By Eric K. Arnold, East Bay Express
On December 17, Paris played live for the first time in eight years, rocking the house at Slim's in San Francisco with convincing intensity. The concert represented not just a comeback, but a statement: Political hip-hop is in full effect again, at least as far as the Bay Area is concerned.
At least half the crowd that filled Slim's to near-capacity was under 25, which meant they were still in grade school when Paris' 1990 album The Devil Made Me Do It sold 300,000 copies. Most of the youngsters were undoubtedly more familiar with the recent single "What Would You Do?" than the equally controversial rant "Bush Killa," which got P-Dog kicked off the Time Warner major-label food chain back in 1992. Yet the audience greeted both songs with enough enthusiasm to illuminate the famous Macy's Christmas tree a few blocks away in Union Square.
Ironically, the Paris show happened the same week we found Saddam Hussein cowering in a spider hole, looking like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. And while we're still searching for concrete proof of Hussein's alleged ties to terrorist networks and his reputed cache of WMDs, yet another appropriate soundtrack for life during wartime has emerged from the Bay's hip-hop scene, on the heels of Michael Franti & Spearhead's Everyone Deserves Music, Variable Unit's Handbook for the Apocalypse, Paris' Sonic Jihad, and the recent Hard Knock Records compilation What About Us?
War (If It Feels Good, Do It!), a new compilation put out by Oakland label Hip Hop Slam, offers 28 examples of extremely relevant and often satirical sociopolitical commentary, such as Quiet American's "Once Over," Shing02's "Since By Man Came Death," and (occasional Express contributor) Azeem's "Bush Is a Gangsta." In addition to exclusive DJ Pone remixes of tracks by Mr. Lif and Public Enemy, War also features several cut-and-paste collages by the likes of Guerrilla News Network, Tino Corp, DJ Stoic, Cat Five, Steinski & Mass Media, and Jam's own group, DJs of Mass Destruction.
The icing on the cake, though, might be "InDaClub," 4am's hilarious send-up of commercial radio clichés, appropriately served over 50 Cent-esque beats. War is no laughing matter, but War sometimes is -- a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor permeates the disc. Still, with song titles such as "Emcee Dubya vs. Guvna Aaarnold," "Nobody Cares (Die for Oil Sucker)," and "Shock & Awe" (credited to DJ Killabush and the Embedded DJ), none of these tunes are likely to serve as background music on Face the Nation anytime soon.
Dedicated to the late Edwin Starr -- who sang the hippie-era peace anthem "War (What Is It Good For?)" -- the not-for-profit album, which benefits peace organizations, is the brainchild of Billy Jam, the punk-rocker-turned-indie-hip-hop-maven who helms Hip Hop Slam. (The album is available online at HipHopSlam.com and from branches of Amoeba Music.)
So what's Jam -- a white Irish immigrant known for his unabashed love of turntablism, gangsta rap, malt liquor, and dank weed -- doing putting out a potentially seditious project like War?
"I'm actually very political, and this is something I feel passionately about," Jam explains over a scratchy phone line from Dublin, Ireland, where he's vacationing, and speaking in a slightly thicker brogue than usual. "I feel passionate about the legalization of marijuana. I feel passionate about freedom of speech. And I think this is the same sort of thing. This is important. It's really, really important. Especially in these times. You look at the history of popular music, going back to the Vietnam war: There have just been nonstop pop records about people speaking out."
Jam's DJs of Mass Destruction (which also includes Dawgisht and DJ Pone), arose as a form of therapy, a way of coping with the horrifying reality that America was actually at war. "We were sickened by it all," Jam says. "I taped all the stuff off the television, and then we'd go in and we'd chop it up. Then we started calling up all these other artists, like Cat 5 and Tino Corp, and realized everyone was kinda going through the same thing. After two months of listening to Bush speeches and sound bites -- and going over and over them, as you do when you're editing -- sometimes you just get sick. I mean, literally nauseous from hearing his voice."
The majority of Europeans think Bush is an idiot, the DJ continues, although he admits there has been a slight upswing in the president's international popularity since Saddam's capture. However, "as far as Arnold getting elected, they just think it's the biggest joke in the world." Jam goes on to add that the British TV coverage of the anti-Bush protests in the UK showed a different picture than our own Fox News, which made hundreds of thousands of people look like a "small group of extremist weirdos."
Sure, it's trendy to playa-hate on Dubya, especially from foreign soil. But isn't Jam concerned he's going to get a visit upon his return by Matrix-like Agent Smith clones with black suits, earpiece radios, dark sunglasses, and bad toupees? After all, that's what happened to his good friend Dave Paul, owner of SF's Bomb Records, who was questioned by the Men in Black after buying plane tickets online for Bomb's "Return of the DJ" tour -- an obviously antipatriotic act in these times of color-coded security alerts.
Jam admits the thought of being detained and/or deported did cross his mind. But an in-depth conversation with Paris alleviated his concerns somewhat. "He told me he's never been visited by the Secret Service, which surprised me," he says of the Black Panther of rap. Jam also consulted radio personality Davey D -- who was fired by Clear Channel after broadcasting interviews with Barbara Lee and Boots Riley -- before deciding to put the War album out in all its outspoken glory.
Ultimately, Jam says, "The whole thing is about freedom of speech" -- a concept whose continued relevance shouldn't depend on capturing disheveled former dictators. And while Jam thinks the media being embedded with the armed forces may not have resulted in entirely objective reporting during the war, he hopes you'll crack a smile when you listen to the Embedded DJ address the issue.
"You have to laugh," Jam says. "That's how you deal with it."