By Quentin B. Huff, Pop Matters
Oscar Jackson, Jr., stockbroker and entrepreneur, was searching for a way to tap into the common sense that all humans supposedly have. Then, an accidental overdose of X-Clan and the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program altered his body chemistry. And now, when Oscar Jackson grows angry or outraged with his fellow musicians or the political climate, a startling metamorphosis occurs: he transforms into Paris, a rapper whose uncompromising intensity has become legendary.
“Don’t make me angry,” he says. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
All right, so that’s a shameless parody of the TV theme for The Incredible Hulk, but, if you think about it, it’s right on point with Paris’ career. Oscar Jackson’s a guy who by all accounts is intelligent and likable. He’s a happy husband and father, and quite a successful businessperson. He used his economics degree to become a stockbroker, Wall Street financier, and a real estate investor. But now and then, he turns a thousand shades of black power and reenters the rap game as Paris to make us shiver in our Timberland boots.
His first album, The Devil Made Me Do It, is a classic of almost mythological proportions. In 1992, he launched his record label to release Sleeping With The Enemy—his former label got cold feet because the album contained the Presidential campaign jingle, “Bush Killa”. Paris produced two more albums, Guerilla Funk and Unleashed before he retired from rap in the late ‘90s.
Then came the election of Bush the Younger, followed by September 11th and the War on Terror. Oscar Jackson once again donned his Paris mask and traded his corner office for the recording studio. He launched Guerrilla Funk Records, along with its synergistic website of music and informative articles (Paris’ article topics range from investment and money-saving tips to government corruption). The cover of the first album following his hiatus, Sonic Jihad, showed a jet flying into the White House. Needless to say, the actual lyrics were just as forthright, but the effort got the young record company’s bills paid.
In addition to producing new albums for Public Enemy and T-KASH, Paris has been busy being the Quincy Jones of protest music. Enter Hard Truth Soldiers Vol. 1, a 15-song opus that sounds like a combination of Jones’ Back on the Block and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. But unlike those two albums, Paris and posse focus their energies on denouncing war ("Down Wit Us”, “Dear Mr. President"), battling gender inequality ("Woman’s World”, “The Road Less Traveled"), confronting police brutality ("Officer Down"), and generally bustin’ a cap in the ass of the system ("Can’t Break Me”, “Still Ain’t Free").
Paris only shows up vocally on “Raid” (with Dead Prez, T-KASH, and the Conscious Daughters), “Laylow” (with a singer for the hooks who could be a dead ringer for TLC’s T-Boz), and “Can’t Hold Us Back” (with Public Enemy but no Flavor Flav, thank goodness). Paris’ deep baritone has always been impressive. But here, unlike his solo efforts, he’s part of an interesting mix of voices that includes Chuck D, Tray Dee (no relation to Chuck), Daz, T-KASH, Dead Prez, B. Real, RBX, MC Ren, Blitz, and Kam.
Where Hard Truth Soldiers excels is with Paris’ high-quality production. Paris produces the entire project except for three songs—Kam’s protest anthem “Can’t Break Me”, Blitz’s musically creative “The Road Less Traveled”, and Fredwreck’s contributions to “Down Wit Us” and “Dear Mr. President”. Overall, the songs are diverse, catchy, and memorable. That’s right, memorable. When was the last time you heard that about a rap album? But it’s true. There are even a few times when the music compensates for lackluster lyrics.
The album starts with the gangsta funk of “Can’t Break Me”, flows into the drum and heavy bass of MC Ren’s “Still Ain’t Free”, morphs into the danceable and nearly disco sound of “Throwyahandzup”, peaks with “Down Wit Us” and its Dr. Dre-like cadence and keyboards, and then finishes with Paris on the mic and the music for the musically relaxed “Laylow”. Ms. Monet brings a catchy R&B tune, “If There’s A Hell Below”, and you can probably guess what the rest of that chorus is ("…we’re all gonna go") but the strength of her voice adds to the variety. The real musical gem is Blitz’s “The Road Less Traveled”, a mid-tempo lamentation for a young woman’s fate, featuring saxophone solos and spine-tingling harmonies on the breaks. What struck me about the song, though, was its daring omission of percussion. A song element hasn’t been so wisely eliminated since Prince banished bass from When Doves Cry.
The musicianship isn’t the only surprise. Lyrically, the album, as a whole, features thought-provoking themes with intelligent deliveries. The result sidesteps the impression that these songs are merely lectures and tirades set to music; it elevates the effort to a collaborative work of art. For instance, “Down Wit Us” might go down as one of the finest war protests ever set to a dope beat, with lines like:
People always talkin’ ‘bout gangsta rap,
Now Bush talkin’ ‘bout, “Where all my gangstas at?”
Somebody call Don King,
Bush and Saddam need to take it to the ring and do the damn thing.
They’re already talkin’ ‘bout rebuildin’ their cities.
But I roll around the ‘hood and shit still look shitty.
It’s all about the loot, grab the gun and shoot.
Peace to my brother Will and the rest of the troops.
President Bush and global politics aren’t the only targets of the Guerilla Funk lyrical assault. Blitz, on “The Road Less Traveled”, takes a shot at others in spotlight and how they’ve shunned the responsibility of setting examples for the youth. There’s even a direct reference to an entertainer you’ve probably heard of, but who I hesitate to name (Let’s just say she’s a “survivor"):
I guess it’s funny how these artists refuse to be role models,
Sellin’ death and destruction to the kids that follow.
Got young Sistas aspirin’ to be video hoes,
The more respect you get, the lesser your clothes.
And it’s crazy, ‘cause I’m speakin’ to you,
Why you sellin’ all that bullshit, misleadin’ the youth.
Or, if you’ve been struggling with the ultra-confusing and newly implemented Medicare Part D this year, check this verse from “Throwyohandzup”:
A guerilla sees a problem, he takes it in his own hands,
A grown man takin’ control of his own land.
Just bein’ responsible, we got a lot to do,
First step: open up the hospitals and make it possible
For all to receive healthcare without no obstacles.
All we gotta do is make a move so what’s stoppin’ you?
But this wouldn’t be a review of a rap album if I didn’t keep it real, know what I’m sayin’? So here it is: there are moments when the album misses the mark. The biggest misses are “Inspiration”, “Ghetto Manifesto”—both are superb on the hooks, but fail to satisfy on the lyrical tip. “Inspiration” is, ironically, uninspired. It’s an elementary school lesson in revolution, with quips such as, “We shall overthrow like cocky quarterbacks” (yuck!) “Like bibles in burnin’ churches, I got hot verses” (you’re kidding, right?), and “When I rhyme, things get exposed like Girls Gone Wild” (what the *$#@?). Meanwhile, “Ghetto Manifesto”, a typical west coast rider tune, suffers from repetition.
However, my biggest nitpick of Hard Truth Soldiers is that the insistence on infusing something “gangsta” into its revolution sometimes interferes with the poetry and the art underlying the message and the presentation. Don’t get me confused with Tipper Gore, but there are times when the subtleties of wordplay and double entendres are lost when the lyrics rely on tried and true curse words. Don’t get me wrong. I love to curse. But here, there are times when it’s obvious how much time and effort these artists spent crafting these songs. It’s a shame when a bad verse or an overly blunt choice of words breaks the flow and continuity.
Hard Truth Soldiers Vol.1 should definitely be on the collector’s list of every anti-establishmentarian. Despite a few missteps, it’s got the lyrics, the beats, and the voices. Get it, enjoy it, and hope Volume 2 gets released before Paris tames his rage and turns back into Oscar Jackson.