Before rappers had multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with shoe manufacturers and makeup companies, it was commonplace to see even the most mainstream emcees speak out on controversial issues. In the wake of Hip Hop’s commercial boom from the late 90’s through the early aughts, and the subsequent commercial drought we’re witnessing now, most mainstream emcees on major labels sidestep anything remotely controversial.

Moments such as Lupe Fiasco calling President Obama the biggest terrorist or Kanye West quipping, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” are now generally the exception and not the rule. In an effort to create dialogue on issues many of the most popular and commercially successful emcees are afraid to touch, HipHopDX is launching a “Taboo Series” of editorials. Whether readers agree or disagree with the opinions brought forth, our hope is to play a small part in returning the level of discourse in Hip Hop back to the days when mainstream, major label, commercially viable artists weren’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable and thought-provoking subjects.

From September 5 through September 7, HipHopDX will post these Taboo Series editorials daily, addressing topics the top mainstream rappers no longer talk about. Do you agree with the choices? Do you agree that such subjects have become taboo for Top 40 emcees? Weigh in, starting today.

New World Order: Hip Hop’s Obsession With The Illuminati

“We want sanitary food / Planetary conquest / Thug peoples on some hard cold body shit / Get your shit together before the fuckin’ Illuminati hit…” – U-God, “Impossible”

As a young Hip Hop head, I vividly remember the first time I heard some of my favorite emcees begin to throw out theories about Freemasonry, Illuminati and a New World Order. It was a 1995 article on Wu-Tang Clan from the June/July issue of Vibe. In addition to the normal interaction between Clan members, the following exchange between Raekwon, U-God and Ghostface Killah caught my attention:

Raekwon: “Were just building and keepin’ shit together, you know? This is Born Power hour. The Clan got shit locked down for the next five years. Right now, we’re preparing for the Illuminati 2000, which is the Masons’ plan for New World Order. We got a videotape of these mothafuckas droppin’ all types of shit about how they plan to run shit in the year 2000 and better.

[At this point Golden Arms, a.k.a. U-God, who has seemed anxious at the turn in conversation, looks up from his lap and shakes his head in unquestionable agreement.]

U-God: Word life, yo! This shit ain’t no joke! These mothafuckas got plans to put microchip implants in babies, so that they can be able to find yo’ ass wherever you are! Yo! They’re gonna give everybody plastic credit cards to replace money. We tellin’ you the truth, son. It’s gonna be some shit!

Raekwon: Brothers don’t realize these are the last days. That’s why we so tightly knit. We gotta blow this shit up now, or else we ain’t gonna have another chance. When you really think—yo—this whole world is corrupted to an extent…everything! Illuminati is a belief, but at the same time, it’s no religion. We dealin’ with facts, just like we dealing with the planets and all that. It’s deep.

Ghostface: Aye yo kill that shit, son.

Chef: Word up, ‘cause this shit can get niggas killed, for real. Let’s stop here.

About a month later, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy would add fuel to the fire with his well-known “Illuminati want my mind, soul and my body” quote from LL Cool J’s “I Shot ‘Ya” remix. Unofficially, those two events more or less opened the floodgates on roughly 15 years worth of references, warnings and speculation that seemed to peak with Jay-Z’s 2010 video, “On To The Next One.” Within that time span, we saw and heard references from nearly all of Hip Hop’s elite. Tupac made references on the first of many posthumous albums with the title Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. And for a while, Busta Rhymes provided an annual Y2K apocalypse countdown by yelling out how many years remained until the ball dropped or we all died—whichever one happened first. But there were also references provided by the likes of UGK, Ras Kass, Outkast and more.

If you’re looking some National Treasure-style decoder ring to break down all of these connections, this is the part where I tell you you’re on the wrong website. Alex Jones and any host of others will gladly trade such theories with you. As it concerns Hip Hop, I’m interested in why so many of the genre’s most skilled and visible emcees have made so many references to Freemasons, Illuminati and the New World Order. It seems that Hip Hop, more than any other genre of music, has an interest in secret societies that borders on obsession.

The Information Age

“Look up in the sky / It’s a bird it’s a plane / No it’s just another drone spying on us maine / It’s a new world order / At least that’s what I read / Big brother is watching / I just heard somebody say it / Jesus was married to Mary / And they both had a kid / And it’s a piece of history that the Catholic church hid / Man fuck The DaVinci Code / Fuck Illuminati / Only secret society is Rap-A-Lot and John Gotti…” –Bun B, “Purse Comes First.”

If you subscribe to the notion that Hip Hop enjoyed its cultural and commercial peak during the period from 1989 through 1995, then the Illuminati talk begins to make a lot more sense. One of Hip Hop’s often-neglected five pillars is knowledge and understanding of the culture. And at the most basic level, the artists issuing warnings about a New World Order ushering in a 1984-style police state had a basis for their fears. I think such rhymes warned listeners about being desensitized to a society that advocates constant surveillance and the removal of certain civil liberties.

