Encounter: M1

The Dead Prez ‘raptivist’ discusses the mainstream appropriation of hip-hop culture and capitalism-versus-art

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By Vivian Tabar
Jun 16, 2014

RAP DUO DEAD PREZ ROSE TO FAME at the turn of the century with their infamous chant, “It’s bigger than hip-hop.” But as Mutulu Olugbala – better known as M-1 – tells it, his group’s biggest song to date was an accident.

“We were being obnoxious when we made it,” M-1 – who’s in Dubai to perform with the ARAP crew, Shadia Mansour, Eslam Jawaad and Ledr P – recalls. “It was the end of our album and the record label was saying ‘You don’t have any radio-ready pop tunes.’ And we were like, ‘You want something like this?’ We were banging it out and laughing while we made it.”

That was almost 15 years ago. The album was Dead Prez’s studio debut, Let’s Get Free. And “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” took a scathing look at the mass appropriation of hip-hop culture, which M-1 and his rap partner stic.man saw as major labels co-opting and repackaging the genre, glamorizing drugs and gangster violence – “If you a liar-liar, pants on fire, wolf-crier, agent with a wire/I’m gon’ know it when I play it,” warned M-1. They linked this phoney output to the economic exploitation of black Americans, asking listeners if they’d “rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance, a Beamer, or necklace or freedom?” The lyrics were dropped over a thuggish beat accompanied by a music video resembling a how-to infomercial on guerrilla warfare. The rest of the album followed suit, offering an intelligent critique of capitalism and state institutions including the prison and education system.

If hip-hop were measured on a spectrum, with mainstream artists on the right and ‘conscious’  rappers like Mos Def on the left, M-1 and Dead Prez fall somewhere beyond the far radical left. Incorporating the rage of Nineties gangsta rap acts like NWA and the political stylings of Public Enemy, Dead Prez are a big act in a niche rap scene, as the title of their second album, Revolutionary But Gangsta, implied. If, as Chuck D said, “Rap is black America’s CNN,” then Dead Prez are a university. Early hip-hop reported the angst and frustration of life in the ghetto, but Dead Prez break down the power systems that perpetuate that life. Dead Prez may not have the notoriety of Public Enemy, but the duo certainly have a huge influence among rappers. Kanye West cited them as a personal inspiration in developing his voice, and 50 Cent remixed their tracks, purposefully skewing their progressive lyrics – an insult or compliment depending on how you see it. For M-1, it’s the latter. “I’m a fan of 50 Cent,” he says. “I’m not a fan of his ideology, but I understand him. He’s a product of the working class of the United States. Because he promoted this bad-boy, drug image, of course I was critical of it, but I knew what that meant. And I knew that it wasn’t specific to him but to the mentality of beat-the-system. Sometimes the only alternative we’re given is becoming drug kingpins.”

M-1 is the quintessential raptivist. An ardent black nationalist, he drops shout-outs to Malcolm X and Huey Newton – among others – in his songs, and makes a point of publicizing the legacy of the Black Panther Party through his music, activism and tattoos. In America, he’s involved in community organizations. Abroad, he spends his downtime hanging with European revolutionaries and visiting Palestinian refugee camps. He even boarded British MP George Galloway’s ‘Viva Palestina’ aid convoy, breaking the Israeli blockade on Gaza, an act that was often met with force by sophisticated Israeli navel vessels. Discussing his performance with ARAP, M-1 admits, “It’s a little bit hard because I don’t understand Arabic, but I know certain code words. I don’t know how many people from black revolutionary circles even understand the importance of what’s happening in that community, but the voice is like…” He pauses. “I just love that voice.”

In person, M-1 is just as sharp and informed as his lyrics. He’s hesitant about entering the thorny ‘real hip-hop’ debate (he recently opened for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a bone of contention with some hardcore elements in the hip-hop community), but admits he does see a link between mainstream hip-hop and a kind of ‘PR push’ for Western capitalism. “I see it as U.S. imperialist propaganda. Right-wing propaganda,” M-1 says. “If you’re saying enough capitalist code words inside your music, you don’t even really have to be a great artist to be successful in the type of hip-hop that is capitalist-driven.”

 When M-1 speaks of hip-hop’s evolution, it’s with the intimacy of someone who’s watched it unfold from ground zero. The rapper, now 41, grew up watching members of his community fall victim to crack addiction. M-1 saw how the drug disrupted generational relationships, with younger dealers disrespecting community elders. He was part of the generation that sampled his parent’s old records and danced to disco’s beats. And he was inspired by rap artists such as KRS-One, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah and Rakim artists whose messages are in stark contrast to most contemporary mainstream rappers. “Artists who tout themselves on their ability to sell drugs gain more credibility than an artist who has achieved a sound or a skill level in the music that is amazing,” he says. “[Ability] counts a lot less today than if you were once a drug dealer.” Or, he suggests, even if you just pretend you once were. “You don’t even actually have to be one, [you can just] align yourself with the ideology of drug dealing.”

With his current project, AP2P (All Power 2 the People) – a joint collaboration with DJ Bonnot from Italy, M-1 aims to address that imbalance by creating music that tackles social and political issues while appealing to an audience raised on commercial hip-hop. “What AP2P is attempting to do is make revolutionary music but also make it with the highest level of creativity, of style,” he says. “Make it enjoyable.”

There’s another Dead Prez album in the works too. But, to date, the group remain most famous for their first album, recorded just before the new millennium. “You know a lot of people thought, erroneously, that the world would explode in 2000,” says M-1. “I didn’t know [what was going to happen], and so I thought if I could say one last thing before the world explodes, this would be the message that I would like to leave. That was the idea for Let’s Get Free.”

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