Happy 30th Anniversary to Paris' debut album The Devil Made Me Do It, originally released December 4, 1990.
By Jesse Ducker, Albumism.com
Very little in music depresses me more than the backlash against conscious and political hip-hop. Politics dominate our lives as residents of the United States. Much of the last four years have been consumed by efforts to fight and dethrone a truly odious resident of the White House, with millions contributing massive amounts of psychic energy and physical action towards electing a new president. So, I always fail to understand why artists or groups concerned with how politics affect the lives of oppressed people get written off as "corny" and "preachy."
For Oscar "Paris" Jackson, Jr., kicking knowledge and fighting against the powers that be are built into the D.N.A. of his music. I'm a firm believer in rappers playing to their strengths, and if there's one thing he has mastered, it's being dead-ass serious about being righteous. As a firebrand disciple of artists like Public Enemy, he is adept at rapping about rising against a corrupt United States government and other oppressive institutions, as well as expressing furious anger through his music. With his debut album, The Devil Made Me Do It, released 30 years ago, Paris wielded a war hammer against the forces he perceived as the enemies of the people but used the blunt instrument of his voice with the precision of a scalpel.
Paris was every bit the Black Panther of hip-hop that he proclaimed himself to be. The San Francisco native echoes the philosophies of the Black Panther Party throughout his first effort. He also operates like the majestic feline throughout The Devil Made Me Do It. His vocal presence is all coiled muscle and controlled ferocity. When rapping, he seems ready to pounce at a moment's notice, hungry to eviscerate those that stand in his way.
Paris has been unapologetic throughout his career about his militant stance towards immoral officers of the law and crooked politicians, giving them no quarter in his music neither three decades ago nor now. In a recent interview with Soren Baker for the Unique Access YouTube channel, he states, "It's okay to be brutal with your oppressor."
But The Devil Made Me Do It, and Paris' philosophy isn't all based on brutality (although the album does contain the song entitled "Brutal"). Education was a key component of Paris' music and presentation. The album's liner notes feature lessons on the backgrounds of such Black Revolutionary figures and organizations as Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton, and The Black Panther Party. He encourages his audience to uplift themselves through knowledge to inspire them to action.
And what's striking is that like most great conscious hip-hop, his words are as applicable today as they were 30 years ago. A passage in the liner notes reads, "We are living in an age where what you choose not to do speaks just as loudly as what you choose to do. Those who choose to ignore or deny the Movement of Black People to uplift and educate themselves will only be smothered in their ignorance when confronted by the forces of righteousness. Let's be smart, not stupid."
Paris handles all of the album's production by himself and creates a largely bare-bones musical palette. His tracks on this album are characterized by hard-hitting drums and rumbling basslines, with few other accouterments. This raw backdrop adds to his lyrics' power. Paris' voice has some similarities to Rakim, as he rocks a rough baritone, channeling a presence that can best be described as cool menace.
D.J. Mad Mike is another integral component of The Devil Made Me Do It's success, working in a precise manner to complement Paris' raps and production. He joined Paris on the album as part of an exchange with the group Cali Cool. Paris agreed to produce a song for the crew if Mike would provide the scratches on his album. The two worked well together and ended up touring together after The Devil Made Me Do It was released.
Paris begins the album with "Scarface Groove," a track he first released through Macola Records in 1989. It's one of the few examples of a track where he largely forgoes political content, showing that he's just as serious about being a dope emcee as he was about fomenting revolution. Like the vast majority of the album, the track pulses with sinister energy. Paris' vocals bubble with fury as he raps, "I'm tearing shit up, I won't let up, you need to get up / And out and on the floor, 'cause I'm fed up / With rhymes and words that's weak that's wack, absurd / Polluting the airwaves, too often heard."
Paris moves at a decidedly methodical pace on "This Is a Test," his screed against the compromised pop-rap that crowded the airwaves during the time. He targets rappers who angle for pop appeal or those he believed perpetuated stereotypes through their music. He throws in disses towards artists more interested in dancing than rapping, L.L. Cool J, and N.W.A. "Mindless music for the masses has to take time away from the real rap master," he raps. "So I'll stay cool for community airplay while ratings slip for the shit that you play."
"Brutal" features similar precision in execution, with Paris splitting the track in half to deliver his message. During the first movement, he recounts the history of both the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, two organizations that helped shape his growth as an activist. The beat completely shifts during the second half, as Paris roars his rhymes at a deliberate pace over a searing electric guitar and rugged scratches from Mad Mike. The track becomes an aggressive call to action, as he ponders, "How much killing and murdering mayhem more can we stand / Before we fold, Black man? So take a stand."