Rae, Ghost and U-God raised some legitimate concerns back in 1995. Events such as COINTELPRO, when the United States government purposely and unlawfully kept domestic citizens under surveillance, set a precedent for the microchip implants U-God mentioned. Similarly, The Tuskegee Experiment set the precedent for the government willingly infecting citizens with the deadly disease syphilis and leaving them untreated. Corporations such as Verichip have already shown that the technology for a passive, implanted chip exists. U-God’s theory of Illuminati coordinating the implanting of microchips in infants is a bit far-fetched. But when viewed within a historical context, there’s a basis. Admittedly, there’s a definite difference between what U-God and other emcees warned about and the current American climate of constant surveillance. According to Popular Mechanics, there are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. There is increasing evidence that such cameras are not nearly as helpful as some would have us believe. If all of this costly surveillance is not necessarily helping prevent crime, then what is it doing?

A 2002 study by, Brandon C. Welsh and David P. Farrington on public surveillance systems in the US and the UK posits that factors such as displacement and confounding variables show an increase in such systems don’t consistently deter crime. And when they do, they’re rarely worth the cost to taxpayers. Additionally, there’s the issue of having one’s civil liberties encroached upon. And that’s not to mention additional measures such as the PATRIOT ACT, and the institution of the Transportation Security Authority. To me, listening to Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” with all of the above in mind makes emcees that talked about a New World Order sound much less paranoid. Within that context, a fairly large amount of emcees were merely giving listeners knowledge about upcoming restrictions on their civil liberties and personal freedoms—such as being subjected to a full body X-Ray each time you board a plane.

To a certain type of discerning Hip Hop fan, it does mean the era that emcees like Cee-Lo and Canibus spoke about is already upon us. Various American civil liberties, including due process, have been taken away or redefined within the last 20 years. Our country is moving closer to being under a state of constant surveillance, and with the constant threat of terrorism looming on the horizon, the government no longer needs probable cause to search, seize or even wiretap you. As far as Hip Hop is concerned, many of the scenarios outlined in tracks like Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” and Wu-Tang Clan’s “Impossible” aren’t the stuff of science fiction movies. They’re already happening in real life.

Power Circle

“My point was to bring the Illuminati out of the boogieman space. It’s not a boogieman; it’s legislators that are right now passing legislation that disenfranchises so many people. We’re talking about 1% of the population in America controlling 50% of the wealth, controlling more wealth than 50% of the people here. We have 10% of the people all over the world making life miserable for 90% of the world and [all] we wanna talk about is Jay-Z gay, is Kanye gay? Are they in this secret society? It’s not a secret society; it’s right in your face. Everything they’re doing is right in your face. Everything.” –Wise Intelligent, exclusive HipHopDX interview.

You don’t need to have a secret society with cloak and dagger type blood rituals to prey on socially marginalized people when legislators are perfectly willing to do it in broad daylight. To me, that’s the most conclusive evidence against some type of Illuminati. Look at someone like conservative lobbyist, Grover Norquist. In what can most simply be described as a campaign against the redistribution of wealth, Norquist has convinced nearly every Republican congressman and senator to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge. To me, such efforts go beyond political party affiliation. What you’re dealing with is rich lobbyists influencing public policy instead of voting, taxpaying citizens. That shouldn’t be confused with representative democracy, where a small group controls a larger group. What we’re dealing with is a small group of wealthy private citizens dictating government actions.

In October of 2011, the average US citizen made $26,364 per year. The American League of Lobbyists doesn’t calculate or make members salaries public. But a 2011 report by the Wall Street Journal estimates the average lobbyist makes from $1 million to $5 million annually. You can look at the current state of the economy and safely assume there are a lot more people bringing home that $26,364 average than there are millionaire lobbyists. Yet it’s pretty clear which group has more influence. When it’s time to enact laws that reduce federal aid to the poor or make it more difficult for citizens in low-income areas to vote, those with the most sway in the American political process aren’t wearing cloaks and attending some Illuminati séance. They’re walking right into an elected officials office and giving them a “gift,” because the process is totally legal. I’m more worried about a crooked lobbyist in my elected officials office than some Freemason in a lodge. Although, for argument’s sake, a person could very well be both.

Fantasy Versus Reality

“But on the low though / We fightin’ over the scraps worshipping the almighty dollar / In God we trust / Look it over / Now what the fuck pyramids got to do with the Pilgrims or Jehovah / Novus Ordo Seclorum means new world order / That’s why I keep my friends close and my enemies closer… –Ras Kass, “Soul On Ice (Remix)”

As a listener, the image-heavy, fantasy side of the Illuminati argument loses some credibility for me when people want to don their tin foil hats and exaggerate things for entertainment value. I’m specifically referring to things like Prodigy’s batshit crazy letter from prison about Jay-Z and Dr. Malachi York (pictured below). I don’t think every rapper that has ever been associated with imagery of an “all seeing eye” is part of some secret conspiracy. I’ll be worried about Jay-Z or Sean Combs’ net worth when I see one of them with a senator or a lobbyist—or doing anything with Obama besides trying to raise their Q-rating. Much like Hollywood’s Illuminati references in Tomb Raider and National Treasure, I think a large portion of rappers were and still are throwing whatever references they can cull from William Cooper’s Behold A Pale Horse in their rhymes. And it sounds like some of their fellow emcees are finally calling bullshit on them.

