Words by Jesse Fairfax
Initially designed to uplift, educate, and keep global followers abreast on the concerns of the black community, Hip-Hop’s aesthetic drastically switched towards the turn of the new millennium. With rare exceptions including Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Brand Nubian’s 1998 comeback Foundation, prior balance was compromised by relatively shallow celebrations of excess and commercialism. Blueprints for the fictional television smash hit “Empire,” Bad Boy’s lavish dynasty and Master P’s crunk No Limit tank played sizable parts in rendering music’s consciousness an all but obsolete idea. It was at this time M-1 and stic.man (commonly known as Dead Prez) threw a brave hail mary to steer listeners back towards righteous living in 2000 with their debut album Let’s Get Free.
Spearheaded by forefathers not limited to Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, Hip-Hop’s progressive spirit was left high and dry due to the music industry’s changing tides. Largely attributed to the 1990’s rise of West coast G-Funk and New York’s advances in boom-bap, pride in one’s heritage was eventually replaced by newcomers riding the wave of less empowering trends. Continuing the groundwork laid by Public Enemy, X-Clan, and Ice Cube’s early solo work, Dead Prez sought to fill this gaping void for militant rap. With the backing of industry dynamo Steve Rifkind’s Loud Records (home to legends including Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan and Big Pun), albeit briefly Dead Prez brought substance and rage back towards the mainstream.
Discovered by golden age legend turned digital flamethrower Lord Jamar, with Let’s Get Free Dead Prez carried the torch for those passionately invested in bringing about social change. Florida natives who relocated to Brooklyn, they were driven by multiple factors from the South’s legacy of racial discrimination to the NYPD’s unjust treatment of minorities. Without fear of reprisal or backlash, they let loose an unapologetic barrage of impassioned sermons covering issues still affecting society in 2015. Comparable to 2Pac in his more enlightened moments, M-1 and stic.man’s primary aim was to awaken minds and guide shiftless spirits to greatness.
Making their issues clear and apparent, Dead Prez refused to tread lightly as each successive theme on Let’s Get Free was a treatise in its own right. Opening with “I’m A African,” they celebrated the esteemed teachings of Marcus Garvey and others who wanted to establish unity independent of European influence. Bridging the gap between revolution and Hip-Hop, here they spoke of Peter Tosh and Steve Biko while paying tribute to chants from Stetsasonic’s “A.F.R.I.C.A.” and N.W.A’s “Niggaz 4 Life.” Surely to make rigid folks even more uncomfortable, “They School” rested on the philosophy that education is a trap no different than prison and slavery. Pulling no punches, the duo’s harsh determination set out to give a voice to the disenfranchised.