Ten years after their debut album, Let’s Get Free, dead prez, one of Hip Hop’s most politically-charged groups, is still armed and fighting for the cause.
Around 1990, dead prez was formed while M-1 and stic.man were both students at Florida A&M (Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University) in Tallahassee. The two bonded over their similar political ideology, love for Hip Hop and the struggles they endured growing up that would serve as this inspiration for their music.
After signing with Loud Records in 1996, dp’z built their buzz as they marched towards the March 2000 release of Let’s Get Free. The album was filled with sharp lyricism that brought awareness to deeper issues affecting the Hip Hop community, like the public education system, racism, freedom of speech and police brutality. Besides dead prez’s own distinctive presence, the album featured production from Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian and a young Kanye West. And the beat for their genre defining anthem “Hip-Hop” was later used as the intro and exit music for Comedy Central’s Chappelle Show. Rolling Stone gave the album four stars and dead prez found a special place in the hearts and record collections of true Hip Hop heads and many people living in the struggle.
In 2004, Columbia Records released the group’s long awaited second album, Revolutionary But Gangsta. With the decade since being littered with potent official and unofficial albums, all in the shadows of their seminal debut, dead prez is still dropping knowledge. With Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz circulating now, the duo has a strong handle on the Information Age.
HipHopDX: When did the process of putting Let’s Get Free together begin?
M-1: According to me, it started when I met [stic.man]. The reason I always put it in that context is because we were soon to be revolutionaries. On the mission to make sense of what was happening inside the world, I met stic and I’d just moved to Florida to start a new chapter in my life. My family was being destroyed by crack cocaine just like his was and so many families were around us. We started to put together our analysis of the world which then came to include the analysis of a revolutionary party called the Uhuru Movement and from there, I was able to put on a new set of glasses that would inform me of how I would need to move in the future in order to change these circumstances and so on and so fourth. So all of this growth is what you hear on Let’s Get Free. The actually recording of the album didn’t happen until six years after we met.
We met as organizers. My partner stic was rapping and he was so influenced by the people I was influenced by like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and X-Clan, who at that time, was very popular, Brand Nubian and so much more. When we met it was much bigger than rapping. When we met it was much bigger than rapping, we carried that into our lifestyle and our organizing tactics. The intro to Let’s Get Free was done by a man named Omali Yeshitela who is the chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party and the leader of the Uhuru Movement as a whole. He was a big influence on my life and a big influence on dead prez’s life. That’s the reason why he ended up on the intro or the onset of that particular album. Just to clarify it clearly that’s where Let’s Get Free has its roots. When you’re hearing the subject matter, it was formed a lot by that. It was based on our experience we had, figuring out how to make it jump off in the United States and also our frustrations with the movement as well. Of coarse, stic is a fantastic producer and we had worked with my brother Tahir, who we met [at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in] Tallahassee and is part of our crew. So, even the sound and the way the sound was made began with our union in Tallahassee back in like 1990 or 1991. From then on, we built our vision moving forward. When we decided we wanted to make an album, we’d already done a bunch of songs. When we went to New York to make the album, we included our journey to make it and the actual process of coming up with the album and where it ended up being placed on Loud Records came after we decided that we needed to make our sound grow and introduce it to an even bigger audience.
DX: What did you think of the Hip Hop that was out around that time?
M-1: In ’90, I came to Florida on some [Five Percent Nation of Gods & Earths] shit, kinda, and I’d really come from North Carolina, but I’m a Brooklyn native. Basically I came with the total influence of Brand Nubian, Gang Starr – who put a crazy album [Step In The Arena] out in 1991, X Clan and then after that, [Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die] album came out in ’93 or ’94. That just elevated the whole thing.
