There’s so much to be said about dead prez, that it’s easy to dip into hyperbole. And considering that hyperbole is the order of the day when hyping a new album, it may seem a bit gratuitous to say that dead prez’s 2000 freshman album, Let’s Get Free, was the best hip-hop album released that year, a hip-hop debut as promising as A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. To take it further to say that Let’s Get Free was the most fiery, learned and observant political statement made by hip-hop since Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, may come off a bit snake oil-ish. But this is dead prez, and Let’s Get Free was no ordinary album.
With RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta, M-1 and stic have repeated the feat by giving hip-hop a cohesive creation that’s timely and timeless; something it didn’t realize it was missing just when it least expects it. Where Let’s Get Free dealt with world politics and theory, RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta shifts the focus to the hood and street knowledge.
The personal aspects of the struggle come to the fore on songs like “50 in the Clip,” a picture of street corner dice games where push-ups, not cash, serve as currency.
More poignant is “Unbroken.” Powered by a Bill Withers vocal-sample and soulful crooning, the autobiographical tale recounts the harsher, more private parts of and M-1 and stic’s history: growing up with crack addicted family members, dealing drugs, serving jail time, stints of homelessness, and living on public assistance are just the tip of the iceberg. “‘Unbroken’ is a testament to the fact that we’ve been through the worst that life could throw at us but we’re still here, we still survived,” says M-1.
Likewise, “The Bottle” documents stic’s past battle with alcoholism. “I was drinking from the time I got up in the morning to the time I passed out at night, everyday,” he informs. “Hennessey, Andre, Beck’s, E&J–whatever cheap shit they got at the corner. I stopped because I got diagnosed with gout. I think people gotta know the balance, they gotta know why we are who we are, why we say what we say. We really try to communicate that on this album.”
M-1 also goes by the name Mutulu Olugbala. The last name he shares with his rhyme comrade comes from the Yoruba culture and means “for the love of the people.” M-1’s political consciousness was sparked when he read Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “I was trying to be exactly like Malcolm,” he says. “I tried to change around a lot of things that I used to be doing.” When M-1 was kicked out of high school for “some bullshit reasons,” he relocated to North Carolina where he finished his secondary education, going on to attend college at Florida A&M University, where he met stic, who would hang out on campus, though he was never enrolled for classes.
The two comrades’ growing sense of Black pride and political theory served as a common bond as they joined various community groups, eventually forming dead prez as a rap group and moving to New York. After a chance meeting with Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar at a Brooklyn block party, the duo signed a recording deal with Loud Records, which released Let’s Get Free. But even before the release of the record, dead prez amassed a strong and loyal underground following through their explosive live shows, ardent community organizing and top notch unreleased material. Their rigorous work ethic has continued to the present, as evidenced by their critically acclaimed black market release, Turn Off the Radio, which revamped dance hits by artists such as Aaliyah and Black Rob into mind-awakening food for thought with titles like “We Need a Revolution” and “That’s War!”
“We took the popular songs that we love because of the hot sound or the melody or whatever and made it relative to Black people’s struggle,” says stic. “It means it’s a lot more we could be talking about with these great hits.”
Turn Off the Radio was also for fans who had been waiting for a follow-up to Let’s Get Free. “Good food, you gotta let it cook, make sure it’s seasoned right and everything,” says stic. “A lot of times, the public don’t know what’s going on. Because of the nature of our music, they be like, ‘Where dpz at? They must be frontin’ on ’em.’ A lot of times dpz be like, ‘We ain’t ready.'”
“I think you’ll find with dead prez that if people gave us that time, we could take ten years to make a record,” says M-1. “A lot of times critical analysis takes a real careful process of decision making, and criticism and self-criticism.”
RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta stands for many things. It’s hip-hop, but can’t easily be categorized by one sound or production style. It mixes elements of soul, blues, reggae, rock, and more in natural flowing ways.
“We always have a new sound vision where we want to fuse certain things,” informs stic. “We think about music that we like and certain artists from back in the days to right now whether it be Dr. Dre or Lil’ Jon or Trick Daddy or Sade or Portishead. We take all these different things and we fuse elements from that and we feel like it captures what we’re trying to capture.”
“We’re finding a groove in production and we know that that means that we have to call on people to invoke the kind of sound that we need cuz we’re not Stevie Wonder,” says M-1. “I work the ProTools and stic does a heavy amount of the production. We do it together, but stic is a genius sonically. It’s basically just a two-man team to record. I work the computer, I engineer the sessions, and stic lays the beat in.”
“I don’t really consider myself no producer, but I have fun trying to make music that I wanna hear,” confesses stic. “We work with live musicians as well as beat machines. We lay the foundation. We might lay some drums, and then build, either getting samples or some type of rhythm in the instruments, or we might come up with a melody. A lot of times the melody is he first thing for me in terms of creating a song. I just start singing some shit and then we start.”
RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta’s “Walk Like a Warrior” features Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s Krayzie Bone: “If you gon’ bang then bang for change/ Don’t bang for crazy thangs/ If not, don’t bang/ If you gon’ ball, play the game how it should be played/ Can you dribble a grenade to save your life?/ . . . This is only a rhyme, now don’t get skurred/ Listen to the message in the word.”
“Hell Yeah” features an electric guitar and desperate rhymes told from hungry bellies that do anything for a meal including sticking up the pizza delivery boy. “It’s talking about different things that being oppressed and living in poverty’ll have you resorting to,” says stic.
On a lighter note is “20,” the saga of a small bag of weed traveling from Jamaica to Brooklyn, which was inspired by a late night smoke session. “One time the Marleys came through with Mr. Cheeks and that’s the time we almost got booted out of the studio we were renting out,” says M-1. “I brought a bong to the studio at 4 o’clock in the morning and ’20’ is the type of conversations that happened. It ain’t meant to make such a deep and profound political statement. It’s a fun song, but it’s food for thought. I hope that dead prez never comes off preachy or presumptuous or self-righteous, and that song in many ways acknowledges our non-discipline as well as the fact that we’re still human as well.”
“It’s time you gonna smoke some weed, there’s times you wanna get some pussy and there’s a time to go to war,” says stic. “A man gotta be balanced. You can’t just be about the pleasures.”
Dead Prez All Music Guide Biography
The Florida-based political rap duo Dead Prez consists of Stic.man and M-1, a pair of rappers inspired by revolutionaries from Malcolm X to Public Enemy. They immersed themselves in political and social studies as they forged their own style of hip-hop. They went on to work with Big Punisher on his 1998 album Capital Punishment and released singles like 1998’s “Police State with Chairman Omali” and 1999’s “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop.” Their debut album, Lets Get Free, was released in early 2000. A two-volume mixtape project — Turn off the Radio: The Mixtape, Vol. 1 and Turn off the Radio: The Mixtape, Vol. 2: Get Free or Die Tryin’ — followed in 2002 and 2003, boasting tracks and new productions, and their proper studio follow-up, RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta, appeared in 2004. Two years later the group collaborated with the three remaining members of the Outlawz for Can’t Sell Dope Forever, followed shortly after by Soldier 2 Soldier, a joint record between Stic.man and Young Noble. ~ John Bush, All Music Guide