Its crazy. You cant diss Bush, God forbid you show a womens nipple at the superbowl but hey the radio can broadcast mindless lyrics glorifying greed, misogyny and violence all day long on the airwaves to kids, virtually uncensored!
Thats why political rap isnt popular. Nobody’s thinking! If your always listening to mindless music which is popularized in the club and on commercial radio then your never really thinking. I know this from experience. Indeed if I’m a few drinks deep, and a beautiful women wants to dance with me to some loud mindless rap music, I’m honestly not thinking about what the guy is rapping about or his politics or the fact that she may have a boyfriend or a husband! But thats the club. Leave it there. Expand your mind. I always tell people, if your mind is always in the club your never thinking. dare to listen to something other than ‘Shake That Ass For Me!’ Get off your couch and make something happen! Take music lessons! Go to the gym! Read a book!
Ron: I’m listening to your song “Bound for Glory” right now. It’s obviously about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the life of a vet. Why did you choose the title–which I assume you borrowed from Woody Guthrie?
Nate: I actually got the idea for the title from listening to Phil Ochs. I think he was singing Guthrie’s song? Anyhow, I wrote the song a few years back when the war in Iraq was still new, and I began hearing that there were all these miscellaneous deaths. I came to find that this included soldiers who had committed suicide. I also found out that there were a lot of soldiers who took there lives after they had already returned from the war, of course this wasn’t being counted in the official death tolls. Anyway, I could see how someone could be easily inspired to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan thinking that it was a just and patriotic cause. In light of the bush Administrations claims that Saddam not only had WMD’s but also was linked to Al-Qaida and 9/11. If one was to go and fight for their country believing all of that to be true, only to find out that the war was waged on lies, such a person could become very troubled. Furthermore, many war vets return from Iraq with gulf war syndrome and other complications and do not receive proper treatment. The hypocrisy of all of this could drive somebody to kill themselves and that was what was happening. Thus, I felt that the story should be told.
Ron: Have you listened to other recent antiwar songs, like Neil Young’s Living With War album and John Fogerty’s “Deja Vu All Over Again?” I know there’s others out there in the hiphop genre-the Coup comes to mind–the punk scene and even some country songs–mostly by Steve Earle. Do you think any of them have an effect? If so, how?
Nate: I definitely listen to ‘The Coup.’ Boots Riley is one of the few people in hip-hop I feel is really doing it right! His music is diverse and original and lyrically he is very bold. Plus he actually goes out and joins the public in the fight. He’s involved. A lot of dudes are talking loud about politics but they are simply studio revolutionaries. But yeah, I think musicians that involve themselves with politics can have an effect. However, they have to reach out and touch people too. If you simply perform music for people who are already down with what your saying the message doesn’t reach as far. We have to put ourselves in positions to garner new audiences and expose people who are not yet aware! Also, folks with big names are not stepping up enough. Someone like Jay-Z or E-40 or Eminem! If those types of figures took a stand and threw there weight into the political arena, a lot more people would take notice. Most importantly, Young People! Maybe they are worried about losing fans but they are already super rich so they can afford it! I heard Chuck D speak one time about how Eminem had said that he wasn’t really political. (this was before he released that anti bush video right before the 04 election) Chuck followed by saying, “your 30 years old when are you gonna start getting political?” But thats real. People like Jay-Z, E-40, Eminem. They make a lot of money off of people who are victims of this twisted system and I believe they have a greater responsibility to step up there game. As Boots says, “Pick A Bigger Weapon!”
Ron: You mentioned to me something about the so-called Hyphy movement in hiphop. Can you tell the reader what that’s about? Also, in your explanation to me, you said it had some political potential. How do you mean that?
