Whether you’re talking No Limit “soldier rags,” the trend of wearing military gear as fashion or even a few iconic album covers, there’s no shortage of Rap references to war, soldiers and being armed for battle. But there’s a distinct difference between the sales wars waged on the weekly Nielsen SoundScan report and actual warfare that makes any war metaphors laughable. That said, none of the above should belittle the combat-like conditions some emcees are subjected to before becoming professional recording artists.
“Somebody comes out there thinking it’s going to be a regular day, but you could go home with a bullet in you,” Immortal Technique flatly offered, when describing the conditions from which a few of his Rebel Armz brethren emerged.
Through talent, hard work and the type of leadership that causes Immortal Technique to refer to his collective as a “pirate ship,” the days of random encounters with bullets are long gone. But when personal tragedy strikes the unit—as it did on the day of this interview—the bunker mentality remains in place. The cameras were cut off, and Immortal Technique, Poison Pen, Swave Sevah and the rest of the crew excused themselves for an impromptu conference outside.
Immortal Technique’s occasional reflections on formerly having “poor impulse control,” not being allowed to perform in Canada or running box cutters across sensitive areas of the human anatomy don’t ring hollow. But they also don’t particularly seem to be for show. And the fact that the Rebel Armz members on hand kept their composure and conducted several interviews and freestyles after excusing themselves speaks volumes about what casual Hip Hop fans perceive as “hard” or supposedly “gangsta.”
During a lengthy conversation, Immortal Technique and Poison Pen ran through the finer points of sample clearances, infidelity, the industrial prison complex and Immortal Technique’s work with an orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan. HipHopDX’s plans to run supplementary video of the interview were abandoned out of sensitivity for the events that happened the day of the interview. But any fan of Immortal Technique knows the man can paint a picture without a DSLR in his face.
Immortal Technique & Poison Pen Recall Paid Dues 2013
HipHopDX: So the last time we saw each other was back in March at Paid Dues…
Immortal Technique: Our main stage area was far as hell. Anyone at Paid Dues knows it was far as hell from the other stages. I really didn’t even get a chance to catch up with a lot of people, but hopefully I’ll get to see them out there—like Ill Bill and Vinnie Paz. Otherwise, it went great. The merch day was incredible, and I got to meet thousands of people. We all tore it down, and we had a show down there and got some great pictures. I got to see my family, and we had family reunion time. We got a new addition to the family, baby cousin Gisela. Shout outs to the whole family. It was great to be here with family and friends.
That’s the best part about what I do. I get to hang out with people I love and respect and that I’ve known for over 10 years and do this together. That’s also more of a success. If you’re successful, and everybody on your team is some yes-man that you met a couple months ago…that does whatever you say like a flunkie, then you got a problem. It’s not that we don’t have disagreements, but I do genuinely listen to people. I had Pen hit me up before a show, and it was like, “Yo, what’s up with this set-list? Let’s put some new songs in here or put in songs that you don’t normally do.” “Freedom of Speech” was in there to set it off. I can appreciate that. I’ve known the dude for years. Whenever we’re out there, we’re like a family and like a unit. We eat together—we just came from my grandmother’s house. At the end of the day, I understand I’m the captain of a pirate ship and that Paid Dues was boarded successfully.
Poison Pen: The only thing I was upset at was when my kicks got fucked up in that dusty-ass terrain. Me and some extra butters got destroyed, but it was dope. I wish we could’ve actually seen everybody perform. I wanted to see Mobb Deep, Jean Grae—that’s family. I wanted to see Mobb Deep, Joey Bada$$ because that’s the young dude from Brooklyn. I’ve never seen him perform. I wanted to see WC, because I was a big WC fan from when I was a kid. I wanted to see the original Slaughterhouse, West Coast Slaughterhouse from whenever the fuck. I wanted to see all that shit, but we missed everything. We were on the other side of the planet, and then we got stuck in traffic for two hours right outside the venue. That’s Southern California for you.
DX: That’s the thing with festivals. You gotta wear the flyest shoes you don’t mind just trashing—
Poison Pen: Nah, my kicks were the toughest kicks in the spot. Roc Marciano would be trying to take my kicks, but he wears like a size four [laughs]. He ain’t fitting in my joints. I was definitely killing ‘em.
Immortal Technique Explains The Kinship In Rebel Armz
DX: You described it as captain of a pirate ship. Is that an apt metaphor?
