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During the summer of 2002, Bay Area rapper Paris wrote and recorded a song called "What Would You Do?" and made it available for free downloading. The song accused President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to justify a "season of war for profit" in the Middle East.
Now ask yourself who's the one with the most to gain (Bush)
'Fore 9/11 motherfuckas couldn't stand his name (Bush)
Now even niggas wavin' flags like they lost they mind.
Paris says that hundreds of thousands of people snatched up the MP3 file, inspiring him to record an album, Sonic Jihad. He also posted an image of a jetliner careening into the White House on his Web site, and later used the artwork on his CD.
The national media jumped to interview him. MSNBC's Lester Holt told the rapper on national television that "[t]he cover of that CD is clearly designed to push buttons." "Absolutely," replied Paris, who said that the jetliner and his song expressed political thoughts that many Americans had but were afraid to say out loud.
The media's fascination with Paris' publicity stunt was, he chuckles, worth millions of dollars in free advertising. Sonic Jihad, his fifth album in a dozen years, hit record stores in early October. Its lyrics call for people of color to pick up arms and wage guerrilla warfare in the streets of America. Music critics quickly acclaimed it as Paris' best work. The Los Angeles Timescalled it "sinister ... music that moves the mind as well as the body."
"I make inspirational music, the soundtrack of the revolution," Paris said during a series of interviews with SF Weekly. "Revolution for some means shooting up the government, overthrowing the system, burning down Wal-Mart. For others, it means positive change."
These are not the kind of statements that you would expect to hear from a former stockbroker who lives in Danville, an affluent Contra Costa County suburb. But Paris, 35, is not your average stockbroker, nor is he your typical revolutionary. For that matter, he is not your run-of-the-mill rapper.
He burst onto the hip hop scene in 1990 with his Black Panther logo and his revolutionary black nationalist album The Devil Made Me Do It. Two years later, he claims, the Secret Service paid him a visit to inquire about his song "Bush Killa," a fantasy assassination of the father of our sitting president. Despite the rhetorical violence he now directs against George W. Bush in what he calls his "Panther" personality, Paris admits he doesn't plan to do anything more brutal than cast a vote against the incumbent in 2004.
"There is a degree of persona that gets switched on with the Paris records," the rapper says. "It gives me freedom, but it also limits me, because the Panther Paris has to push to the extreme."
What I'm sayin', what if niggas started shootin' 'em back?
Spit caps outta gats till the beast collapse?
With an eye for an eye, ain't time to play
With an eye for an eye – it's the Amerikkkan way. – "Field Nigga Boogie," Sonic Jihad
"Some of my songs are just venting," Paris explains. "Others are trying to reflect what people are saying, trying to inspire them to make social change. I'm a mild-mannered family man, unless I am treated badly."
The family man, by the way, is named Oscar Jackson Jr. Unlike the snarling, shred-'em-with-gats character of Paris, Jackson is an affable small businessman who cherishes his financial and artistic independence, his white liberal associates, and the media buzz that has enabled his label, Guerrilla Funk Records, to sell thousands of Sonic Jihad CDs in chain stores.
Paris is more than Jackson's alter ego; he's a brand.
The son of a medical doctor, Oscar Jackson Jr. grew up in the Haight and Western Addition neighborhoods of San Francisco. He's a big guy, 6 foot 2, with a slightly pudgy frame and a winning smile. He was, he says, an unremarkable student at Lowell High School, preferring to spend his time recording music with his DJ pal, "Mad Mike" Hornsby. In 1990, he graduated from UC Davis with a bachelor's degree in economics.
Joe Lambert, owner of the Creative Music Emporium record store in the Mission District, befriended Jackson when he was a teenager. "He was a bright kid, not your average Joe Blow rapper," says Lambert. "His beats, his sound quality were good, but his lyrical content was way above the norm. And he had a feel for the entrepreneurial part."
One day, Jackson morphed into Paris. "I went to hear Minister [Louis] Farrakhan speak. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Lots of things I took for granted turned out to be absolute lies, a painful reality that people who are now taking the view of Fox News will eventually experience."
Joining Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, he adopted the name "Paris" for reasons that he's "never been able to explain in a soundbite" but which have something to do with appropriating a symbol of European culture and turning it against itself.
