By Nathan Rabin, The Onion A.V. Club
Best-known for the incendiary revenge fantasy "Bush Killa," rapper Paris graduated from UC-Davis with a degree in economics around the time Tommy Boy released his first album, 1990's The Devil Made Me Do It. His debut was an audacious blend of gruff, Rakim-style bravado and socially conscious themes, and it managed modest success. But a follow-up, the politically charged, Black Panthers-inspired Sleeping With The Enemy, ran into trouble when Tommy Boy wouldn't release it due to its provocative content. Paris put it out independently, and while it was a commercial and critical success, subsequent efforts like Unleashed and Guerrilla Funk reached a gradually dwindling audience. By 1996, Paris was working primarily as an investment banker, but he re-entered the rap game with "What Would You Do?," a characteristically explosive single inspired by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and appearing on his forthcoming Sonic Jihad album. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the rapper about hip-hop, politics, and why the rap game is a lot like the investment-banking game.
The Onion: When did you first become interested in politics?
Paris: I'm not really interested in politics. I just like to make records that I believe are conscious or socially relevant. I really could care less about politics.
O: But there's a politically charged element to your music.
P: Yeah, but it's more socially relevant than political. I think it ends up transcending into politics, but for me, it's all about just making records that I feel comfortable with, that I won't be embarrassed by later. So, if I'm going to do it and I know about certain things that other people might not necessarily know, and I'm party and witness to injustices that have occurred, then I'll want to speak about them. That's not necessarily every record. You know, every record is not necessarily going to be that way. Not every song on Sonic Jihad is going to be like "What Would You Do?" I just want to make records that cover a range of different topics.
O: Has your music always been socially conscious?
P: Yeah, and I think that's the one thing that ties all my albums together. There's always concern about the condition of everybody, although initially, my focus was on issues relevant to the black community. More recently, I've been encompassing a broader worldview.
O: How difficult was it to get Sleeping With The Enemy released?
P: When I delivered that record, it was during a political climate that's similar to this one right now, in that there was a lot of intolerance for alternative points of view. We were in a war at the time as well, and there was a presidential election coming up; this was in '92. Ice-T had just gone through a lot of drama with the furor over "Cop Killer." That, in turn, made everyone else fall under increased scrutiny. I was released with a settlement package, and then it bounced around from label to label.
O: When you recorded "Bush Killa," did you think it was going to be as controversial as it was?
P: I had no idea. I was heavily influenced by other music that was coming out at the time, and I kind of wanted a button-pushing, aggressive song that would spark debate, but I didn't know it was going to get that large.
O: Is it true that you were visited by the Secret Service because of the song?
P: Well, I wasn't visited, but I did receive notice that they were not happy with it. Let's put it that way.
O: How did that make you feel?
P: At the time, I was much younger, so it was unsettling. It wasn't necessarily scary, but it was unsettling. The times we live in now are scarier, though.
O: What do you think has changed since then?
P: Well, let me see. The fact that you can be arrested and detained indefinitely and put to death without charges being brought to you, and have all your assets frozen and not have anyone know that you're even missing—that's pretty scary. All of that is a very real possibility for people who express dissent after the passage of the Patriot Act.
O: Why do you think so much of this legislation is getting through? Why do you think there seems to be so little dissent?
P: I think people who ordinarily would have dissenting voices are afraid to speak up because they don't want to fall under scrutiny. That's one thing. And the other thing is that there's a culture of fear that's being cultivated and continuously upheld by the mainstream media, with this ongoing propaganda blitz. Anything that you question in regards to this administration can be viewed as seditious, basically. I think people are just frightened, and then you have a lot of ignorance. You have a lot of people who don't know what the hell the Patriot Act is and could give a fuck about it. But it's important to everybody, particularly the hip-hop generation. We are the ones who will inevitably be affected by it more. We're over there fighting in the name of people who don't care about us. But more importantly, the war on terrorism is synonymous with the war on drugs, which is synonymous with the war on underprivileged communities and an increased police presence and brutality. And increased governmental and police control of our lives is definitely not something I'm looking forward to. I want to call attention to the fact that a lot of freedoms were just whisked away in the name of a fake kind of increased security as a result of this war on terrorism.
O: How was the transition, going from being a rapper to investment banking?
P: Well, it wasn't that much of a transition. I was always aware of the business ramifications of hip-hop anyway. That's what I went to school for, so I went there and it was an opportunity for me to really learn from the inside out the inner workings of the market. I did pretty well with the whole Internet boom thing, and I was able to back up off of it when I started to see the cookie crumbling. I'm glad I did because it allows me to do what I want to do, and what I truly love doing, which is making music. I was still trying to ascertain what my real relevance to hip-hop was, in this day and age, and it was really made crystal-clear to me after I began to see this rise in pseudo-patriotism in response to the war on terrorism and all the injustices that have occurred since. And then, of course, there's the state hip-hop is in right now, which is shameful, and which is another reason I wanted to come in and say something.
O: When you were an investment banker, did the people you worked with know about your background as a rapper?
P: Certainly not, which is cool. It's a completely different arena.
O: You kept the two worlds completely separate?
P: Yeah. It wasn't anybody else's business.
P: No reason. It's just you get tired of answering questions: "Do you know Ice Cube?" and all that stuff. It wears thin in a hurry, so it was cool for me to just lay low and do my thing.
O: What do you think is wrong with hip-hop?
P: I think hip-hop is one commercial whore right now. I think artists are as responsible as the now-consolidated record companies in that nothing is being offered as food for thought anymore. It's no longer challenging. It's for damn sure no longer angry. And, of course, you'll have some exceptions to the rule. You'll have some of Nas' records, and Dead Prez and The Coup, and some of these other acts that are conscious. But in general, we don't get that anywhere near as much as we used to. In fact, I see more artists jumping on the pro-American bandwagon than I do calling into question some of the illegal and unjust stuff going on.
O: How do you think corporate consolidation has affected hip-hop?
P: It's affected hip-hop in that a lot of the companies that might have taken the time to develop artists, and back artists with an alternate viewpoint, are disappearing and getting swallowed up into these giant media conglomerates, which have their own individual standards—and which, for the most part, practice self-censorship only when it has something to do with progressive thoughts. Because you'll notice, there's no self-censorship in place when it comes to drugs or pimping and prostitution or gratuitous violence. It's like this whole genre is being dictated to us by just a few people.
O: Have you considered doing another version of "Bush Killa" in honor of our current president?
P: Boy, there's a question I've been asked a number of times. I don't want to do it for the sake of shocking. It would have to be really from the heart. I think a lot of the punch of that record was taken from it because it really was a revenge fantasy, and there's really no fantasy aspect to "What Would You Do?" for example. Somebody could argue [about "Bush Killa"], "Oh, he's not really going to kill the president. That's not real." But nobody can really argue with "What Would You Do?" because all that shit is real, which makes it a much more dangerous record.