Three the Hard Way: Black Art Outside the Flow
By Mark Anthony Neal, PopMatters
"When you're entrusted with something, man, and I speak as an artist, you're supposed to try to bring out the best in people, not the worst in people. See if you're gonna get entrusted to a language, you're supposed to take the language to a level, at its best where it's heightened." - Umar Bin Hassan as told to Eric K. Arnold (Africana.com, 2 March 2001)
"Tolerance is getting thinner/Cause Iraq never called me a 'nigger'/So what I wanna go off and fight a war for?/You best believe I got your draft card/So bad to hate somebody else/But much worse to hate yourself." - Paris, "Bush Killa" Sleeping with the Enemy (1992)
"I spit verbs to put my words into action/I spit verbs to get things done/I spit verbs like God spat sentences/in the book of Genesis/I spit verbs that hit herbs like a fine powder/I spit verbs to my peeps a little louder/I spit verbs because my word is bond/like James, Barry, and crazy glue." — Gino Morrow, "I Spit Verbs" Spitfire: Poetry and Pose (2002)
Roc-O-Fella Entertainment, the Jay Z, Damien Dash, and Kariem Biggs entity, has grossed more than $300 million - $100 million in record sales with over $150 million generated from the Roc-O-Wear fashion entity. The success of Roc-O-Fella earned Dash and Jigga a cover story in a recent edition of Black Enterprise, the long-time "bible" of black capitalist ambition. Published by Earl Graves, (who was part of a group of black publishers including Essence Magazine publishers (Earl Lewis & Clarence O. Smith, and former Vibe Magazine publisher and current Savoy Magazine Publisher Keith Clinkscales, that supported NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg), Black Enterprise has kept a close eye on hip-hop's burgeoning economic empire since it profiled Russell Simmons in a cover story in 1992. (Simmons was the cover story for the June 2002 issue of that magazine which lists the top 100 black-owned companies.) Though Simmons is no longer intimately connected to the recording industry (his ace boon, Lyor Cohen, currently heads Island/Def Jam, which has direct lineage to the Def Jam label Simmons founded with then ace boon Rick Rubin in 1983), his own clothing line, Phat Farm (and Baby Phat), which Jay Z used to hawk, grossed $120 million in 2000 - twice as much as 1999.
In this environment (and with such dutiful roles models) it's easy to understand why shorties still on the block ain't tryin' to hear nothin' 'bout art, but instead are tryin' get their "entrepreneurialisms" on. ("What the fuck I wanna be an artist for if I get my own label like Jigga?"). Now I ain't tryin' to romanticize about artists. On the real: them original cats like Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five and the Cold Crush used to sell mix-tapes at a $1.00 a minute. Ain't nothin' wrong with cats payin' the bills with their art. But there's always a real cost associated with stayin' true to your art when market demands suggest that there's more money available following trends. This is what Angie Stone was talking about in "Soul Assurance" when she went after those Neo-Soul denizens, who ain't got no love for or skill at Soul music, but found a niche in the market by having somebody who sounds like The Soulquarians or Touch of Jazz produce their tracks. Folks need to ask Dionne Farris and Sandra St. Victor what happened when they tried to do their own shit with one of the major labels (three companies really, with hundreds of boutique and vanity labels in the mix) or why Prince was rolling around industry functions with the word "slave" scrawled on his cheek. Over the last decade, with the development of user-friendly recording equipment and the emergence of the internet as a primary site of commerce, folks committed to the decidedly independent distribution of their art have been able to find a niche. Recently three of these artists, Umar Bin Hassan, Paris, and Gino Morrow have stepped up with projects that represent the possibilities that artists have to remain "true to the game" without having to be sanctioned by the "Big Three" or Viacom-Land.