Paris celebrated his newfound consciousness by recording Nation of Islam- inspired black-power raps with Mad Mike. Looking for tips on how to make a video, he hung around with members of Digital Underground, a popular hip hop group, as they shot a music video in Oakland. A producer for Tommy Boy Music, owned by AOL Time Warner, asked if he rapped.
"I rushed to get my tape out of the trunk of my car," he recalls. "They liked it. They said, 'Let's do a single for $4,500.' I said, 'I got an album here, and I know shit when I smell it.' They said, 'OK, here is $100,000 for the album and two videos.' Two weeks later, I was in New York City tracking The Devil Made Me Do It for Tommy Boy."
On his inaugural record, Paris played off the rage he felt as a black man confronted in daily life by white police. He called for his black brothers to equalize the contest with guns.
And now you know, I'm brutal
Callin' all brothers to order, P-Dog'll slaughter
Stomp rip and choke those who thought a
Young black man wasn't capable of intellect ...
We're headin' for Armageddon, it's like that
The government's policy, see, is tactical genocide.
Paris says his Nation of Islam comrades were more concerned with what was wrong with society than with how to change it. Identifying racist cops as the most visible enemy of black people was not enough. Paris was looking for a more concrete political direction, a vision for change. So he set the '60s-era Black Panther Party's Ten Point Program to a scintillating beat.
"Public Enemy was Afrocentric, but Paris was the first hip-hopper on the West Coast to do it in an uncompromising way," says DJ Davey D, who writes a hip hop column for the San Jose Mercury News. "When I played Paris on KMEL he was a big hit. He had a slamming beat, and he made history relevant. He was fusing Nation of Islam stuff with the Black Panther Party's nonreligious approach."
Paris stood out, says Davey, because he did not glorify selling drugs, killing fellow African-Americans, or raping women, as did so many black rappers of the time such as N.W.A. The motormouthed rapper suggested that his listeners kill "killa" cops instead of each other. He was deeply contemptuous, as he put it in one song, of "weak wack watered-down welfare DJs" who put out "mindless music for the masses" that "makes you think less of the one that hates ya."
The Devil Made Me Do It sold 300,000 copies, according to Paris. Buoyed by that success, the up-and-coming rap star labored to finish and release his second album, Sleeping With the Enemy, in time for the 1992 presidential election, which he hoped to influence with his music.
Listening to these early raps, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the music and the vehemence of the lyrics. A closer look at the words shows, however, that Paris was struggling hard (as he still is) to define an enemy upon whom he could focus an inchoate political anger. Clearly, the category "white supremacy" was too broad and vague to pick as a target for the revolution; cops were obviously servants of the rich, more symptom than cause.
The sons of slaves are insane and we might just
Self-destruct and erupt without a chance to grow ...
Or maybe even more of us will blame the white man
Before we understand now the problem's not him.– "The Days of Old," Sleeping With the Enemy
Iraq never called me "nigger"
So what I wanna go off and fight a war for?
That reflection gives way to homicidal resolve:
Yeah, it's P-Dog the Bush Killa ...
Yeah, so where's he at? I might wait
For his motherfuckin' ass on a rooftop next tour ...
And send his ass home belly up.
The lyrics gave Tommy Boy executives a serious case of cold feet, and they refused to release Sleeping With the Enemy.Using contract settlement money from the label, Paris started his own, Scarface Records, and, he says, sold 480,000 copies of his controversial record. "Bush Killa" generated tons of free publicity, even though Sleeping came out after Bill Clinton defeated the Republican incumbent.
Paris says the Secret Service later showed up at his workplace to question him about the album, but he was out of the office. "They wrote a letter to my record label expressing discontent about 'Bush Killa,'" he says, declining to elaborate on what, exactly, the federal agents wanted from him. Richard Stribling, a Secret Service spokesman in San Francisco, says the presidential protection agency does not comment on investigations past or present. He adds, "It is a violation of federal law to utter words threatening to kill one of the officials we protect, and that includes works of art. We investigate all threats and if we determine that there is any substance to it, we turn the matter over to the United States attorney for prosecution." But attorney Margaret Russell, the American Civil Liberties Union's Northern California chapter chairwoman, says that Paris' violent anti-Bush lyrics "would have been protected speech under the First Amendment, unless the government had reason to believe that the songs were part of a criminal threat to hurt the president or to commit violence."
