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Hard Truth

By J.H. Tompkins, S.F. Bay Guardian

SONIC JIHAD, the seditious new album by Paris, declares war on the war on terror and blisters the cold-blooded liars yanking America's strings. It's about time, too: things are so bad these days that this week's "peace" candidate is a retired U.S. Army general. "P-Dog in the cut back to bring the pain," he raps – an update of Black Panther Bobby Seale's "Stick 'em up, motherfucker ... we come for what's ours." This is a call to arms, a help-wanted ad aimed at outlaws, outcasts, the fed-up, and anyone with nothing to lose. Sonic Jihad is defiant like Straight outta Compton, sharp like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, outrageous and overblown like Kick out the Jams, and elevated by moments of brilliance that are pure Paris. I put it on last week, and it's been playing ever since.

This story begins in 1990, when life had wormed its way under the then-21-year-old San Francisco rapper's skin until he couldn't stand it. In retaliation, he got up in white America's shit on a blunt, defiant debut album called The Devil Made Me Do It (Tommy Boy). It sold nearly 300,000 copies, and Paris joined Public Enemy and a handful of others on hip-hop's cutting edge. Black liberation was on the agenda, and – this is true – hope was in the air. Not everyone could bring it like Chuck D and Paris, but people paid attention. You'd hear people saying Malcolm X and Huey P. would've been rappers if they'd been coming up then, and you hoarded tapes of Davey D's Sunday-morning KALX-FM show like they were money. The king is dead

Did anybody read The Boondocks the other day, the strip about Huey and Riley, two young black kids who live with their grandfather (with guest appearances by their friend Caesar)? Eminem was on the agenda:

Huey: "They've replaced the real rebel music with blond sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Caesar: "Chuck D. is rolling over in his grave."

Huey: "Um – Chuck isn't dead Caesar."

Caesar: "Right, right – I keep forgetting that."

Yeah, Caesar, you and me both, but it's not our fault. Just when hip-hop was beginning to roll, gangsta rappers came along and grabbed the mic like it was theirs all along. The revolution was hustled off and sanitized into a made-for-NPR category called conscious rap. Some people pointed to pop culture's perpetual thirst for the next thing; others saw a conspiracy to put rebellious souls on ice. You had to wonder when rappers turned on each other, and one by one, they started to die.

Paris began calling himself the Bush Killa and wrote a song about it for his next album, Sleeping with the Enemy. It was slated to drop before the election of '92, but an imaginary hail of bullets was too much for the label, which released Paris instead of the album. He put it out on his own Scarface Records, and it sold nearly half a million copies. He followed it with Guerrilla Funk (Priority) in 1994, which sold nearly 500,000 copies and years later provided the name for his Web site. But as the decade wore on, Paris stepped back. "After a while," he told me when we met for coffee at an Orinda café in August, "as much as I loved hip-hop, I hated the state it was in." Back to business

Comebacks in pop music – usually ugly spectacles featuring middle-aged artists struggling to decode unfamiliar symbols of youth like they were written in braille – diminish us all. If MC Hammer drops something new, book him at Konocti Harbor and don't tell me about it, OK? But for Paris, substance has always been the crucial element of style – as long as America continued to act like itself, he was open for business. His well-covered 2002 return to hip-hop was triggered by the post-9/11 clampdown. He went back to the studio and cut "What Would You Do?" which appears on the new album. He took it to Davey D, who aired it on his KPFA-FM show and posted the lyrics on his Web site (, offering a free download. Before long Paris had an intricate, information-packed site of his own and new material, including "Freedom," featuring Chuck D and Dead Prez. Eighteen months later Sonic Jihad was ready to go.

"I was young when I made The Devil Made Me Do It," he said shortly before Sonic Jihad came out last week. "That was me when I was still learning. The UC Davis experience [he has a degree in economics] put me in an unfamiliar environment. The instability opened me up, and I started looking at the race issue in a way I hadn't before. I became involved with the Nation, and I was FOI [Fruit of Islam] for a few years. At that time I was reading everything I could get my hands on, and so what you heard me talk about in my early work was my process. I have no regrets because every day is a learning process for everybody. Today I incorporate more viewpoints. Most people don't read, which leaves them easy to manipulate.... Have you ever seen a book on the MTV show Cribs? Posters, pool tables, stuff like that. But never a book. Now, with the Internet, you can know anything you want to know, and that changes everything." Truth seekers

Park your browser at Paris's Web site,, and you'll see something of what's out there. It's far from a vanity site designed for some pampered artist; instead, it's an education tool. It has music, including samples from all his albums, as well as "Time for Peace," an antiwar rap recorded during the first Gulf War by Paris, Sway, and Digital Underground's Money B and Shock G. Yet it's also jammed with facts, analysis, and opinion, delivered in articles, bulletin board postings, forums, video clips, and hundreds of links. You can find much of what's available on the Web site elsewhere, except the Black Scholarship Guide and the Guerrilla Funk Wealth Builder – and, more specifically, the Guerrilla Funk community, which Paris calls "Hard Truth Soldiers."

I have a great friend, a college professor whose father worked in a steel mill. But if I hear him say one more time that the Clash was really about Mick Jones and not Joe Strummer – because the former grew up poor and the latter didn't – I'm going to shoot him. He tosses around references to a 50-year-old union card (his dad's) and a lower Manhattan park (my great-great-etc.-grandfather's) like he's Uncle Sam at the U.N. Security Council getting ready to front for Israel. My friend is full of it. Factories? Unions? Trouble? Jail? That's been on my mind because people whisper about Paris, who lives in a swanky Contra Costa suburb and is, as he puts it, "set that way." He's heard it before.