Umar Bin Hassan (born Jerome Huling) has been in the game for a while. The Akron, Ohio native was raising hell the old-fashioned way in his hometown when he caught a performance of The Last Poets at Antioch College in Yellow Spring, Ohio, in the Spring of 1968. The Last Poets were "formed" on May 19, 1968, when Abiodun Oyewole (then a student at Hunter College), David Nelson, and Gylan Kain took the stage and "read" poetry during a Malcolm X celebration (his birthday is May 19th) in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem, USA. By the time the group came to Antioch College, Nelson had left the group and was replaced by Felipe Luciano (he of Young Lords fame). Bin Hassan was eventually invited to join the group and trekked to NYC later that year (his moment of arrival is immortalized on the track "Forty Deuce"). As Bin Hassan told Timothy White a few years ago, "All I had was 22 cents, my suitcase, and a book of my own poetry. And I wasn't gonna leave until they let me join. My poetry with the group was naïve at first, but my influences were Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye singing "Stubborn Kind of Fellow." (Billboard, 3 July 1993)
After bumrushing a performance at the East Wind, the Last Poets' loft on 125th Street in Harlem, and performing a piece called "Motherfucker" (which Oyewole banned him from reading again), Bin Hassan joined the groundbreaking spoken word group, who along with Gil Scott-Heron and The Watt Prophets, are generally recognized as the forefathers of hip-hop. Classic Last Poets' tracks like "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" (which Hassan inspired six months after being in NYC) and "This is Madness" all have the mark of Bin Hassan's signature venomous wit and soulful cadences. With the emergence of "political" hip-hop in the late 1980s, the Last Poets, who have had seven different members over the past 30 years (and many contentious skirmishes about who the real Last Poets are), re-emerged recording several new discs including Holy Terror (1995) and Time is Coming (1997). Bin Hassan, in particular, was introduced to the hip-hop generation after a cameo performance of "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" in the film Poetic Justice (1993).
After struggling with drug addiction and homelessness (according to Bin Hassan he knows "every homeless shelter from Springfield, MA to Alexandria, VA and each one throughout the Midwest") he released his first solo disc, the brilliant 1994 Be-Bop or Be Dead (Axiom/Island, 1994), which was produced by Bill Laswell. Be Bop or Be Dead included remakes of "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" and "This is Madness" and "AM" (as in After Miles) his remarkable tribute to Miles Davis. On the latter track, Bin Hassan drops lines like,
"Up jumps Miles . . . bobbing and weaving/sticking moving/going against traffic on a one-way street . . . Miles the warm afterglow of an African sunset/Someday my prince will come, Someday my prince will come/Miles turning his back on guaranteed death and low life insinuations perpetuated by the perverted fantasies of the founding fathers of these United States of fuck you muthafuckas, fuck you muthafuckas/Miles was our gators and lizards/Our silk shirts and hickey freemans/He was our cool walks in the wind . . ."
Bin Hassan lyrics speak obviously to the genius of Davis, but also of the way that his performance helped present an image of pride and resistance and the quintessential example of high urban style in the 1950s. The song was also a broader tribute to the be-bop tradition, as Bin Hassan suggest an explicit connection between bop and hip-hop: "Somewhere I hear a revival/somewhere I hear bop playing/It is playing in the hip-hop walks of young boys who hit strange notes with hands-on triggers/Bam! Bam! Bam!/Max (Roach) picks up the beat/Rhythms from the bush/Passionate and vital information." Despite his belief in hip-hop's potential, Hassan recently admitted some disappointment with hip-hop: "I mean, it's just like the same thing over and over again, man. It's like whose bitch you fucking, how many niggers you killed and don't fuck with my shit and nigger, nigger this." (Africana.com, March 2, 2001) Bin Hassan's comment may sound ironic coming from someone who is best known for the song "Niggers are Scared of Revolution", but Hassan reminds folks that the song was "not used to degrade black people the way white writers like Hemingway used it . . . It's used to awaken and enlighten." (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 31 January 1994).
Countering the proverbial "bling-bling" of corporatized "Soul Music," earlier this year Bin Hassan released Life is Good (Stay Focused Records), his long-awaited follow-up to Be Bop or Be Dead. Despite the critical acclaim of Be-Bop or Be Dead, Bin Hassan was wary of the "big" labels. In an interview with Stephen Slayburgh, Bin Hassan says "I had become disgruntled with big record companies, who didn't seem to want to put out a record with old men telling the truth. They'd put out records about getting that booty or shooting that nigger, but they couldn't deal with a truthful album." (Columbus Alive, 17 January 2002) With Life is Good, Bin Hassan not only gets at the necessary truths, but also dabbles in styles of music not usually associated with The Last Poets, such as House, Reggae, and Acid Jazz.