In any event, the uproar over songs like "Bush Killa" brought Paris' career to a turning point.
"There was a knee-jerk response by people in the music business that I'm always angry, that I'm always talking about police brutality, always talking about shooting police," he says. (Sleeping With the Enemy did contain several gentle, lyrical tracks, including "Assata's Song," in which a mellow Paris sings the beauty and power of black womanhood.)
Over the next few years, he made a string of videos that were shown on Black Entertainment Television (after, he says, MTV rejected them), went on a world concert tour, and produced two albums, Guerrilla Funk and Unleashed, which had relatively lackluster sales.
In 1996, Paris met the love of his life, married, and became a father. He continued to write music, but much of it was for "movies and television I can't recommend: Jean-Claude Van Damme, HBO, Tom Berenger. Licensing for my work, which I own, starts at $25,000 a song. I'll not say how much I am worth, but music has been good to me." Nor is he willing to say much about his wife, daughter, or anything else involving his private life.
Paris says he wasn't motivated to write songs about Clinton, even though the Democratic president sent troops to occupy Haiti for a spell, fired cruise missiles into Sudan, and periodically bombed Iraq. Clinton just never pushed the rapper's "devil" button the same way as Bush père and fils.
Plus, he says, he was by then engaged in trying to build his fortune in more traditional ways than making music. "I got involved in real estate, buying fixer-uppers. I'd slap on some paint, put down some Home Depot carpet. I was buying houses in San Francisco before the prices got outrageous."
In 1998, Paris retired from music altogether and Oscar Jackson Jr. re-emerged, in full-blown capitalist mode. He became a licensed stockbroker -- training at the World Trade Center in Manhattan before returning to California to join the Dean Witter Reynolds office in Pleasanton.
He explains his reasons for this amazing career switch: "You have to have more than one iron in the fire, because nothing is promised. It's the guerrilla way: hands-on, adapt, survival tactics."
He seems more than a bit defensive, though, when talking about the apparent contradiction between the fight-the-power theme of his music and the ease with which he joined the ranks of Wall Street financiers. He'd gone to college to learn about money, so, in a way, he says, he was merely returning to his career roots. The dot-com frenzy was just beginning, and he admits he wanted to cash in on it.
He also gets a bit lost in the morality forest when trying to draw a distinction between owning stocks of "bad" companies in the short vs. the long term. Investors shouldn't hold Nike shares for long periods, for instance, because the firm exploits its Third World workers. But it's OK, he says, to trade in and out of Nike stock quickly to make a fast buck.
"A lot of people decry the unfairness of the capitalist system," he says. "But we all participate. You can piss and moan and say you do not want to participate and let someone else steer it for you, or you can take up the tools and bring about change on an individual level."
Casting about for analogies, Jackson says he takes "a Robin Hood type of approach" to buying and selling stocks. But Mr. Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which is not exactly what stockbrokers do.
Jackson got in early on the dot-com action at Dean Witter. "I made some people some substantial dough," he claims. He enjoyed the hustle of trading and fit more or less smoothly into the white-collar culture, although his colleagues had no idea that he was an ex-rapper who'd sung about wanting to blow away a Republican icon.
But, he says, the financial world's endemic sleaziness began to wear on him. "I saw what was going on with favoritism in the mutual funds," he says. "That's real gangsta shit."
After a couple of years, Jackson quit Dean Witter for reasons he declines to elaborate on, except to say that he "started to see a direct correlation between high finance and the hardship of people on a global scale."
He became a day trader for himself, family members, and friends. He snapped up tech stocks like Webvan, the cybergrocer, but "took a series of licks" and switched to safer blue-chip stocks.
Then a truly unthinkable set of events happened: Bush's son became president of the United States, Islamic fundamentalists attacked New York and Washington, D.C., Congress passed the Patriot Act, and a hyperaggressive Bush put America on what now seems like a permanent war footing.
Pissed off, Jackson returned to his Paris persona and hooked up with a group of Berkeley dot-commers who ran an alternative news service, Guerrilla News Network.
