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Thanks Christina Manzella for the last Insist post all about Lizzo, that was great! For this latest post we turn our focus to the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, a sprawling 9-CD and hardback book release that begins with the Fatback Band in 1979 and concludes with Drake in 2013. This massive set was being discussed and dissed extensively before it even became available. Everyone had canonical statements to make, omissions to argue, selections to challenge, and inclusions to debate, and the anthology serves as the jumping off point for this seventh post in the Insist series.
In the spirt of debate and alternate choices spurred by the box set itself, this post is about choosing representative artists from the anthology but presenting different songs to match with the theme of this blog series. There are myriad tracks and artists to choose from to fit this purpose, and I welcome any and all nit-picking about what could have been included. So, without further ado, here are three tracks not actually on the anthology but very much in the mode of Insist – Black Activist Voices in Music!
No strangers to controversy and militant political statements, Public Enemy ratcheted up their rage even higher with their fourth album ‘Apocalypse 91…the Enemy Strikes Black’. Almost any cut on the album could work for our purposes here but none hits quite as hard or mercilessly as ‘By the Time I Get to Arizona’.
Riffing on the name of the similarly titled Jimmy Webb tune (The definitive version of which was done by Isaac Hayes. Argue THAT!) and featuring a nasty and perfect sample of the Mandrill song ‘Two Sisters of Mystery’ by the Bomb Squad, the song pulls no punches in criticizing the decision of the Arizona (and New Hampshire) governor to rescind the Martin Luther King Jr holiday. And if the lyrics don’t get the point across then check out the video, in which Chuck D and the S1Ws are depicted murdering a senator and other white male politicians in Arizona. If you want more from these masters of political hip-hop then don’t miss both ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ and ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back’.
Mos Def and Slick Rick are both hip hop legends, and well represented on the box, but this oddball (maybe not that odd, as Mos Def and Talib Kweli did a version of Slick Rick’s ‘Children’s Story’ on their Black Star album) pairing from 2009 is on another level, both politically and sonically. Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) released ‘The Ecstatic’ as somewhat of a comeback album and Slick Rick…..well, Slick Rick is easily one of the most singular and beloved rappers of all time. ‘Auditorium’ features an Eastern-tinged backing track by producer extraordinaire Madlib and a superbly poetic and conscious first verse from Mos Def. But then Slick Rick appears, and anyone expecting some La-di-da-di party rap is in for a surprise as instead “The Ruler” drops an amazing Iraq-war themed verse in which he inhabits a persona of himself as a US solider on a 15-month tour of duty. Encountering a “young Iraqi kid” carrying laundry, the narrator asks what’s wrong and if he’s hungry and the reply is “No, gimme my oil or get the [f*ck] out my country”. It is a disorienting, succinct and real-time commentary on the folly and destruction of the war and the effects on both Iraqis and the invading soldiers.
No other modern hip-hop group is so consistently and unrelentingly political as Dead Prez (okay, sure, The Coup takes that crown) and one of their toughest tracks is ‘Police State’ from their 2000 debut ‘Let’s Get Free’. There’s no shortage of police commentary content to choose from (for starters see the anthology-included ‘Fuk Tha Police’ by NWA or KRS-One’s ‘Sound of da Police’), and this indictment starts with the police but goes way beyond to advocate for socialism and revolution. With vocal sample bookends, by Omali Yeshitela (founder of the Uhuru movement) at the beginning and Fred Hampton and an unknown speaker at the end, the duo of Stic.man and M-1 leave no doubts about the injustices they see and where they stand: “I throw a Molotov cocktail at the precinct, You know how we think”.