Both of the album's best-known singles share similar sentiments and are designed to motivate people to action against those standing in the way of their freedom. Paris uses "Break the Grip of Shame" as a plea for Black unity and to shed the negative self-image pushed upon them by this country's power structure. The album's title track and second major single is supercharged belligerence, set to a backdrop of blistering guitars, gothic keys, and backward-masked drums. It careens forward at a pace of "116.7" beats per minute as Paris warns against society's devils looking to devalue Black life. The video of the song was banned by MTV, likely for depicting a man dressed as Uncle Sam as Satan incarnate.
One clear highlight is "Panther Power," Paris' ode to the Black Panther Party. This time the tempo tops 120 Beats Per Minute, all but unheard of in 2020. Interspersed with vocal samples from speeches by Bobby Seale, chants that the organization used, and fierce growls from large felines, Paris delivers his rhymes at a break-neck pace. "Black and strong and not down to half-step," he boasts. "Peace is kept, police are ripped."
The Devil Made Me Do It also works well when Paris records exercises in brevity. Both "Warning" and "The Hate That Hate Made" run barely over a minute, but Paris gets his point across on each track in one verse apiece. Paris rails against cops that terrorize the inner-city population on "Warning," describing how harassment by the police can easily turn deadly for the corrupt officers. "The Hate That Hate Made" finds Paris seeking blood-soaked revenge on the killers of Yusef Hawkins. Paris seethes with anger as he describes the infamous incident where the young Black teenager was killed by a racist mob in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. "Jealous cause your girlfriend screwing a Black man," he raps. "So you bust caps on an innocent bystander? / But I guess we all look the same / A God damn shame you don't know my name."
Believe it or not, Paris does occasionally smooth things out on the album. Or the closest approximation of creating a "smoothed out" song that he can manage. Though "Ebony" moves at a rapid pace, Paris' delivery is more reserved, encouraging the Black population to "stay on a righteous path" and embrace the love of their culture. "Mellow Madness" is a genuine laid-back track, complete with jazzy saxophone samples and a chilled vibe. Though he still takes the time to dis "weak-kneed hippie M.C.s and wannabes," he also creates visions of a serene summer afternoon in the Bay Area, where residents can enjoy good food, drink, and music.
But songs like these are a brief reprieve from the overall dark feel. It's present on "I Call Him Mad," a showcase for Mad Mike's D.J. skills. The song is bookended by two dope Paris verses, while in between, Mike cuts up vocals from various conscious hip-hop tracks and artists. Dedications to the D.J. on rappers' albums would get scarcer as the 1990s progressed, even as the turntablist scene began to boom, so this track is one of the last (and best) of its kind.
For such a largely and aggressively anti-commercial album, The Devil Made Me Do It was a reasonable success, as Paris has estimated that it sold around 300,000 units, which was pretty impressive for this type of album back in 1990. Still, this was Paris' first and last album on the Tommy Boy imprint. He was dropped from the label before he could release his sophomore album, Sleeping With the Enemy 91992), over controversy surrounding the album's cover, which features him, Tech 9 in hand, lurking behind a tree while then-President George H.W. Bush approaches. In the post- "Cop Killer" environment, that wasn't going to fly on a major label.
Paris continues to record music, even after a hiatus during the late 1990s, and still courts controversy with his lyrics and album artwork. He's also expanded his operations at times, developing and producing local talents like the Conscious Daughters, C-Funk, and T-K.A.S.H. He formed Scarface Records to release material for the newer artists that he believed in, as well as established emcees; the label was the home to a release by Kam and a Public Enemy album produced by Paris.
And still, his passion for justice and zeal for revolution remains unchanged. During the aforementioned interview with Baker, Paris delves into why his music is so politically charged. And even though he's referring to his newest album Safe Space Invader, released through his label Guerrilla Funk Recordings, his words easily apply to The Devil Made Me Do It.
"It's necessary to constantly push my line," he says. "I want to always show the roughest edge because you get so much other shit in entertainment that is not me. Some people will say, 'Paris has been making the same record for 30 years!' Well, pretty much. The same bullshit has been going on for 30 years, and ask yourself, is the game better with or without me?"
Hip-Hop is undoubtedly better because of Paris' contributions, and The Devil Made Me Do It is at the forefront. Its laser-like focus is still as sharp as ever, and it's another example of how the racial struggles in this country remain a tragic and infuriating constant.