By Jessica Guynn, Contra Costa Times
A strapping figure with a stentorian voice and a warm Curtis Mayfield vibe, Oscar Jackson comes across as an enterprising suburban husband and father who bankrolled his own business selling stocks for a large financial firm.
But Jackson has an alter ego: Paris, the self-proclaimed Black Panther of rap who sounds off in militant rhyme on everything from police oppression to urban poverty and desperation.
Now Paris, who shot to stardom in 1990 but split from the recording industry to make music on his own terms, has re-emerged as an independent music producer to battle for the soul of black culture. In his sights: major record labels that he says pimp "gangsta" rappers who glorify rim spinning and blood spilling to sell soda, sneakers and cell phones.
Four years ago, this human megaphone cranked up the volume by creating Guerrilla Funk Recordings, a small label for like-minded black artists who share his resolve to promote the decades-old black tradition of street-corner rhyming as a positive force for social and political empowerment.
"Hip-hop is the single most influential cultural phenomenon right now, and it often reaches and influences people more than teachers, preachers, politicians and, in some cases, parents," Paris says.
"In our communities, life imitates art. And in our communities, art is introduced and dictated by outside forces that regulate the images and content of what we see and hear. Labels, movie studios, and the media now reward the worst in black behavior and put it forth as though it is representative and true of the entire community. It's not. So it is definitely a war for the soul and minds of the listeners."
A Sisyphean struggle? Perhaps. But Paris -- a well-read, well-spoken San Francisco native whose first instrument was the classical piano -- has shown the musical instincts and business smarts to be heard on his own terms.
That rare mix has helped Paris rise above corporate conglomeration in the music business. He has sold nearly 4 million albums, produced a handful of albums for other artists on his own label including Conscious Daughters (one of hip-hop's few female groups), and even scored music for "America's Most Wanted" and "CSI: NY."
"I can go into a business environment and operate in the financial markets effectively, but I can also break bread in any 'hood in the country and sell millions of records," Paris says.
Among the first rap artists to bring national exposure to the vibrant Bay Area hip-hop scene, Paris recorded his debut album, "The Devil Made Me Do It" for a Time Warner-owned subsidiary months before graduating from UC Davis with an economics degree.
Although he was widely praised for its inventive lyrics and bass grooves, his uncompromising politics soon triggered controversy. In 1992, Time Warner paid him not to release his second album featuring "Bush Killa," which imagined the assassination of the first President Bush.
That song from the album "Sleeping with the Enemy," which Paris went on to produce on his own, prompted a visit from the Secret Service. (Other tracks denounced black-on-black violence and denigration of black women, social commentaries the national media largely overlooked, Paris notes.)
"My argument was simple: whose record was scarier? My fantasy assassination of the president for the steady decline of the quality of life in black inner-city America as a result of the policies of his and the Reagan administration, or his very real record of enacting those policies and the negative effects of budget cutbacks, murder, war, mass incarceration, educational disparity, and intolerance?"
Paris -- who found spiritual inspiration in the Nation of Islam and once met Fidel Castro -- got blasted again in 2003 for "Sonic Jihad," which condemned the second Bush administration's policies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with a deliberately shocking cover showing a jetliner about to slam into the White House.
The album, a political frontrunner to Michael Moore's equally scathing documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," sold 170,000 copies and won critical acclaim -- a major feat for a minor label, especially considering Paris got no commercial airplay and had to resort to European distributors to sell the album in the United States as an import.
"He didn't just preach Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, self-reliance, he lived it," said San Jose hip-hop writer Adisa Banjoko. "He wanted to get to a place of black-owned labels. Unfortunately, he was the only one who did it. The whole fabric of the recording industry would be different today if more people had done what Paris had done.
"Paris understands the art and the business better than a lot of people would like to admit," Banjoko said. "His survival and the fact that he keeps dropping new records is a testament to that."
This month, Paris reappeared on turntables, teaming with political rap pioneers Public Enemy on "Rebirth of a Nation," to rage against the government machine. "Rebirth of a Nation" pays homage to the socially-conscious tradition of Public Enemy and the sound and fury of late 1960s Bay Area radicalism, complete with lyrical diatribes against war profiteering, the erosion of civil rights and the Bush administration. Paris wrote and produced the album, which recalls in title and spirit the Public Enemy classic "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back."