The opening track, "Redbone", is a three-part tribute to the "Redbone" women (what some folks call hi-yello) who have inspired his art at various points in his life. In the opening section, he talks about how such woman inspired his initial commitment to black struggle, "You were the only real Africa in my clenched fist and revolutionary posturing/your prayers your whispered suggestions from the wind/kept my eye on the prize/I was your prince for a moment in that realm of misterioso/and humiliation of men seeking redress for miscarriages of justice/in Mississippi Juke joints and the Lullabies of Birdland." In a later section he discusses how the "high art of snapping and popping" of "Redbone" women became part of his art: "You nurtured my soul with responsible dreams and hopes for the future of your words became mine/to be confused, but concise, troubled but seeking, somewhat exaggerated/but always loving inspirations to writes poems for redbone women like you."
On the Reggae tinged "For the People" (backed by the Black Roots Band), Bin Hassan urges folks to "Take your time with the dreams, for this is for the people/take your time with the music, for this is for the people/take your time with the revolution, for this is for the people." The song is a product of Bin Hassan's willingness to own up the ways that the revolutionary generation of the 1960s and 1970s, failed to build the kinds of institutions that those behind them could take advantage of and a reminder that even in the midst of struggle it's always about recovering humanity.
The speed-balled "Personal Things" (originally recorded on Be Bop or Be Dead), powerfully addresses the way that crass materialism and commercialism have altered our sense of perception and thus life as Bin Hassan chants, "Idle chatter become reality while problems go unsolved/Prearranged, prefabricated, preconditioned/We're baptized, advertised and posthumously mentioned." Describing how materialism and commercialism even impacts our sense of America, Bin Hassan states, "Abstract victims of the American Dream/Victims of a disguised but well-planned scheme/Victims of a subtle but dangerous game/Rugged individualism with a psychotic name/We confuse the normal and exalt the extreme/we make war a reality and call peace a dream/American contradictions in black and white/we illuminate the contradiction and call it the light."
The true highlight of Life is Good, is the "hidden" remixed version of "Epic" (the last track listed). Running more than 12 minutes, the song begins with soulful "gothic" chants before giving way to a solid backbeat and trunk-thumping bass lines. The mesmerizing groove, later joined by searing guitar lines, rolls forward for more than five and a half minutes before Bin Hassan's signature melismatic spoken word flourishes are heard. In the song's most brilliant moment Bin Hassan says,
"The creative process begins to turn ugly vandalizing and robbing graves of child prodigies turning into serious discussions of mass murder and the therapeutic value of Saturday morning shopping sprees the betrayal of genius is burning at the stake the spider descends the violence is always there the web embraces us all more insidious than drugs, more pleasurable than sex slightly entangled, slightly confused that possible criminal element awakens you to the terror and loneliness of running into the silent pain of someone else looking to you for answers glamorous and well-financed pools of blood profiling on neighborhood corners while smiling at and tempting the boldest gangsta rap"
In this section, Bin Hassan poignantly describes the way genius has been reduced to celebrations of mass murder in film and literature and how real redemption and good health are thought to be found during so-called "personal health days" in which books by personal gurus (creative hacks) are consumed. His reference to the spider is, of course, a not-so-veiled reference to the internet ("the web embraces us") implying that the internet has become as addictive and therapeutic as drugs and sex. Lastly, he takes a quick shot at the stylized violence that emits from black urban spaces. He describes gangster rap and music videos as "glamorous and well-financed pools of blood." The song serves as a fitting metaphor for the struggles of being a creative artist at the moment when little that circulates as black culture can actually be seen as anything more than a marketing ploy to sell blackness to the most willing bidders.
Umar Bin Hassan is part of a tradition in America of "angry black men", and while black rage and anger had commercial value in the mainstream (see Norman Mailer's "White Negro" essay), very rarely has a detailed analysis of the objects of black rage found its way comfortably into the mainstream. So while angry black men (and people) can be detected everywhere in popular culture - from Eddie Griffith's "Undercover Brother" to even Alan Keyes (presumably pissed off because we all find him so damn funny) — detailed critiques of white supremacy and American imperialism are often divorced from the stylish nature of black rage. Thus the Chuck Ds and KRS-One's of the world became media poster boys for leftist urban agitprop without any fundamental consideration of the issues that inspired their rage in the first place.