Prodigy LetterProdigy LetterProdigy Letter

“I view Jay-Z and Puffy as entertaining businessmen who have made moguls out of themselves,” Killer Mike said, in reference to Illuminati allegations against Jay-Z and Sean Combs. “In the context of putting their money next to me, I shrink. But putting their money next to [Warren] Buffett, [Carlos] Slim out of Mexico, the Nigerian and East Indian billionaires, they just become regular people again. I won’t let my perception to be controlled. So it’s not a slight against Jay-Z. It’s just saying that if you allow your idols to be judged on a game or playing field that they didn’t create, you’re gonna be saying you think they’re in the Illuminati. And they’re not, because they don’t have enough money to be in the Illuminati.”

The Devil And Jay-Z

“If from age one to adulthood all you heard was Jay-Z, you’re gonna learn to get ahead of everybody and fight the world. You’re gonna learn to kill. You know what? A baby will go right to hell fuckin’ with Jay-Z, but that baby will be wearing the hottest designer shit and driving the hottest car with the coolest rims. And that’s why they matter so much. DMX will take you to heaven and Jay-Z will take you right to hell.” –Russell Simmons, Life And Def.

If my former employer wrote that fuckin’ with me would send a baby straight to hell in a national bestselling book, I’d seriously contemplate punching him square in the jaw. And yet, when Hip Hop’s Illuminati obsession reached its peak a few years back, a lot of people felt the same way Russell Simmons did about Jay-Z. What is it about Jay-Z that makes people associate him with some secret society in control of all the world’s wealth?

If we’re being somewhat objective, then even by his own admission Jay-Z is responsible for some pretty foul acts. He’s gone on record as having sold at least a negligible amount of crack cocaine at some point during the 80’s. He’s admitted to shooting his brother at the age of 12. He pleaded guilty to third-degree assault after allegedly stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999. And at least part of his current success is due to leaving his former Roc-a-fella founders (and most of their artists) high and dry when he sold the company and took a position at Def Jam in 2004. You can also add in a few chilling lyrics, such as, “I never pray to God/I pray to Gotti.” For those that subscribe to the theory that Jay is in cahoots with the devil, there’s the Masonic imagery from various Rocawear clothing items, some of his videos and that infamous Roc/diamond sign that he’s fond of throwing up.

It’s interesting that, at least on face value, other rappers haven’t been reviled for doing some of the exact same things that supposedly make Jay-Z evil. C-Murder was convicted of shooting 16-year-old Steve Thomas in January of 2000. Despite video evidence of C-Murder firing his gun, a “Free C-Murder” campaign was launched. Jay-Z’s contemporary, Notorious B.I.G., has admitted to also moving his fair share of crack cocaine. According to B.I.G. himself, some of his customers were pregnant women, yet he’s still widely admired and regarded as one of the best emcees ever. Artists such as E-Sham and Three-6 Mafia have taken references to devil worshipping and Satanism further than Jay-Z ever did. And there’s a long list of executives in Hip Hop that have profited from shady business deals including Eazy-E, Jerry Heller and the original Hip Hop executive, Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records. For all Jay-Z’s ridiculous net worth and cultural influence, I don’t think he or any other rapper have enough power to enact the kind of negative social change people think secret society leaders are capable of. To be sure, Jay has been part of some truly unscrupulous shit during his tenure as arguably the world’s most influential rapper. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s evolved some since spitting “D’evils” in 1996. And even if you think he hasn’t, he’s probably not going to usher in the apocalypse.

The End?

“Grand wizard of the sixteens / That bust like elephant guns / And long magazines / I shine / Illuminate / Yeah my aura is awesome / Illuminati is us / We are the origin / Of all enlightenment / These pirates stole our shit…” –Prodigy, “Skull And Bones.”

Ultimately, all of this is just one man’s opinion. If you do or don’t believe some secret society is behind the scenes controlling all of the world’s resources, one editorial probably won’t sway you in the opposite direction. Controversial, sometimes even secretive imagery will always have an appeal. And rappers have used far less to make their subpar albums into the type of water cooler conversation that boosts their sales. But every high-earning rapper that we see even remotely associated with the “all seeing eye” isn’t in some secret society. As the Jay-Z and Rick Ross (and even Soulja Boy to a lesser extent) have proved, they’re not above exploiting the innuendo surrounding their wealth for entertainment purposes. It’s understandable why someone like French Montana would laugh off all the Illuminati talk and ask if he could join via application.

On a much larger level, powerful and corrupt people often congregate both in secret and in public. And at the very least, society’s most wealthy people are known to broker some of their biggest deals outside of the boardroom. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the gradual loss of civil liberties, concentration of wealth and resources and systematic oppression of marginalized groups is being orchestrated by a bunch of men in cloaks performing blood rituals and doing secret handshakes. Look at the political landscape over the last few decades. The people responsible for many of these conditions are doing their damage in broad daylight for everyone to see.

Rashad Phillips began as an intern with HipHopDX in 2010 and is also a news contributor. This is his first editorial for the site.