DX: When was Let’s Get Free ready?
stic.man: I’m not the best at putting dates on things, but I think the album was ready to go about a year before it got out into the world [in March of 2000]. It was postponed a lot. [Loud Records] didn’t want us to use the album art work that we had chose and that became a debate for a while. Then it was just the general, “Well, we don’t want it released in the fourth quarter,” and stuff like that. It ended up getting pushed back. In some ways it was frustrating, but in other ways it gave us time to hit the road and do shows and even gave us time to prepare more for when it hit. That was first [a] Loud/RCA [project] and then [a] Loud/Sony [project], it jumped around a couple times.
M-1: We’d been fucking around with Loud for almost four years because we had signed in 1996 and the run-around happened like stic said. They moved from RCA to BMG and they did their usual musical chairs. We didn’t know if the album would be released or not. There was a lot of weariness even because of the times. We were moving into a new period in life and there was a lot of angst in the world. There was a lot of debate over if society would be able to hold up over what was about to happen. We kind of went into it with the idea that this might be our only opportunity to put out some real shit. Luckily, it did come out on March 14th in 2000.
DX: Do you miss the big label system, when the system took risks
stic.man: What I acknowledged is that capitalism don’t have no soul, no honor, no loyalties and no presidents. All capitalism is, is trying to make a dollar. If people want some Wu-Tang shit, there’s some capitalist that wants to be able to sell that. If people want some dead prez shit, there’s some capitalist that wants to be able to sell that. I understood that, it wasn’t so much that they were taking a risk, it was that they recognized a lane that was not being totally exploited. Steve Rifkin, I think his genius as a capitalist was that he wasn’t going to try to come compete with [Diddy] or the other types of music that was out. He was trying to give the so-called underground a mainstream presence. It was a risk of capitalism he was taking. He took that lane of music and decided that’s who he wanted to build Loud around. That was his goal, and he accomplished that with a lot of major groups that had an impact on the game, like Wu and Mobb Deep. Also, some cats you don’t hear too much about [too].
DX: Tell me about Lord Jamar’s involvement in Let’s Get Free, and how much wisdom he offered you guys…
stic.man: We were two steps from homeless when we met Lord [Jamar]. We were in Brooklyn when we met him and he was like, “Let me hear y’all spit,” and after we said a couple lines he was like, “I’m going to give y’all my number and maybe we can hook up and maybe work on some beats.” We built a relationship and a friendship around that and a brotherhood around just being that we had a lot of things in common. We had a lot of respect for Brand Nubian. He treated us as peers and we got to see everything through the level of success that he had. We saw what was above him and what’s below him. We saw the pros and cons, we saw how you have to be on top of your paperwork. I learned personal, business and philosophical jewels from Lord Jamar. Musically, his record collection and MPC was very much part of the pool that we used for the sound of Let’s Get Free. It was a lot of his records that we were looking through – his spirit, his essence, is 100% a part of Let’s Get Free and who we are now. I’m not going to say we couldn’t have done it without him, but I know that we didn’t do it without him.
DX: I’ve always wanted to know who the “we know who shot Biggie Smalls” line was directed to, police, the judicial system, or — especially in the news circa 2000, a certain record executive?
stic.man: It was aimed at the people and everybody who it could be next. You know how that’s an unsolved so-to-speak…It’s like whoever shot him and whoever shot 2Pac are still out there and that was the main thing aimed at the people.
DX: Were you aiming to revive Conscious Rap, did you think rap lacked meaning at the time? This was 2000…
stic.man: I don’t like to call it Conscious Rap because that’s a label that did not come from the art-form. What we did was Hip Hop, that’s what we did and that’s what we do. We do Hip Hop. Hip Hop from the perspective of the streets, Hip Hop from the consciousness movement and we are still fighting those stigmas that still divide and conquer our culture into genres and categories that make us not realize that we need all of it and not some of it.
DX: What was it about Let’s Get Free did people responded to the most at that time?
