What do you do when one song you write becomes more ubiquitous than you ever do as a performer? I’m not sure whether the two extremely boisterous members of Dead Prez ever imagined that one single on the breakout album that apparently took them two years to write would end up eclipsing them, but then one assumes Biggie didn’t reckon on ‘Party & Bullshit’ becoming a very popular Miley Cyrus mashup or a throwaway tag line in a Rita Ora song either. If there’s anything having postmodernism shoved down our throats as teenagers has taught us it’s that once you write something and put it out there in the world, it no longer belongs to you and you have no control over where it goes. Dead Prez, certainly, have watched ‘Hip Hop’ receive more air miles than they probably ever have as rappers, criss-crossing the globe, becoming a mainstay in almost every iPod track listing and transcending the incendiary, brink-of-the-millenium context in which it was written. I’ve bounced up and down to this song about ten thousand times in the last ten years, and I still have next to no idea what it’s about. In fact, the only thing I do know is that it’s about the carniverous commercialisation of the music industry, and yet I hear it played, presumably without royalties, in almost every club that makes money. That means it must be seriously good.
It’s often been said here that given the right treatment, two bass notes or seven words in a chorus lyric can achieve so much more than complex songwriting, and certainly those sinister three wobble tones you hear from the outset of ‘Hip Hop’ prove that theory correct. They’re literally designed to turn even the whitest of music fans into caterwauling bobble-heads, a seemingly swung groove punctured by straight syncopation. And it throbs into being, never actually breaking the surface of the treble frequencies and allowing stic.man and M-1 to get their point across loud and clear with the entire upper range free from interference. Triggered off by a brilliantly spare drum beat that, at its core, utilises only two kicks, a few shakes of a cabasa and a snare hit, it’s the ultimate in making less work more for you. These days, a lot of hip-hop is about layering it on thick and creating entire worlds out of the accompinament, which I enjoy, but in reality is a very easy way to hide lazy rapping. Dead Prez have nothing to cloak themselves in here. They don’t have Sia rolling in to sing a memorable chorus. It’s a backing track that could just as easily be silence, that’s how unobtrusive it is, despite the fact that it’s an incredible ear worm. And then they let fly.
“One thing ’bout music when it hits you feel no pain…” Now, I’m not a rap scholar in any sense of the world, merely an appreciator, but in the small army of hip-hop tracks I’ve heard, there aren’t many opening lines aside from, ironically, “I was a terror since the public school era” that storm in with this kind of strength. They’re all over it, rhyming in double drops and triplets and spit-firing words so fast that it’s amazing they’re so incredibly legible. Sure, they want to show off their skills, but unlike Twista or Busta, who make a show of speed to make a comment about the aesthetics of the art form, Dead Prez are all about the message. And in this three and a half minutes of surprise-crossover-politcal-rap, they’ve got a lot of them. They’re paranoid about being gunned down like Biggie. They think their record label is going to screw them out of money. They think the police are out to get them, the culture is bankrupt, video clips are portraying false ideas about wealth and wellbeing. Really, they’re mad about anything, and you can hear it in their intonation, the way the lay back on certain words and ball through others. When they roll through a list of modern contradictions “You would rather have a Lexus or justice/A dream or some substance/A Beemer, a necklace or freedom” it’s clear that they’re stamping down that rhythm so it gets stuck in your head. It rains on offbeats, pulling against the push of the bass, just as the “Who shot Biggie Smalls” intro to Verse 2 tries to outrun it. These vocal tricks are not an accident. They’re ways to resonate with the subconscious, such that people like you or I can recite them from memory without knowing how or why we have. They called it ‘Hip Hop’, presumably, to take a stab at the industry, but in the end, the joke may have backfired when Dead Prez created pretty much the ultimate hip hop song.
Dead Prez – ‘Hip Hop’