Dead Prez’s music was never meant for my ears. As a middle-class white kid growing up in the Midwest, my demographic was dead last on the list of targets for the Afrocentric, militant, revolutionary sounds of stic.man and M-1, but in no way does that mean they didn’t change my life.
When I talked my friend Robert into copping Let’s Get Free at the mall, it was because I had heard rumblings of how dope they were, and because he had money and I didn’t. I had no idea what it would do for my understanding, and ultimately my contempt, of America’s unspoken values.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my white privilege had kept me from most of the struggles and issues detailed by Dead Prez throughout their career, but their music taught me more than any class ever has about those with stories different than mine, and bestowed values and skills on my young mind that are largely responsible for the man I am today.
Hearing Dead Prez for the first time was how I imagine my hip-hop fan predecessors experienced Public Enemy. The music was abrasive as fuck, and it was grimy, but it was beautiful. Before I even had a chance to lose my soul in what I still consider to be the hardest track of all time, “Hip Hop,” the first three tracks - “Wolves,” “I’m A African” and “They Schools” - had already opened my eyes to a realm of thought that suburban landscapes and racially biased school curriculum had kept from me for years.
Not only did Dead Prez offer unapologetic accounts of what was happening in the world around us, they provided solutions. After Let’s Get Free, I inevitably found RBG: Revolutionary but Gangsta, which amped up their messaging beyond the blatant call-outs of inequality on their debut. “Hell Yeah (Pimp The System)” is one of the most ballsy, revolutionary tracks I’ve heard in my entire life. Throughout the song's four minute run-time, stic.man and M-1 literally provide step-by-step instructions for leveling the playing field against class warfare and consciously perpetuated ghettos through street-bred scams. My heart still races hearing the sound of those first strings.
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I know a way we can get paid / You can get down but you can't be afraid / Let's go to the DMV and get a ID / The name says you but the face is me / Now it's your turn take my paper work / Like 1, 2, 3 let's make it work / Then, fill out the credit card application / And it's gonna be bout three weeks of waitin' / For American Express, Discover Card / Platinum Visa, Master Card / Cause, when we was boostin' shit we was targets / Now we just walk right up and say charge it / To the game we rockin' brand names / Well known at department store chains / Even got the boys in the crew a few things / Po Po never know who to true blame / Store after store you know we kept rollin' / Wait two weeks report the card stolen / Repeat this cycle like a laundry mat / Like a glitch in the system it's hard to catch / Comin' out the mall with the shoppin' bags / We can take it right back then get the cash / Yeah, get a friend and then do it again / Damn right that's how we paid the rent
The messages and ideas in Dead Prez’s music have played a huge role in my own mental and emotional development, and they've acted as both a catalyst for a deeply rooted pursuit of truth and equality, as well as a sobering reminder of the fact that I am a humble guest in a culture that embodies the fight against oppression and racism. Much of my reading on civil rights, class warfare and other societal issues, as well as any volunteer work I’ve been a part of, is thanks in part to the visceral cocktail of betrayal, anger, love and generosity I've received through the words of stic.man and M-1.
While I understand that their music was primarily created with the intent of empowering and teaching men and women of color, I can only hope that they recognize and acknowledge the impact that they also made on kids like me. I didn't have to face the same struggles but nevertheless have been given a burning fire to act as an ally to those fighting oppression inherited through carefully executed misinformation and societal manipulation.
My appreciation for Dead Prez has only grown as both my knowledge of hip-hop and my personal understanding of the issues they brought to my attention have expanded. Yes, there are other artists speaking on the ills of systemic racism and classism, but stic.man and M-1 maintained a brilliant balance between unflinching militancy and enlightened compassion that I see artists to this day reaching for and falling short of.
They were truly R.B.G. - Revolutionary, but gangsta.
By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.