By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Still frustrated from the last election? Feeling that the left consists of a bunch of ineffectual weaklings who don't have the heart, much less the balls, to take back this country from Republican thugs? New York City's MC Immortal Technique has a solution, but you might not like it.
On Revolutionary Vol. 1 & 2, and the soon-to-be-released Middle Passage, Technique doesn't just call out George Bush and his neocon cronies; he does so with the sort of revolutionary fire and brimstone not heard in hip hop since the riotous days of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Sister Souljah. It's a reminder that hip hop is the bastard child of gang culture and the '60s civil rights movement, and it's dangerous stuff to be sure, as likely to offend as many liberals as it energizes. Technique's work hearkens back to the days when hip hop not only spoke truth to power, but also did so in the most aggressive and at times violent terms possible.
Employing an approach that the similarly minded Dead Prez dubbed "revolutionary but gangsta," Immortal Technique fills his lyrics with violent imagery that is oftentimes misogynistic, homophobic, and far from constructive. And, most alarming, he flirts with terrorist metaphors. He claims that "he's emotionally cold, disciplined, and ready to kill," that he wants to "burn Trent Lott," and he threatens to "hijack a plane and fly it into your house." On the song "Leaving the Past," Technique compares himself to a "desperate motherfucker strapped to a bomb."
While the Talib Kwelis of the world -- those conscious/political MCs who are deemed palatable by the liberal establishment -- are promoting education and peaceful reform, Immortal Technique seems primarily concerned with instigation and overthrow. He's the Scarface of conscious rap, applying the bombastic and sadistic tropes of gangsta rap to politics. But his lyrics are more than inflammatory, they're complex, evocative, and oftentimes poetic, and they've got the ear of hip hop's revolutionary intelligentsia. The remix for his song "Bin Laden" features both KRS-One and Chuck D.
Says Technique, "I don't expect people to agree with everything that I said. But if I can make you pause and consider my words, I've been successful."
Sitting inside a cramped basement studio in 2000, Immortal Technique's prospects looked bleak. He'd been paroled after doing a stint in prison for aggravated assault, and while he was enjoying his newfound freedom, he was quickly faced with a different kind of imprisonment: He was broke. The economy was beginning its post-bubble downturn and the job market had dried up. Even the most qualified candidates were being turned away. And for a fresh ex-con on the streets of Harlem, the prospects for gainful employment were dim.
"I had a great support unit in my family, but it was rough," Technique remembers of that time. "They teach you in the classes at prison to always be honest with people and tell them you're an ex-con, but you go out there in the real world and nobody is really looking to hire an ex-con."
Luckily, Technique had put his two years in prison to good use. During that time, and during the period just before entering the upstate New York facility, Technique studied the history of his native Peru, which he and his parents had left during an early-'80s uprising. He read the works of Che Guevara and similar leftist revolutionaries and began to understand the global impact of American imperialism. He noted how the '80s war on drugs was waged at the expense of Latin America and how racism within the African-American and Latino communities had held people of color hostage to their own bigotry and ignorance. Also, in prison Technique had plenty of time to hone his rap skills.
Upon parole, Technique immersed himself in New York City's underground hip hop battle circuit, competing in the sort of rap competitions that were popularized by the movie 8 Mile, featuring MCs exchanging taunts, insults, and threats to determine who is the most talented. Technique was immensely successful in this realm. He won freestyle tournaments such as Braggin' Rites, Rocksteady, and DaCypha, and was soon one of the most feared and respected freestyle MCs in the city. But like most other MCs who came up on the battle circuit -- Dose One, Eyedea, Eminem, etc. -- Technique realized that it was an insular world that didn't translate into aboveground popularity and didn't allow for artistic development. So he began to focus almost exclusively on making albums for the indie label Viper Records.
The music he recorded -- compiled on Revolutionary Vol. 1 & 2 -- was some of the angriest and most politically aggressive rap of its day. Even if you agree with Technique on the hypocrisies of the War on Terrorism, it's difficult to subscribe to his version of specific events. On "Cause of Death" from Vol. 2, Technique issues one of the most searing indictments of Bush's war to date: "I see the world for what it is, beyond the white and the black/ The way the government downplays historical facts/ 'Cause the United States sponsored the rise of the Third Reich/ Just like the CIA trained terrorists to fight/ Build bombs and sneak box cutters onto a flight/ My words'll expose George Bush and bin Laden/ As two separate parts of the same seven-headed dragon."
This isn't the sort of message that will endear Technique to Maureen Dowd, much less Joe Scarborough. But as Technique repeatedly reminds me during our conversation, he does this for the street and could care less about the progressive, NPR set. When I ask him if he believes if a violent revolution is inevitable, he pauses and chooses his words very carefully, replying, "Voting isn't enough. At some point, all revolutions become violent. But if you're gong to consolidate some kind of use of force, you have to understand your beliefs, and you have to understand yourself. If you really know, understand, and believe in yourself, anything is possible. An army that is outnumbered but with heavy morale can overcome an army that doesn't have high morale."
This reveals another central aspect of Technique's message: the absence of racial bias and the ideal of unity amongst the various minority factions within the United States and Latin America. It's a philosophy that he borrowed in part from Che Guevara's idea of a unified America as well as from Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation, but it also has its roots in his personal history. Technique himself is of mixed race, and he's witnessed firsthand the consequences of racial animosity.
"Racism is not politically incorrect in Latin America," he says. "There's still Sambo cartoons in the media."
Besides calling for racial unity, Technique has also championed the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the award-winning Pennsylvania journalist who exposed police violence against minority communities and was subsequently convicted in 1982 of murder based on questionable and inconsistent evidence and has been on death row ever since. Abu-Jamal provides Revolutionary Vol. 2with the excellent monologue "Homeland and Hip Hop," in which he asserts, "If ever there was the absence of homeland security, it's seen in the gritty roots of hip hop," as well as the album's introduction and several interludes.
"I'm trying to raise some sort of awareness of Mumia's case," says Technique. "Mumia had heard my Vol. 1 and was impressed. And I approached him about doing something with hip hop. I told him about how hip hop at the very core is revolutionary. You can see that in all gangsta rap albums that have ever been done. N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, the Geto Boys' We Can't Be Stopped. If you listen closely to those albums, there's something revolutionary embedded in all of them."
Technique's championing of the gangsta ethos, as well as his adaptation of gangsta tropes in his lyrics, exposes and attacks a long-held dichotomy in hip hop: the division between hip hop gangstas and the culture's revolutionaries. For Technique, the essence of gangsta rap speaks to the same conditions that are addressed in so-called conscious rap.
"[The disconnect] wasn't there when it started, but now hip hop is controlled by corporate white men who really don't understand what the culture is about. ... But everything about hip hop is political. From what label you're signed to, to what gets played on commercial radio, everything is political."