Paris says he believes hip-hop can go from the beatbox to the ballot box. "I am anti-war, pro-choice, pro-human and civil rights, and I am vehemently opposed to systematic racism, classism, war-mongering and attempts to reduce our civil liberties," Paris says. "An incredible amount of people share my views, but many feel disillusioned and isolated because of the propaganda in this country that paints dissent as unpatriotic."
Crispin Sartwell, who has taught about the nexus of politics and hip-hop at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, says Paris is on the right track in his efforts to incite political discourse and social awareness through music. If founding father Thomas Paine were alive today, he would pass out records, not pamphlets, Sartwell says.
Paris infuses his music with the same fervor as counter-culture troubadours Bob Dylan, whose anti-war anthems stirred controversy four decades ago, or Public Enemy, whose polemical verses of rage and oppression forged a new black consciousness in the late 1980s, says Rickey Vincent, a KPFA radio host and author of "Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One."
"It is sad to see how few artists step forward to capture the mood present in the streets and in the community. Those artists who voice dissent are treated as radicals. They are not put on tour, they are not put in rotation, even if they sell out everywhere they go," Vincent said.
"I have youngsters come through the radio station. When they first start out, they say, 'I'm MC Africa,' or 'I'm MC Peace.' Then they can't get a record deal and they come back through and say, 'I'm MC AK' or 'I'm MC Thug Life.' It's the same person but they've had to adapt," Vincent said. "They think they are representing themselves, but it's the industry that is representing them.
"Paris has been a warrior for the people for many years. He sees the power of music to change people's lives."
One life Paris has changed for the better is that of T-K.A.S.H., whose debut album, "Turf War Syndrome," rooted in this 27-year-old radio personality and MC's real-life experiences on Oakland's curbs hits store shelves Tuesday.
"I am going back to the streets to give hope to a certain type of people that society deems hopeless and useless," said Tomie Lenear, aka T-K.A.S.H., who has lost family and friends to drug abuse and violence.
"We have a more righteous path we must go down. Unfortunately, we have people who want to keep us off that path. They promote pop culture in a way that lands you in jail, not college. Thank God for Paris. ... Without him, a lot of people would be left in the dark."
Paris is one of the few authentic voices in rap, the nation's second-most popular musical genre, which was hijacked by a small cadre of corporations that control recording contracts and radio and video playlists, says Dave "Davey D" Cook, a KPFA radio host, and veteran hip-hop commentator.
"We should be jumping at the opportunity to find out why somebody in hip-hop is talking about politics in the manner Paris does," Cook said.
Not everyone will agree with Paris' politics, but they should embrace his message that music should provide better balance, says Sean Kennedy, a former rapper who runs Ill Trendz, an Oakland marketing firm that works with major-label and independent artists. With a rapidly growing hip-hop constituency crossing racial and ethnic lines, rap should reflect the troubles and hopes of all those who struggle, not just flashy images of sex and violence, Kennedy said.
"Listening to (rap), you think it's a black thing," Kennedy said. "But on a worldwide level, it's a human thing."
Q & A with Paris
Times staff writer Jessica Guynn interviews Oscar Jackson, aka, Paris
Q: What do you hope your independent label Guerrilla Funk Recordings will accomplish?
A I really created Guerrilla Funk to serve as a home for artists who represent truth in their music and who have something to say about current events, racism, classism, and politics. It's a label and a source of information that exists in stark contrast to the messages and imagery we're given on a day-to-day basis by other labels and by news organizations.
Q: What are you trying to achieve by producing like-minded artists like T-K.A.S.H.?
A I'm trying to provide them a voice in an environment where they would otherwise be unable to be heard. T-K.A.S.H. is a perfect example of an artist that represents the direction Guerrilla Funk is headed in because he has something to say, is talented, knows the music's history and exhibits humility in his life and work. The Conscious Daughters are necessary because there are no female group voices in hip-hop right now. Not one. And Kam is important because of his skills and insight as well, coming from L.A., a place where artists in hip-hop aren't necessarily known for their consciousness.