M-1: Imagine the same kind of feeling that people are having now about the music being the same thing that people were feeling 10 years ago. I know it sounds crazy, but this is how hard these slave-drivers are on it. They’re going to pimp this shit and milk it to the bone. Hip Hop was coming out of a “do-whatever-I-gotta, grind-out” mentality, which came from 2Pac. He also helped to usher in the glamorous side of it: the Versace era and the Gucci era and the piece and chain era. We were just coming through and you saw groups like Brand Nudian or X Clan that wasn’t quite on the scene anymore, so dead prez became reminiscent and were able to stay stuff that spoke to not only life, but music at that point. I don’t even think we knew we would do that when stic made the beat for “Hip-Hop” It was like [chanting the chorus] “It’s bigger than HIP-HOP, HIP-HOP” and I had no idea how people would caramelize how it was bigger than Hip Hop at the moment. I still think that’s what people feel today and that’s why I still think there is some value in the dead prez brand right now.
DX: “Hip-Hop” was used as the introductory song for The Chappelle Show. Was it nice to be acknowledged like that? Did you like being out there in such a commercial way?
stic.man:Nah man, I hated it, I wish we could turn back the hands of time…[Laughs] Nah, of coarse we loved that, man. Nothing is absolutely evil or absolutely good. Things are relative and I think that commercial means that it’s popular amongst a lot of people. Like Horror movies are commercial, that doesn’t mean it’s a positive message, but for whatever reason, it’s popular. If you can show a love story or a death story and have a lot of people relate to it, I think that’s a positive commercial use. If we paint ourselves into a corner of this good vs. evil idea, I think that causes people not to think through things. I think for dead prez, we’re definitely about pimping the situation and not pimping ourselves.
DX: Kanye West has a writing and production credit on “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop,” what did he bring to that song?
stic.man: He produced the remix that is on the end of Let’s Get Free. He brought Kanye [West’s] interpretation of the south-sounding, Crunk sound at that time and we would be in the studio when he was working on “Jesus Walks” and some of his classics when he was first developing [his sound]. We respected him as a producer and M brought him to the table as being really talented, I thought he was talented and we worked with him. He gave the remix some legs. I don’t think it was close to his best work. He got exceptionally better as he went on.
M-1: I feel like we saw a young man growing through that. I feel like that he had an eye on dead prez that he was able to absorb. I have even heard Kanye say he learned how to write songs by listening to dead prez or watching dead prez like conceptualize songs and make them. It’s amazing to me because I didn’t know we were under his observation in that kind of way. But he’s a student of music and people think because he’s so closely associated with Jay-Z that his taste is so much different. I remember the first time he walked into the studio he had a brand new pair of Air Jordans on, all black with red strings. He had just bought them with a check that he’d just got and he was super happy about it. He threw on a beat that eventually became the “Hip-Hop remix,” he started to hum and sing. We still mess with him when I see him. I haven’t seen him in a minute.
DX: Is Hip Hop music still a forum for politics?
M-1: If we don’t make it that, then it’s our fault and our bad. The reason why I say that is because everything in this world is political. Every conversation that we have, even if it seems to be a-political, it has a lot to do with the sway of power in the world. Even if you just choose to ignore it, which is also a position to take, so for Hip Hop not to be used as a tool, to put out the voices of people and all kinds of communities that deserve to be heard and counted when it comes down to how we reconscile with this wicked system that seems to barrel over the majority of the people in the world. We need voices in Hip Hop that are going to be able to talk about that. I don’t mean to be standing on the pulpit kind of way, I mean to be able to make social commentary like Scarface do. There are some people who don’t get mentioned when you start talking about “Conscious Rap.” I was listening to consciousness from gangsters for a long time. Hip Hop has to be able to be used that way. If we don’t use it we’re overlooking a very valuable tool which we have.
stic.man: Why question is, why you ask if Hip Hop a political forum, I ask, is Hip Hop a spiritual forum? Is it a economic forum? And if the answer is yes, then all the above is true.
