“My grind is my stimulus plan”

August 10, 2009

Alexander Billet reviews Pulse of the People, a new album from Dead Prez.

BY NOW, we've all heard ad nauseam that President Obama is a "fan" of hip-hop. He has Jay-Z on his iPod, he loves its "entrepreneurial spirit" and he's still famously referred to as "the first hip-hop president."

But if anything can be taken from Obama's recent address to the NAACP, it's that his understanding of hip-hop is, shall we say, a bit different from most people's. Rehashing the tired rhetoric from his campaign, he claimed that there were now "no excuses" for Blacks not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

And though he said nary a word about the Supreme Court decision ruling against affirmative action for Black firefighters in Connecticut, he went out of his way to say, "Our kids can't all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne...I want them aspiring to be president of the United States of America."

It's safe to say that Obama doesn't have Dead Prez on his iPod. If he did, he might hear this:

He go to school just to battle MCs in the cafeteria
Fellas sleep in third period to the theory that
The president is Black
So he should try to be that
Better yet put a gat on your back
And go to Iraq

Dead Prez performing in London
Dead Prez performing in London

The Brooklyn-based duo's new mixtape Pulse of the People is a surprisingly catchy slab of hip-hop militancy, a slap in the face to the laughable equation of "Black president equals the end of racism" and a fine addition to the increasingly political turn that popular music is taking in these troubled economic times.

Over their 15-year career, M1 and stic.man have had influence over what hip-hop is today, despite most of the big music press's dismissive treatment of them. Their "Revolutionary But Gangsta" stance is proof that there is no iron wall between "mainstream" and "conscious" rap music--even if their method wasn't always effective.

It needs to be said, for every five or six hot tracks in Dead Prez's catalogue--walking that fine line between the politically righteous and aesthetically satisfying--they've also put out ham-handed flops like "Be Healthy" or "Mind Sex." One is certainly willing to forgive these songs because others like "Hip-Hop" and "I'm a African" are just so inspiring, but their tendency to drift into preachiness often had this writer wondering when DP were going to stop singing and start swinging.

I was almost ready to throw in the towel on Dead Prez, but then I heard Pulse of the People. Artists are always evolving, and with the system failing more and more people every day, Dead Prez seem to be hitting a stride.

Good thing too, because if ever there were a time that cried out for an uncompromising radical narrative about urban life, this is it. "Tired of watchin' all these companies get bailed out/And the only thing that poor people get is another jailhouse," they declare in "Don't Hate My Grind," a firm rebuke to the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mantra. It's delivered over a dark, organ-driven beat, courtesy of the near-omnipresent "evil genius" DJ Green Lantern.

Green Lantern's presence aids DP greatly. His tracks have always had a defiant swagger, and it's no wonder that MCs from Nas to Immortal Technique are scrambling to work with him. The process of working with Green was "fast and fun," according to stic.man. "We did the whole thing in four days. We didn't try to edit it too much, man. We just wanted to do [something] in the tradition of the original mixtape, where you come in the booth, you spit, and it hits the streets."

Green's mixtapes have always thrived on the bottom-up immediacy that's inherent in the format. The mixtape that he and DP have produced (along with a list of guest MCs that ranges from Ratfink to Chuck D) ties together the reality of an economic crisis that devastating poor communities with an urgent vision of a people's planet.

WHILE OBAMA and company seem convinced that the current state of Black America is the result of some kind of pathology, tracks like "Gangsta, Gangster" and "Life Goes On" place the blame where it belongs, and make the novel assertion that the so-called undesirables of society might be the very people who can permanently shake it up.

"Warpath," possibly the best song on Pulse, rides on funk-metal guitar and pumping bass. It's almost shocking in its brash call to arms against the New York Police Department, highlighted by the memorable line "so I rolled into the precinct, and I shot the sheriff."

To be sure, Pulse of the People has its flaws. "Summertime" confirms the suspicion that Dead Prez should stop writing romantic lyrics. Combined with its uncharacteristically disappointing beats, this track makes the listener glad that it's a rarity.

Bu if there is one song that sums up the timeliness of this mixtape, it would have to be "$timulus Plan." Peppered with "ka-ching" audio clips and sound bites of outraged citizens, M and stic put nearly everything in their sites--from the recent bank bailouts, to the war on terror, to the American dream itself:

It's a cold game
And it's the same from the top of the food chain
All the way down to the little homie in the street-gangs
Slangin' cocaine, it's how they do thangs
It's the American way
Imperialism, have it your way
Whatever it takes
Whoever gets fucked in the process, that's okay
That's how they play
So you can't blame us
Them dead white men on that paper ain't us
We still gotta hustle for the benefits, man
My grind is my stimulus plan...

There are plenty of artists who miss the mark when they try to make relevant music. Some pile on the rhetoric but forget the craft. Others slave away for years, struggling to find an audience for their message.

And while Dead Prez have been keeping their head up for a decade and a half now, Pulse collides with a certain point in time that makes it all the more urgent and listenable. While their calls for revolution might not yet be on the lips of every member of the oppressed and exploited, the volatile mixture of hope and anger in American society gives us a glimpse of what is possible when people fight. With any luck, the "pulse of the people" might end up being a lot more than just a cool album title.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

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