By Jim Harrington, The East Bay Times
Just because he’s 48 years old and long-settled in the tony community of Danville doesn’t mean Paris has any intention of softening his firebrand approach to hip-hop.
In fact, the San Francisco native in 2015 released his first solo effort in eight years, a double album titled “Pistol Politics” that hits every bit as hard as the title suggests. In it, he tackles everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to war to political corruption. But if you really want to get Paris going, ask him about the state of music these days.
“It’s amazing to me that in an era that is so politicized that music would be so apolitical — especially in hip-hop,” says the rapper, sounding more sad and perplexed than angry. “When I came up in it, everybody had something to say. It was 180 degrees from what it is now.”
Indeed, when Paris — real name: Oscar Jackson Jr. — made a big splash on the national scene with his politically charged 1990 debut, “The Devil Made Me Do It,” he was one of many high-profile artists rapping about big issues and social concerns. These days, he notes, many top hip-hop acts are more inclined toward party anthems.
He also differs from his younger counterparts in that he takes time between projects — at least two years. And he’s aware that, even by his standards, the seven-year break before his latest album is nearly tantamount to an eternity in the fast-paced hip-hop world.
“Rap years is like dog years, you know?” he jokes.
Clearly, he didn’t run out of things to rap about during the recording hiatus. The album’s 17 songs tackle such vintage Paris themes as race, violence, social and political upheaval and the disparity between “the haves” and “the have-nots.”
“These things have remained a constant,” the rapper says. “Sadly, there is never a shortage of (expletive) to say.”
He reserves some of his harshest barbs for the United States’ “war drunk” foreign policy.
“We will bomb anybody for pretty much anything — especially if it’s a country of color, and they’ve got natural resources,” he says. “That’s as American as apple pie.”
The reaction to “Pistol Politics” has been strong. Spin magazine named it one of the top hip-hop albums of 2015. That kind of publicity certainly helps Paris’ cause as he attempts to compete for new fans in an ever-evolving marketplace.
“I am engaging a generation that has never purchased music,” Paris says. “They say that the newer generation doesn’t want to own anything, let alone music. They don’t want to own a car. They want to Rideshare.”
Paris can come across as angry — even dangerous — in his music. In person, however, he’s soft-spoken, extremely polite, smiles often and talks lovingly about spending time with his 86-year-old father. And, although he’s still strongly associated with San Francisco, he’s called Danville home for years. He describes life in that upscale Contra Costa County suburb as “uneventful.”
“That’s all I ask for,” says the rapper, who also worked as a stockbroker. “I just want some peace to (expletive) create and be at ease.”
Paris didn’t set out to be a musician. He attended UC Davis and earned a bachelor’s degree in managerial economics, with a law career in mind. But he was bitten by the music bug toward the end of his college career and started recording on weekends.
One of the tracks he cut found its way to Tommy Boy Records, which quickly inked the young rapper to a deal.
The result was the impressive debut “The Devil Made Me Do It,” which was released in late 1990, just a few months after Paris graduated. The album sold hundreds of thousands of copies and earned the rapper a strong fan base.
“I wore the (‘Devil Made Me Do It’) cassette through to the other side,” says Sterling James, DJ at Bay Area R&B station 102.9 KBLX. “(Paris) came out when rappers were saying something. He was angry, but he was intelligent. He was a smart writer.”
Concerns over Paris’ proposed second album — specifically, a track aimed at then-President George H.W. Bush titled “Bush Killa” — prompted Tommy Boy to drop Paris. So he started his own label and released “Sleeping With the Enemy” in 1992. He’s been independent ever since, which has allowed him to follow his own often-controversial artistic vision, resulting in such releases as 1994’s “Guerrilla Funk” and 2003’s “Sonic Jihad.” And he’s managed to sell nearly 5 million records by doing it his way.
“Major labels want to keep everything dumb,” he says. “They want to keep everything artificially dumb, artificially young and easy to pair with Toyota or Burger King or whatever.”
He has also had his songs featured in such films as “End of Watch” (starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) and “Kill the Messenger” (starring Jeremy Renner).
It’s yet another avenue for spreading his message, which, a quarter-century after he first broke onto the scene, still addresses what he sees as the mountain of injustice in the world.
“You got to make people aware of it,” he says. “And what better way to make people aware of conditions than the easy vehicle of entertainment? It makes me feel like I’ve mattered in some small way.”