Immortal Technique: Listen, we came together in 2006…2007, but we’ve been rolling around each other since about 1999. I went to prison in 1999. I met Pen when they were still doing the battle scene areas, and he was running it at that time. He was like, “Yo, come through, and I’ll put you on a battle.” He seen me do a couple battles. I still remember when I met him. It was at a club, and I was battling a guy named Kal-El. I beat him, and Pen approached me like, “You know what? I really don’t know you that well, but you beat my man. Congratulations.” He goes, “I run this other battle, whenever you want to come through…” I came by and won that one. Pen was like, “Oh man!” We just started talking.
I’ve known Swave Sevah for a while. He’s from Harlem, though. I just followed the tread of blood one day and I ran into him smoking an L. I’ll keep it 100 with you; I didn’t really like him, and he ain’t really like me when we first met. Just like me and C-Rayz Walz. I didn’t like him. I’m glad we never had any altercation, because I’m not going to fight Swave. I’m going to have to shoot someone. Everything turned out wonderful, and now we’re all good friends. I tell people all the time, us human beings, us superstitious, well-groomed, warrior-like, talking monkeys—that’s what human beings are. The worse thing you can do is attack us, because we form like a unit when we’re put under pressure like that. We have a genuine care for one another. It’s always a blessing to be on the road with people you love and respect. We got so many other people I wish I can bring on the road all the time, but imagine 20 motherfuckers out there.
Immortal Technique: My brother Constant Flow is going to come out with an album on Viper Records. We’re just putting it together right now.
Poison Pen: I knew this was fam from that day. I knew this was really my nigga from when I was in the club—and I’m pretty level-headed—but this guy came home back on the streets. We’re sliding through the club, and this nigga bumped the shit out of me. I’m a big dude, if you bump me hard, then it’s malice. You intended to do it. I’m standing there, pissed, like, “This nigga just bumped me.” This nigga [Immortal Technique] turned around and rambo-ed [the guy]. I was like, “Chill! Don’t kill this nigga in a fucking club.” He just came home, and this nigga was not civilized at all. That’s how I knew that was my fam. You gotta keep niggas like that close. That’s who you know you’re going to roll with ‘til the end of fucking time.
DX: In The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique—you talked about your experience in prison and coming out and how that affected your mindset…
Immortal Technique: One thing I learned from that experience was also personal responsibility. There was a time when I had poor impulse control. I remind people that I’ve been incarcerated. If you’re reading this right now or reading it in jail, I know y’all divided by race. Y’all are united by class, because y’all broke as shit. If you had a $3 million lawyer, you wouldn’t be in there, nigga. If this rich nigga is next to you in jail, then he’s 10 times more guilty than you are, because he should’ve been there years ago. He’s been holding if off with his fucking lawyer [laughs]. When I looked at that, the poor impulse control we had and the way we automatically go towards the violent option instead of looking at it, I see myself reflected by the youth. That is why I do a lot of talks, a lot of prison programs and stuff like that. But definitely at that time, coming out of prison, I can totally admit to being a very volatile person. I did that interview with Brooklyn Martino, and she was asking me, “What was your experience like at ‘106 & Park?’”
I explained to her that when I first got there for the battle, the security guards told me, “Yo, you gotta move.” They were clapping their hands at me. I stood up and told the brother, “Look dude, you’re not my father. You’re not a C.O., and I’m not in jail. I don’t have to do a fucking thing you say.” He’s just not used to having people speak to him like that. I said, “Listen, you don’t seem to understand how this works. If I put a razor across the back of your ankle, you’re going to walk around like a crippled monkey for the rest of your life. You’re big for no reason right now, my nigga. And you’re gonna be big for no reason for your whole fucking life if someone does that little surgical procedure from the street for you.” I remember having that type of aggressive attitude, and it really kind of shocked people. At that point, you think to yourself, “Wow, all it takes is a tiny little razor across the back and take out your tendon, then you really are going to hobble for the rest of your life.” That’s how precious it is. In an instant, I’ve seen people’s lives change.
On the block, Swave’s telling you somebody comes out there thinking it’s going to be a regular day, but you could go home with a bullet in you. It’s no joke. I think we’ve all accepted it and came to the realization that this is a business that we are representing our families and ourselves. We don’t want to become a caricature of Rap to where it looks like a whole bunch of niggas scrambling and being violent for nothing—we have a cause now. We have a realization. We talk to people.