Paris, the self-described "Black Panther of Rap" (he is an SF Bay Area native), was part of a historic generation of hip-hop Gramscians, like the aforementioned Chuck D (Public Enemy) and KRS-One and others such as X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, and the artist formerly known as Ice Cube. Though Paris' first disc The Devil Made Me Do It (1990) initially sold 250,000 and earned him a solid reputation among "conscious" folks, it was the release of his controversial follow-up, Sleeping with the Enemy (1992) that made his music a national topic. Included on the disc where several powerful political tracks including "Assata's Song" (a tribute to activist Assata Shakur) and "Coffee, Donuts & Death" (police brutality). But it was the track "Bush Killa" that piqued the interests of a wide range of folks, including record executives and the Secret Service, as the song was interpreted as a threat on the life of then-President, George Bush, Sr. The song featured a figure who identifies himself as "P Dog the Bush Killa" who drops lines like "I'm steady waiting for the day I get to see his ass/and give him two from the barrel of a black guerrilla/and that's real coming from the motherfucking Bush Killa." The initial cover art for Sleeping with the Enemy featured P-Dog making his move on the White House.
Sleeping with the Enemy was recorded at a particularly volatile moment for hip-hop and black folk in general, thus the disc was conceived as a response to the Gulf War (which "Bush Killa" explicitly addresses), the Rodney King beating and subsequent acquittal of four LAPD officers, the 1992 LA insurrections, and Right-Wing (and at least one postmodern Dixiecrat from Arkansas) attacks on Sister Souljah, Ice T, and Tupac Shakur. With the release of "Bush Killa", which featured a deconstruction of Bush's own comments during the Gulf War, Paris hoped to have some impact on the 1992 Presidential election. When the disc was turned in to his label Tommy Boy, it was politely returned. Tommy Boy's distributor, Warner Brothers, was still dealing with the fallout of Ice-T's "Cop Killer", and was in no mood to court more scrutiny. Though still signed to the label, Paris was allowed to shop the disc to 4th and B'Way and Rick Rubin's Sex Records (also distributed by Warner) who also passed on the project.
After a low six-figure settlement with Warner, Paris finally released Sleeping with the Enemy on his own Scarface Records (distributed independently by INDI) weeks after Bill Clinton won the '92 election. Shortly before Clinton's inauguration, Paris published an open letter to the President-elect in the Washington Post where he urged Clinton to socialize health care, address the crisis in public education, and develop a "comprehensive urban plan that addresses unemployment and job creation." (Washington Post, 3 January 1993) He also used the letter to explain that he understood that "Bush Killa" would be "disturbing to many, but what I hoped to call attention to-the real-life economic violence visited upon millions of African-American people every day of their lives-is more disturbing and more real." (ibid) He added that George Bush was a "ready-made symbol of politics and policies that have assaulted black America for nearly half of my life." (ibid)
Unable to make the kind of music he wanted (and get the airplay and support he needed), after two follow-up discs Paris "retired" from the scene. Paris earned an Economics degree from UC-Davis in 1990 and spent his "retirement" as an investment consultant. Armed with some financial freedom (courtesy of smart investments on Wall Street), Paris has returned from "retirement" with the track "What Would You Do?" from his forthcoming Sonic Jihad. The song takes strident aim at G-dub, John Ashcroft and The Patriot Act which Paris (and many others, I might add) feels is an attack on American Civil Liberties including freedom of speech, protection from unreasonable search and seizures, and due process. Paris' return was chronicled by Davey D (David Cook) in the piece "He's Back w/a Vengeance: Paris Returns" on Cook's website back in March. Davey D garnered attention in October when he was "fired" from his public affairs position at the Clear Channel owned KMEL for giving Boots Riley of The Coup and Rep Barbara Lee a forum on his show "Street Knowledge". In the piece, Davey D describes "What Would You Do?" (which is available for free download at the site) as "one of the best Hip Hop songs . . . heard in years. The intensity of the song and the subject matter is a breath of fresh air at a time when so many insist on bringing us bling-bling material."