In 2002, Paris scored and narrated a GNN video documentary, Aftermath: Unanswered Questions About 9/11, which explores post-Sept. 11 mysteries, such as why U.S. fighter jets were not scrambled to shoot down the jetliners hijacked by al Qaeda. The video has played to packed houses in more than 20 cities in Europe and North America, including San Francisco.
After the dot-commers built a Web site for Paris, he stayed up nights blogging it. Guerrillafunk.com is hundreds of pages deep, filled with the rapper's thoughts on the origins of the Bush family, his advice on personal wealth-building, and links to dozens of articles on a wide range of political topics, including a number of conspiracy theories.
It was time for Paris, still a Muslim, to make jihad – with music.
This time around, though, the rapper understood that Americans were "not ready for a revolution. There is no black army. We might talk about overthrowing the system, but you can't if the mass of people do not want to do it."
But that does not mean they won't actively defend themselves against police repression or vote against the political party in power. "At its best, hip hop is aggressive and counterestablishment," notes Paris. So the erstwhile stockbroker decided to reach out to hip hop fans, especially young black ones, with an anti-corporate, anti-Republican, anti-major-record-label message. "In the black community," he says, "life imitates art, as hip hop carries a lot of weight."
It carries weight in white suburbs, too. The majority of American hip hop fans are, according to many consumer surveys, white people between the age of 14 and 34. The problem with commercial rap, says Paris, is its ludicrous content.
For his comeback, Panther Paris wanted to influence all the hip hop lovers, to persuade them to "adopt an attitude of frustration and outrage instead of just parroting corporate America's objectives."
As usual, Paris employed the stylized hyperbole of hip hop to package his political message, hoping to make it digestible for millions of fans who he believes have been lulled to sleep mentally by the obscene banalities of commercial rap.
... when you killin' niggas on a record then you going places
But talk about killin' these crackas, you racist ...
Look into my eyes before I pull this trigger, I don't know what's worse
A black cracka or a white nigga, who should I do first?– "Ain't No Love (w/Kam)," Sonic Jihad
The burning question, though, is what does Paris really want his fans to do? Ultimately, he says, he hopes his art will "redefine black manhood," but he's quick to remind you that he is not a philanthropist, not the savior of the world. "This is not a hobby, it's to make money," he says firmly.
And in the parlance of hip hop, making money is the bling.
Michael Franti, recording star and nonviolent revolutionary, gets visibly sad when he talks about the hip hop culture of over-the-top materialism. Even the music itself, he notes, has been co-opted by corporations.
"It's hard to observe how hip hop has changed over the last 15 years," said Franti, who performs regularly at Bay Area anti-war rallies, as he dressed for a concert (with his band, Spearhead) at the Warfield last month. "It was a political, cultural, spiritual force, a voice of the community. Now it's the voice of McDonald's, Reebok.
"Face it: Every teenage boy wants to get laid. The question is how to do it. Hip hop teaches him he needs a car, money; to be tough enough to outplay, outsmart.
"At the same time, hip hop has always been about making people dance, socialize. As a political songwriter, I cannot forget the importance of dance, humming along with the melody, planting seeds in the lyrics. Over time, when people enjoy music, the seeds take hold. Songs help to make the revolution."
Yet Franti has no problem with Paris' forays into the world of high finance.
"Paris has street credibility in his music, which is injected with radical lyrics. He also understands the music industry as a place to do his art, but he is not solely reliant upon music, which is a fickle way to earn a living. As a successful businessman, he is a good example to young people who think hip hop is a way to get rich."
A musical colleague of Paris since the early 1990s, Franti loves Sonic Jihad. "Paris has one of the best voices there ever was in rap -- a deep, authoritative baritone. People talk about the things he says, but he is also a great musician."
Plus, Paris has a devilish sense of humor.
Sonic Jihad opens with "Ave Bushani," a spoof of the Omen movies, featuring George W. Bush as Damien, the corporate Antichrist.
"Our objective conflicts with others," Satan tells the newly minted president. "Your father believed his country should look to another form of government, and he took control of that belief, so we view him as an extraordinary man. We believe, we know, that it runs in the family."
A chant follows: "He shall rise in the world of politics, the Devil's Child will rise in the world of politics."
Another cut on Sonic Jihad, called "Field Nigga Boogie," urges blacks to:
... ride or die
Put this beast on its back ...
Unless you wanna live on your knees, throw down.