"I've worked a lot as an investment banker," he said without a trace of defensiveness. "I made my money with investments, but it all started with the first record. I didn't go out and blow everything I made. So what? People aren't happy when a black man is successful? They'd feel better about me if I was broke? Successful people can do things that other people don't have the freedom to do – and a lot more of them should. The money I've made allows me to do what I'm doing now." Powered by funk

What Paris is doing makes him something of an anomaly in hip-hop, for his politics and for the package they're delivered in. Sonic Jihad's grooves, though sharper and better recorded than his earlier work, come from the same conceptual bag. They're funky and tight, and they'll grab your ass – although dancing to a scathing attack on racist police is hard to imagine. It doesn't matter anyway, because his beats have a single-pointed mission, to serve the lyrics – if there's a corollary anywhere, it's in the unwavering three-chord assault of punk rock. He's an incredibly clever writer who addresses complicated issues using ultra disciplined rhyme schemes. Add this element to the airtight grooves, and his raps have a satisfying geometry that works – ironically because they're the opposite of his chaotic social vision. In fact, the music that most feels like his menacing guerrilla funk is the gangsta rap that stole the show a decade ago.

Another friend mentioned that similarity to me recently, delivering her assessment with what looked to me like a self-satisfied smile – as if the male energy powering Sonic Jihad told the whole story. I don't think Paris misses the connection. He'd tell you to listen for a change instead of falling back on comforting assumptions. And as for those who think the mayhem he imagines has no place in pop music – y'all are out there – it's time you took the thugs, bangers, and mafioso wanna-bes in your record collection to the trade-in counter. Or at least ask yourself why songs about young black men killing each other (the gangsta bottom line) don't bother you, while the notion that self-defense is important does.

"I tried to keep the rhymes simple," Paris told me, "so that people can grab them up. Then I put all kinds of information on the website because people have so many questions." I think about "Field Nigga Boogie," which should raise a few. "Do you want the raw shit?" Paris raps to kick things off, before charging into lyrics like these:

Fuck a water hose nigga, those days is through

All a pig's gotta do these days is just shoot

But who police the police when they

Beat brothers to the street like every day

What I'm saying, what if niggas start shooting them back

Spit caps outta gats till the beast collapse?

With an eye for an eye, ain't no time to play

With an eye for an eye, it's the Amerikkkan way

"I don't want to be preachy," Paris continued, referring to what he calls on the album "being truth to the youth." Behind him, bolts of bright sunlight exploded on the hoods of luxury autos, and a pair of suburban matrons pushing expensive, tricked-out strollers rolled by. Our conversation – about war, resistance, horror, and ending horror – had such a disjunctive visual context that for a moment I felt like I was invisible. "I don't want to sound like a school teacher," Paris said, bringing me back to earth. "I'm just like anyone who listens, I'm just somebody who can make music. I can cut through the bullshit and speak my mind in an entertaining way. Hopefully, people will come along for the ride." Reception at the revolution.

I've heard Sonic Jihad so many times in the past week that last night it was playing in a dream. It works for me, but because of my anachronistic revolutionary pedigree, I still treasure my copy of "Bobby Must Be Set Free," the single by the Panthers' singing group, the Lumpen. The militancy and massive ambition of Paris's project are bound to baffle some people and rub others the wrong way – and not just hardcore reactionaries. You can make a rough analogy between the Panthers and parts of the anti-Vietnam War movement – they didn't always see eye to eye – in the 1960s, and the reception Paris will get from the anti-Iraqi war, antiglobalization forces of today. During the '60s, the sight of a 50-strong posse of Panthers wearing black leather jackets and black berets while marching in formation and chanting, "Hey you / Getcha gun / 'Cause baby we're gonna have some fun / Bang bang" scared the hell out of the police and did a pretty good job on the pioneering student activists, too. Paris's belief in self-defense – in armed security – and militant response seems a world away from a movement that makes decisions by consensus and freaks out when Black Bloc cells overturn newspaper stands.

It can be argued that restraint is the privilege of a largely white, middle-class movement unable to understand the realities of everyday life in the ghetto. Likewise, many if not most activists believe they need to find tactics and strategies that aren't shaped by heavy-handed versions that didn't work in the past. Besides, it is frequently said, outside the States anyway, that world events have far outstripped America's understanding of the forces at work. As people around the globe furiously oppose our government's bullying, the average American often goes about his or her business as if that bullying weren't happening. Sonic Jihad, full of conclusions that most of us lack enough information to make, risks falling into the information gap and disappearing. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Paris is anxiously waiting for the response to Sonic Jihad. He didn't tell me this – and maybe wouldn't tell me – but I know he's nervous because the other night he phoned to remind me for perhaps the fourth time to mention his website. I'd be nervous, too. Maybe he's wondering if his old fans are still out there and if new fans will step up. Or worrying what distributors and outlets will do if there's a police backlash. Or what happens to a guy called the Bush Killa in the age of the PATRIOT Act. Or maybe it's just me who's worried, hoping the rest of the world goes for Sonic Jihad as I do. Hoping that Paris is right when he says, "This bling-bling shit would stop in a minute if motherfuckers knew what was going on."

Paris is all about delivering hard truth and mobilizing those who come to get it. He wants you to listen up, and you should – he's got a lot to say. When I ask what the future's going to look like, he looks at me, shakes his head, and says, "I have no fucking idea. I think shit is going to get worse before it gets better, with this war on terrorism and PATRIOT Act. I know this: it's going to be major."

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