Paris begins "What Would You Do?" with a nod to PE's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" with the lyric,
I see a message from the government, like every day/I watch it, and listen, and call 'em all suckas/they warnin' me about Osama or whatever/Picture me buyin' this scam I said never.
While the opening re-connects Paris to the radical rap tradition he retired from in the mid-1990s, it also lays out his belief that the 9/11 attacks were fabricated to dupe the American public to willingly hand over their civil freedoms as he adds later in the song that "the oldest trick in the book is MAKE an enemy/Of fake evil now the government can do it's dirt/and take away ya freedom lock and load, beat and search." Later in the song, Paris addresses the proclivity of black folks to close ranks around Bush ("'fore 9/11 motherfuckas couldn't stand his name (Bush)/Now even brothas wavin' flags like they lost they mind") and Rudolph Guliani ("Fuck Guliani ask Diallo how he doin'). Countering criticisms of "political" rap in the mainstream, Paris hits back "So now you askin' why my records always come the same/Keep it real, ain't no fillers, motherfuck a blingin'." On the CD-single (which Paris handed out for free at the recent Berkeley Hip-Hop conference), Paris includes a version of "What Would You Do?" that features a deconstruction of Bush, Jr.'s voice much like the one that appeared on "Bush Killa." It goes without saying the "What Would You Do?" and the forthcoming Sonic Jihad represents the kind of critical rhetoric rarely found in mainstream popular music, particularly hip-hop.
Though Gino L. Morrow is not as well known as Umar Bin Hassan and Paris, the nearly 30-year-old poet, painter and graphic designer is clearly a product of the world that both of those artists imagined. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY (whose natives include Ishmael Reed, Rick James, the late Frankie Crocker, and the late Grover Washington, Jr.), Morrow earned a BFA from SUNY-Fredonia, where he was a founding member and artistic director of a small collective known as the Genesis Project. It was in that capacity that Morrow opened for the Last Poets (with Bin Hassan) at a 1994 concert which featured the legendary poets and pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs. After a move to Kansas City, Morrow founded the Black Poets Collective and eventually won three Slam Championships in the region for his stirring performances. Feeling a need to have greater control over his art and its distribution, Morrow and his wife created the Grassroot Literary Movement Press which published his first collection Spitfire: Poetry and Prose, featuring 34 original pieces, highlights among the collection include "N.I.K.E." short for "Nigga Ignorantly Kneel to Exploitation". In his stinging critique of the sneaker industry, Morrow writes, "I can finally see through the debris of famous faces/flashing lights and sound bites, none of which is right/I can see Indonesian sweatshops and 9mm Glocks/blood spots and black bodies outlined in white chalk" adding that "Of course it's no coincidence that stock in Nike has increased/CEO's pockets get deeper/youth morale decline/and self-esteem gets weaker."
Later in the collection, Morrow pays tribute to Gil Scott-Heron (a seminal influence) and issues a potent critique of the commodification of blackness in popular culture. Referencing Scott-Heron's classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" throughout Morrow writes,
"Oh yeah, and those of you who own basic cable can watch the revolution on COPs and America's Most Wanted. Those with extended video digital cable can learn 230 reasons why the government legalizes slavery in the form of privately-owned penitentiaries on the Learning Channel; 470 ways to pimp broke bitches on HBO; 543 ways to maintain the status-quo on CNN; 666 reasons why niggas should rap, do comedy and play basketball on BET and 913 reasons why white folks will always consider you a slave on the History Channel."
On the back jacket of Morrow's SpitFire, he writes, "Call this the era of the 'gangsta truth' -- a historical moment where any 'truth,' be it bred by the need for scrutiny, critique or just straight-up resistance, is demonized, challenged and illegalized." Against the flows of black popular capital at Viacom, AOL Time-Warner, Sony, Rush Communications, Roc-A-Fella and even Starbucks, Umar Bin Hassan, Paris, and Gino L. Morrow are poised to bring the "gangsta truth" at a moment when their voices and their examples are so needed.