This call to arms is followed by "Sheep to the Slaughter," a pounding rap overlaid with the sounds of anti-war demonstrations.
And when ya see me, understand I'm representin' a voice
The majority would feel if given a choice.
Paris' collaborations with Kam and singers from Public Enemy and Dead Prez lend vocal depth and musical complexity to the album. The bittersweet lyrics of "AWOL," about ghetto kids tricked into the Army with false promises, alternate with the battle cries of "Tear Shit Up":
Fuck the system, I'm-a holla with a black fist
It's hard truth, where my soldiers?
Unlike most contemporary rappers, Paris reserves the term "bitch" for Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, while labeling President Bush a murderer in a photo-op jumpsuit who is too cowardly to go after a target that might shoot back. He believes that modern wars and oppression are the result of a conscious plan perpetrated by evil people, such as the Bushes, rather than by the capitalist system. He lays it all out in another song on the Sonic Jihad album, "Evil."
See, if I was wicked I would pick and stick to a plan
To rule the world and trick 'em, this is how it'd begin ...
In a school system where I'd keep the money too tight
I'd let 'em know just where they belong in my world
Turn the boys into felons, makin' hookers of girls
Swirled up in my plan, build jails to keep
All my prisons full of niggas, have 'em workin' for free ...
Teach 'em only to respect sports, music, and dope ...
They'd forget about elections and the way that we cheated ...
Then manipulate the media -- it's U.S. first
Get the stupid-ass public to agree with my words
Then I'd make the play, takin' all their freedoms away.
So far, Sonic Jihad has sold 94,000 copies, Paris says, and is licensed for international distribution. He clears $9 per CD sale (and keeps half of the $20 people fork over for Guerrilla Funk T-shirts). Early next year, the rapper/entrepreneur will take his sonic jihad on a worldwide tour.
"To a certain degree it is necessary to participate in the capitalist system," Paris remarks during an interview at the Starbucks in downtown Orinda. "You just have to minimize your involvement with treachery, be aware of what companies are producing, like Nike."
We are outside, leisurely sipping lattes, watching SUVs come and go. Paris is casually dressed, at ease with the world. "Here at this Starbucks, life is good," he says. "If you are a consumer, you have suburbia, movies, lattes – as long as you are spending, life is good.
"The average clueless American buys into talk radio and hate speech. It's easy to pull the wool over their eyes when they don't read. But when people are informed about reality, it is human nature to become more left leaning and progressive, because it makes more sense.
"I believe we should socialize medicine and education. There should be no wanting for basic needs. We need a free-market capitalism that does not exploit people."
Paris believes that his archenemy, Bush, will be brought down by a bad economy in 2004. "Americans are so dumb and selfish, they only are about themselves. All is forgiven here when the economy is good. It's like music. R. Kelly can pee on little girls. Michael Jackson can feel up little boys. But all is forgiven with a hit. Same thing with Bush. If the economy is bad, everyone will start saying, 'Fuck Bush.'"
Paris still encourages people to fight their individual oppressors, such as cops. "Revenge is a dish best served with steel," he sings on Sonic Jihad, putting a more explicitly violent edge on an old adage. But Oscar Jackson Jr. is a successful entrepreneur who genuinely likes capitalism. What he doesn't like is the people in charge of it. Not surprisingly, this self-made man, in accord with his own interests, opposes megacorporations, including those that own record labels, because such organizations eat small businessmen like him for lunch.
But both Paris and Oscar Jackson Jr. want Americans to reject and even to rise up against a government run on behalf of the "small elite group of people, family, friends, [and] businesses who control the world's strings.
"The average person believes that wars happen by chance and that people who can analyze facts are 'conspiracy theorists.' But is it really a stretch to say that an incestuous group of people, like the Bushes and the Gores, control global politics in such a way as to predetermine the outcome of events in order to ensure war-based profits for themselves?"
So why bother to vote?
"Like it or not, we have a two-party system," he says. "In the lesser-of-two-evils scenario, it's the worst-case scenario we are living in right now. I was never a Republican. I've been a Democrat because they are not so blatantly repressive as the Republicans.
"But if you believe in an eye for an eye, like I do" – Paris has the stage again now – "the best-case scenario would be to take the elite in Washington, D.C., and shootthem."