Let's Go Paris
By The Philistine, Ninevolt Magazine
I have to say that, of all the hip hop albums I heard in 2003, the most vital by far was Sonic Jihad by Paris. This record received tons of press even before its release due to its cover depiction of a jet heading across the White House Lawn straight for the Oval Office. Controversy is no guarantee of quality, however; the music on Sonic Jihad had to live up to its cover if the album was to have any real impact. On paper, the likelihood of this was remote. Paris first dropped in 1990--an eternity ago, in rap terms--and he'd retired about five years before to work in the suspendered world of investment banking. Could he still bring it like he did on "Time For Peace" (1991), his protest (along with Sway and Digital Underground) against the First Gulf War by the first President Bush? Mais oui! To date, Sonic Jihad is the only work of art addressing the present social and political situation in our country that I have found satisfying both as criticism and as art. Indeed, the near-impossibility of fulfilling such a requirement makes Paris's achievement all the more dazzling. Like his website, www.guerillafunk.com--which features analytic breakdowns courtesy of the Guerrilla News Network (www.gnn.com) on topics ranging from the militarized police offensive against protestors in Miami to the documented links between the Bush family fortune and Nazi Germany--Paris is a master of synthesis, turning vast bodies of information into concise, compelling lyrics, delivered in his trademark panther-infused growl. The album burns with a righteousness that was far more prevalent in rap a decade ago than it is today.
More than once Paris claims he's "bringing you back what you miss in hip hop," and judging by the fairly rapturous response of many music journalists, he's not kidding. These days, most conscious rap cds are so many signposts on the road to Snoozeville; all the hard rhymers spit gangsta. But as P-Dog himself notes, he was a "raw ballin' back in the days of yes y'alls," roughly 1987-93, when PE set the standard for hard rhymin'. Something is exhilarating about hearing Paris, on a song called "Freedom," bust a line like "Fuck Bush, I'm a say it loud, raising a fist!" This is irrespective of my opinion of the president; my feeling is simply one of intense relief at such a graphic display of the First Amendment. Until quite recently, it was considered your God-given right in this country to say such things. We were told this is what made us better than mean ol' Russia or mean ol' China or mean ol' Saddam. Now we send in the Robocops to quash peaceful, legal protests. This is one of P-Dog's main points on Sonic Jihad. Unless we stand up and assert our right to dissent, we're going to lose it. Paris is putting himself on the line for free speech, and he's no stranger to the consequences. In the early '90s, for example, despite strong sales, he was dropped by Tommy Boy, then discreetly underpromoted by Priority, due to the political content of his lyrics. Freed to a certain extent this time around by the internet, Paris has joined the increasing ranks of major artists without major labels. Still I can't help noticing that Sonic Jihad is manufactured and distributed by Groove Attack, a German firm, suggesting no one closer to home was willing to take on such a risk.
While the current Bush Administration is the focus of the outrage fueling Sonic Jihad, Paris has no shortage of secondary targets. High on the list is the corporate media for its role in promoting an essentially fictitious environment of heightened terrorism as a mask for our country's heightened belligerence at home and abroad. He also reserves a surprising amount of venom for hip hop itself, accusing the majority of MCs of betraying its earlier confrontational idealism by embracing the thug stereotype. While he ultimately blames the recording industry for investing so heavily in gangsta rap, he isn't afraid to step to heavyweights like Dr. Dre, Snoop, or Eminem for promoting such imagery. P-Dog even pulls a few bold jack moves, grabbing a title from Snoop ("Lay Low") and Dre's "still" from "Still D.R.E." These appropriations raise an interesting point in terms of Sonic Jihad's production, which, given the fuss-raising nature of the cover and lyrics, remains underdiscussed. Though Paris never went gangsta, his sound did in the mid-'90s, as he laid down Dre-style G-funk on the album that gives his website its name. But G-funk sounds radically different since Dr. Dre 2001 (1999), and Paris hasn't followed suit, except on "How We Do," which is letter-perfect Dre in a "Chin Check" vein. It's as if Paris wants us to know he could still do Dre if he felt like it, but he's up to something else. As a producer, he opts here for warmer tone colors, like the electric piano chords that power "Field Nigga Boogie" or the coffee-percolator bass burbling throughout. "Spilt Milk" doles out synth horn-stabs like there's no tomorrow, perhaps in deference to the apocalyptic presence of visiting dancehall rasta Capleton. The overall sound is neither mainstream nor avant-garde and by no stretch of the imagination could it be deemed old school. If anything, Paris has moved closer to straight-up Bay Area funk, spiked with surprising and well-handled doses of modern R&B, as on "Ain't No Love."
What elevates Sonic Jihad beyond the sum of its analyzable parts is the pure conviction imbuing its every note. On the second version of "Freedom," which closes the album, Paris stages a summit meeting between himself, Dead Prez, and Public Enemy. Modestly, he turns the climactic portion of the song over to Chuck D, who, in a testament to the infectious power of Paris's righteousness, drops his most fiery rap in years. It's been a long time since political engagement sounded this bad-ass, but then again, things have been pretty bad thus far in the 21st Century.