Dead Prez’s album Let’s Get Free isn’t easy listening. The beats aren’t polished, the production isn’t incredibly innovative, the duo’s rhymes aren’t approachable and they don’t give a shit about swag. But stic.man and M-1 wouldn’t want to be radio friendly or become part of the hip hop-industrial complex they so aggressively disdain.
Let’s Get Free isn’t just a hip-hop record. It’s a manifesto for the amateur revolutionary looking to overthrow the capitalist pigs standing in the way of the struggle for freedom. At the turn of the millennium, the rap group was mad as hell and screaming about structural inequality.
When I first listened to Dead Prez, I was struck by the group’s militancy, unapologetic anger and complete rejection of the commercialism — not just of hip hop (which is just a symptom of something deeper) but of American culture in general.
Maybe it’s just because my least favorite holiday, Black Friday, is fast approaching — that great tradition of mouth-breathers stampeding fellow humans in order to continue on that never-ending quest for another flat-screen television. Or maybe because Jay-Z hustled to capitalize on Occupy Wall Street by selling “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts (with none of the profits going to the cause), but Dead Prez seems to have the antidote to vapid hip hop.
On perhaps the most successful track, “It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop,” Dead Prez raps over a scrambled beat about the restraints of the music industry and the “fake thug, R&B, rap scenario all day on the radio.” It almost seems prophetic that Dead Prez is condemning the glamorization of the thug life and decadence pervading the radio from over a decade ago. The group’s thesis statement seems to be contained in this track: “You would rather have a Lexus or justice? / A dream or some substance? / A Beamer, a necklace or freedom?”
The album has gritty tracks that should be played in a dingy basement. Even the most stoic of hipsters won’t be able to resist the uncomfortable frankness and infectious camaraderie the rap group manages to create on tracks like “We Want Freedom” (which combines an inflammatory sample of a Black Nationalist ranting, a hard beat and inexplicably a pan flute). But these guys also have a soft side: Another track, “Be Healthy,” urges listeners to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Dead Prez still isn’t to a lot of people’s tastes, and many would accuse the group of advocating violence. But I would argue that’s a superficial take on Let’s Get Free. Both of the rappers are airing frustrations with a country that allows structural inequality to exist, and that’s the cornerstone of hip-hop music. Rappers like Jay and Kanye bury their own radical beliefs behind layers of slick production while sprinkling their lyrics with heavy doses of Bentleys. Dead Prez doesn’t pull punches and doesn’t want to be part of your top 40 anyway.
I love mainstream swaggering and gold-plated hip hop, and while Jay-Z and Kanye’s last album, Watch the Throne, is still a mainstay in my earbuds, I can’t help but find the entire album incredibly hypocritical and disingenuous. Let’s Get Free offers an alternative to the often unbridled celebration of gluttonous consumption. In this time when people are questioning the rampant greed that is at the forefront of people’s minds, Jay and Kanye revel in it while simultaneously calling for a revolution.
Fun fact: Kanye West is credited as a producer on “It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop.” This shouldn’t come as much as a surprise because Kanye has shown the stirrings of a conflicted revolutionary on his past records and in his personal life. Like when he showed up to Occupy Wall Street dripping in jewelry worth more than a lot of people’s yearly salaries (Kanye, you’re doing it wrong).
This is why Dead Prez’s album needs to make a comeback. While Kanye and Jay are anointing themselves kings and rapping about the new “elite,” they’re also trying to convince listeners, like on “Murder to Excellence,” that they, too, can make it (“Power to the people / When you see me, see you”). But they don’t let you in on a little secret: Not everyone can be king.
Dead Prez doesn’t give a damn about becoming king. These guys are of the people and call upon listeners to pick up arms in the Revolution. While Kanye feebly attempts to fuck the man, he’s also quick to enumerate on his expensive stuff. It seems Kanye and Jay merely measure success by material wealth (an arguably out-of-touch viewpoint in this economic downturn), but Dead Prez just wants freedom. “I don’t want to drive no fancy cars / I just wanna be free to live my life,” Dead Prez sings on “We Want Freedom.”
Dead Prez’s album is a reminder that Freedom is bigger than hip hop. It’s bigger than your bank account. And it’s bigger than your dick. Let’s Get Free is a reminder that you can’t become the man and still be part of the people.