Q: Why did you choose the title "Rebirth of a Nation"? Is it a reference to the D.W. Griffith film? What are you trying to convey with the album?
A The title could refer to the movie, but it is really intended to reflect on "It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back," Public Enemy's sophomore effort. It is meant as a return to classic form in hip-hop.
Q: Did you consciously meld East-and West-Coast rap on "Rebirth of a Nation?"
A Well, yes, because the record was always intended to act as a platform for some of the best authors in hip-hop with something to say to be showcased together. They're from the east and I'm from the west, but it's necessary that we remained unified and present a project that can be absorbed globally.
Q: Do you support yourself on Guerrilla Funk or do you have other sources of income?
A Through various endeavors and investments, which now are starting to include Guerrilla Funk. The label really is just beginning, and a lot of the income it has generated thus far has been funneled back into it, to expand the brand.
Q: Do you think there is a surge of hip-hop political activism in rap these days? What's fueling that? The so-called war on terror? Erosion of civil liberties? Economic inequality?
A Yes, and it's due to all of the above. More than half of this country feels the way we feel, so our sentiments are in no way an exception to the rule. There really is a concrete void in music when it comes to material that is presented to the public that offers something other than negativity and escapism, and we fill it.
Q: What are the social forces driving this movement in hip-hop?
A Well, you would think that those forces would drive more hip-hop artists to want to address issues of concern to all of us, but sadly, this isn't the case. That's not to say that every artist should. That would be as monotonous as what we're currently being offered. But there should be balance. Right now there is no balance in hip-hop. And while it's true that artists can't effectively comment on that which they know nothing about, it's important to note that most acts make material based upon 1) what they think others want to hear, and 2) what they believe labels are looking for.
Labels routinely say that they are simply responding to the listening tastes of the street, but realize that they are dictating the terms of the street because they decide what gets promoted and introduced. Like the recent Academy Awards. It's not really that "Hard Out There For A Pimp." Hell, that's what's come to be expected of us, thanks to corporate America. If labels said that they would only endorse messages good for our communities, most artists would switch up. It's easy for a pimp in hip-hop.
Q: How has the hip-hop industry failed to address the critical problems facing many communities?
A I come from an era in hip-hop where negativity was an exception to the rule. So I know the positive influences popular media can have on people when presented correctly. I dig self-empowering, life-affirming messages that speak to all of us.
Q: Can you tell me your thoughts of the nihilist, materialist, gangsta and sexist images in commercial hip-hop?
A Again, it goes back to the commercial interest of corporations who profit from endorsing and rewarding the worst behavior in us. I think there's a time and a place for everything, but there needs to be balance, and right now there is none. It is safe to say that communities of color are targeted with a stealth, almost Cointel-pro-like marketing strategy that reinforces messages demeaning to our self-worth and character.
Q: Can you talk about the intellectual output of the hip-hop movement? How has that changed or expanded in recent years? Is the Bay Area a hotbed for that? Will it continue to labor in obscurity or do you think it can break into the mainstream?
A I don't think it's laboring in obscurity because there are a lot of people who support this type of material. You just wouldn't know it listening to Clear Channel or watching Viacom. The Bay Area is a hotbed for political activism and social awareness and it is unique in its diversity. Of course, as time goes on, more and more people begin to reject the sameness of the offerings we're being given right now.
Q: You seem to view the hip-hop generation as multicultural and multiethnic, brought together by a common class struggle. Can you expand on that?
A I don't really know that the hip-hop generation is brought together by a common class struggle anymore because it has been co-opted and is now pop culture. Class struggle is a real phenomenon, though. Illegal wars fought by young people, lack of economic opportunities, high crime rates, and poor educational environments are of concern to all of us, no matter our respective ethnicities. These conditions do affect people of color more though, and racism if definitely apparent when negative conditions are consistently worse in areas and countries of color.
Q: How does radio industry consolidation play into everything?