DX: “Animal in Man” is a retelling of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and begins with a sound excerpt from the movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Why did you draw influence from those other pieces of art?
stic.man: [Animal Farm] is just so classic. Just from one writer to another, just how he uses animals. I believe that everything that can be explained on a so-called child’s level is the ultimate. Anybody can create something big and complex, but can you explain it so that a cow can understand it? To me, that is powerful and I try to collect stories and things like that. It helps me navigate through life and helps me to offer other people advice if I see them struggling or going through something. The nature of that Animal Farm struggle was polarized between the animals and the humans. We saw that the humn influence wasn’t physical, but it became and ideology. It became a part of the spirit of the pig. When they got in the position of power, they behaved in a way that you could say was human, but they were pigs. So, to me, the jewel was that when we’re looking for something physical, we’re really fighting against ideology, something that consumes the spirit. A lot of people hear that song and read that book, but that jewel may not be the first you’ll get. You can related to being oppressed like the animals. But for, me, I wrote it because the ultimate jewel is to know your enemy and not to confuse it.
M-1: I think it was brilliant. We use this concept a lot and we draw from a lot of stuff. Stuff in modern culture, movies and the books, like TheMatrix and 1984. It gives us a terrain to be able to steer people to where we need them to be in this kind of culture way. Our latest kind of way to do that is to take over popular concepts in songs and we call it “It’s a Takeover, not a Makeover.” We use the same kind of path and color it differently and end-up in a different place.
stic.man: Believe it or not, that’s what everything is. There’s nothing new under the sun. We just think we’re making up brand new shit and we’re really not.
DX: If the album came out today, would the themes still be relevant?
M-1: According to the people in Germany, and Switzerland, and Oakland where Oscar Grand just didn’t get no justice. I’m a major proponent of justice in our communities and for the unheard voice around the world, I mention Oscar Grant and I know his cousin and his parents. I’m aware of the situation and my partner J.R. is from Oakland, was one the people and had a long trial because of it. My reaction to the Oscar Grant verdict was not surprising at all. It’s just the way they scew it, like they were delivering something when they were actually delivering nothing. That night, after the verdict, I’m making 1,000’s of people scream “Oscar Grant.” It was the same night LeBron [James] announced he was going to go to [sign with the] Miami [Heat]. I saw people buying LeBron James jerseys in Cleveland and there was a total ignorance to what was going on with Oscar Grant. I even got a call from the brother Nas and he said, “At least this cracker is going to go to jail.” I said, “To me, that’s not a win.” I hope the people don’t take his incarceration as a win because to me he was awarded involuntary manslaughter. If I have been handcuffed and shot in my back in a public execution, I would say that this wasn’t even an inch of the justice that I was supposed to receive. I’m just trying to think like I was Oscar Grant. The reality is, there was no justice here.
DX: “They Schools” talks about public education, are you guys still aware of that today? Have you seen any changes in that area?
stic.man: For sure, I have a son. I have nieces and nephews The public school system is still fucking up the minds of the young and the parents too. That’s still something we use our platform to address by giving alternative perspectives on all kinds of things in life. I have a book, “The Art of MC’ing,” that’s being used in Oakland High Schools. We have some things that we do to support independent schools in Atlanta. There is an independent school that my son attends and and I support in a lot of different ways.
DX: Should there have been more albums in the 10 years since Let’s Get Free? According to the demand the fans may have had for it.
stic.man: According to what? I’d have to say no. There’s no wine before it’s time. We are human beings that are managing this process, we’re not artist factories. You have to give us some time to grow in order to have something to say.
DX: What is your latest project?
M-1: This [Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz] mixtape is to let people on the scene know that dea prez is about to put out this brand new Information Age LP. We’ve been in the studio cooking at this very moment. Look to Deadprez.com to get the mixtape and we’re going to drop that bitch before the end of the year.
stic.man: We didn’t use no paper. It’s green and all that good shit.