Nate: The Hyphy movement evolved out of the Bay Area rap scene, kind of a mixing of gangster rap and party music. Hyphy is like the Northern California version of Crunk in the South. Get Hyphy, Get Crunk, Go Wild, Act Crazy. Hyphy has many elements too it but the most often associated thing with it is the phrase or action know as “going dumb.” Whether it be acting a fool on the dance floor or driving down the street with your doors open, pretending the car has a ghost rider, “going dumb,” seems like the thing to do among youth in the Bay Area and beyond. In fact the phenomenon was on the front page of the USA today, not long ago!
The problem with the Hyphy Movement is that it doesn’t really have any substance. Indeed its not really a movement. There are a few people who are making a lot of quick cash off the endeavor but on the whole it is not building much that people can use for the future. It has not yet change the plight of people in the streets, thats for sure.
However, looking at the positives of all this, it does have a lot of potential because there is so much energy involved. The kids are very much into its sound and fashion and if it could be harnessed or directed i think it could do a lot of good for people. But a lot of key players would have to come on board. If the main rappers in the Hyphy movement are saying its cool to go dumb by doing ecstacy and sniffing coke, then kids will have a hard time buying into anything else. Furthermore, I like to ask people “why are so down with the Hyphy Movement?” “What is it doing for you?” Indeed not many people are making money off it besides the heavy hitters and I don’t think its inspiring tons of folks to get good grades in school or to get up to go to work in the morning? Mostly its a release, something mindless to take your mind off reality and also its something to belong too! After all its entitled a Movement! People like to belong. Well why not belong to something smart. Not dumb. You can get Hyphy and still be smart. In fact my DJ Manny Black and I like to say, “We get Hyphy but we don’t go dumb.”
Ron: I’m not certain of the terminology here, but do you perform? Is it mostly in the San Francisco area or do you go on the road?
Nate: Yeah most of my shows have been in Northern California. Either San Francisco where my label is located or in the Davis/Sacramento area where I finished college. I’ve also done several shows in Southern California and as far up the coast as Portland. Opened for such people as Prince Poetry, the Living Legends, Grayskul and The Coup. So yeah, I’m always looking to perform but its a hustle! Often times promoters aren’t checking for new talent. They simply recycle acts that always perform or they just put on there own people. Slowly but surely though, I hope the music will speak for itself! Indeed I think my next album project I’m working on will help to do so. I hope to have it available to the masses by the beginning of next year!
Ron: Do you go to protests? What’s your take on their effectiveness?
Nate: The political scene lacks a lot of energy as far as youth and music. I go to rallies but I’m always disappointed. There is never enough young people involved and there is always way too many long winded speakers. Some of them do have very good things to say but a lot of the times they are not skilled public speakers! People like that need to put their ego aside and do whats best for the movement. I have a lyric in one of my songs ‘Talkin Loud, Sayin Nuthin,’ that states, “Why is it so hard to get politically active/ I be the first one to march but half that shit is backwards/ Just another political game run by hypocritical chapters/ Delusional revolutionaries love to hear themselves speak/ But your message ain’t impressive if your delivery is weak.”
So yes, I go. But no I don’t think they are effective. I think they could be effective but often times they are too exclusive and to stiff. No offense to old white people but its time to expand the movement or its going to die! How will the movement survive when you are too old to move?
Ron: I notice that you sample the guitar lick from Jesus Christ Superstar in your tune “Kill the Precedent.” If I’m not mistaken, it’s the lick that’s playing when Jesus is either crucified or when Judas realizes what he is done? Any significance to that? If so, what is it?
Nate: Wow! You are on top of it! Yes the loop is from Superstar and no the sample is not cleared! Tom C (TomC3) who produced that album for me created that beat especially for Kill The Precedent. It was the first song I wrote for the album. Initially we thought we were gonna get Zack De La Rocha on that track but the connection never panned out and I’m not even sure where he is these days? I hope he is planning on still making music and remaining involved! He is a very important voice. As far as significance, it is significant to me! I’m not sure what Tom was thinking however he is one of those people that sort of pretends to be non-political when in reality he is very opinionated and very interested in seeing the Walmarts and the war-mongers of the world removed from power!
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org