A Radio attempts to keep hip-hop artificially young and artificially dumb. The target demographic is 12-16-year-old girls, so where does that leave people who demand more from their entertainment when wanting to listen to the radio? What about the audience that has matured beyond wanting to hear about rims and platinum fronts?
Q: Can you tell me about the early influence on you of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan?
A The Nation was a catalyst for me to make me want to know more about myself. I heard Minister Farrakhan speak at the Kaiser convention center and joined Mosque No. 26A in San Francisco shortly after that. I read and traveled extensively, and began to realize how little I really knew about my culture, even after getting out of college. I also questioned the celebration of Jesus as a white deity and came to recognize the impact that institutional racism has on everyone. I most identify with Islam today, which really does celebrate peace -- even though it's been demonized in the media. But I no longer embrace any organized religion formally. In my opinion, all organized religion is divisive now. I simply live my life right and treat others with respect when deserved.
Q: Why did you go to meet Fidel Castro? When was that and what was that like?
A I met Fidel in 1991 when I was on tour in Havana, Cuba. I went there by invitation of the Latin American Film Festival and played to a sold-out 40,000 seat arena. Blew my mind. They knew all of the words and were familiar with my material as a result of Radio Free Miami.
Q: Many of your lyrics evoke violent imagery. Do you embrace nonviolence?
A I embrace nonviolence as long as others act in kind. But I'm always prepared for and encourage others to be prepared for, the worst.
Q: You were criticized in the past for anti-Semitic lyrics on "Unleashed." You also have been criticized for anti-white lyrics. Can you tell me about that?
A Well, I'm not anti-Semitic or anti-white, if that's what you're asking. I believe that racial discussions need to be raw and uncensored so that everyone's points are made explicitly, and I love and respect everyone in exactly the same way that they love and respect me. I say "nigga" a lot on my records too, but you'll notice those same people didn't protest my usage of that word once. Their selective outrage is racism in its purest form.
Q: Who are your political and musical influences?
A I don't have any real political influences, but my father was pivotal in shaping me to become a man. Musically, I'm all over the place: P-Funk, Cameo, Bar-Kays, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rick James, Prince & Co., James Brown, Dr. Dre, Erykah Badu, Seal, Miles Davis, Johsua Redman, just depends on the mood.
Q: Do you listen to hip-hop? If so, who makes an impression on you?
A Sure, but not as much of the corporate offerings. T-K.A.S.H., Dead Prez, Public Enemy, Kam, E-40, San Quinn, The Conscious Daughters, Keak. There are plenty of us out there. I dig a lot of oldies, though.
Q: After he was elected, you penned a Washington Post editorial advising President Clinton to create universal health care, address inequality in public education and focus on urban unemployment and job creation. What do you advocate today?
A Compassion, mainly. I'm still an advocate of all of those things, but education is the one that really is of the most concern to me, as it is the most attainable by everyone and yields the greatest benefits. Everything else that is positive occurs as a result of it.
Q: Can you talk about your thinking on 9/11 and what you mean by the Bush administration's complicity? How do you think the American public has been duped?
A I'm one of a huge amount of people who believe 9/11 was an inside job. When you follow the money, look at who gained what, from Halliburton on down, and analyze not only America's history of aggression but historical instances of governments inciting terror to control their citizenry, then it's not a stretch. This administration has lied about everything. And the events of that day have provided the perfect catalyst for them to run roughshod over this country and the Middle East. Yellow cake, plagiarized justifications of war presented to the U.N. by Powell, non-existent WMDs, "mission accomplished," Abu Ghraib, Jessica Lynch, all of it, lies. And it's all sold to the public through Fox, MSNBC, CNN, pick one. And fearmongering is at an all-time high. Low poll numbers? Raise the threat alert. It's always something.
The cold part about it is that the government will switch its position on a dime to make a profit for BushCo. Like the recent much-disputed port deal. Now it's supposedly safe to trust Arab companies with ports when there's money to be made? (Expletive). If there wasn't a vested interest, Bush would be saying exactly the opposite. Whatever. People are starting to see through that garbage they try to sell us and all of the Sean Hannitys and Michael Savages of the world can't save 'em.