Pen got a lot of people approaching him on how to get on in the battle scene, how to get on in music—God knows he deals with as much youth as I do. Only they’re coming to him thinking it’s something glamorous. It’s the same way they come to me asking to get on the Rap or battle scene. He’ll tell them this is the battle scene. If you wanna be famous, this is what you gotta do. Unfortunately you’re going to have to find the politics to it, whether it’s being media, battling or being in music. I think it’s about maturity and having people trust you enough to tell you about yourself. That’s also what helps with success. Yes-men don’t help you. All they do is stroke your ego and tell you what you want to hear. Sometimes you need to hear what you don’t want to hear, because that’s how you grow and evolve.
Immortal Technique On The Industrial Prison Complex
DX: As far as that prison mindset, is there a connection between a private prison industry and chartered schools?
Immortal Technique: This is funny; you flipped it directly to politics. You know what? There’s a greater scope to the question that the upper class of America completely abandoned the public school education. That’s 100%. Even gangster rappers send their kids to private school, and why wouldn’t you? The measure and benchmark of being a man is not prison, and anyone with half a brain cell knows that. They don’t want to shove their kid in front of a bullet. You’re not going to have your kid living in a trap house so you feel like a thug. No. You want your child to grow up and rub elbows with the best of the best. The only problem is if they abandon that public school system, then how can they complain later when one of those kids can’t find a job, has no opportunity, or has very little afforded to him and all he has is a tiny, little chance in hell of getting anywhere? When he robs the shit out of your child and shoots him in the head for the money he has in his pockets, what are you going to say? You didn’t give a fuck about the public school education system? Because that didn’t just fail that young man, but it also failed you and your family. You forgot we live in the same country. You’re rich, but we all gotta go out there into the wilderness.
So yes, unfortunately there is a connection between how the school systems work and how a prison industrial complex functions. Not only that, but the benchmark of whatever else in society. But if you look at it, there is a connection in my mind of people that have limited opportunity versus individuals who have everything in front of them. We were having this conversation before with your boy. It was over a Battle Rap. They were like, “Battle rappers can’t make good music.” Don’t say Battle Rap. Say most rappers, because a lot of people at a major label will come in and help an artist. They’ll say they’re an A&R or producer. They come in again and again and say, “We’ll change this,” or say, “We’ll get another rapper on it.” As a rapper, as an independent rapper—fuck a battle rapper—you’re doing all of that. You’re setting up those phone calls. You gotta call the producer. You gotta work out the deal with them. You gotta do all the paperwork. You got somebody that’s like, “Can you take care of this for me?” or “I need this done ASAP.”
Poison Pen & Immortal Technique On Professionalism & Prioritizing
DX: What does a Rebel Armz, Immortal Technique, Poison Pen groupie look like?
Immortal Technique: A Poison Pen groupie? [Laughs.] Hold on, she weighs about 200—
Poison Pen: [Laughs] Fuck outta here. I’m the flyest fat man in the nation. Damn, you’re going to get me in trouble. Fans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We appreciate you all. It’s like Ellis Island: “Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” We look like the United Nations any fucking way…
Immortal Technique: Oh my goodness, please don’t put that in there [laughs]. Ellis Island, are you fucking kidding me?
DX: Poison Pen is giving y’all a history lesson right here.
Immortal Technique: I tell people all the time, everything about this game is about prioritizing. It’s wonderful and everybody here is a healthy man. If you want to have a lady in your life, ain’t nothing wrong with that. We shouldn’t act like Puritans in this shit. But at the same time, remember, your business comes first. If you’re slipping up and running around with females all the time, ladies can love you but they ain’t going to fight for you. And women aren’t going to protect you. Unless you’re a pimp, they’re not going to be out there stripping and making any money for you or running your business right. It’s all about prioritizing.
If it’s a business day, it’s a business day. If it’s a party, feel-good, have fun day, then that’s what it is. Until I got a ring on my finger, you can’t tell me shit. I asked somebody about cheating, and they described it to me in an incredibly poignant fashion. Cheating is what you cannot do in front of the person you are with. I know people who have a relationship with a woman and it’s like, “Hey, if you’re going to go out and get head, then that’s fine. If you get a girl pregnant—we’re done.” Whereas I know people who have more conservative relationships, where it’s like they don’t want their man going to a strip club. It’s like, “If you’re getting a lapdance or getting head in the club, then we’re done.” It’s just what you can’t do in front of the other person. That’s cool, and if y’all cool doing it, then there should be no problems.
Poison Pen: I hate those women.
Immortal Technique: I mean, that’s why those types of relationships are harder to have in the South. Because if we we’re in Atlanta, this interview would be taking place in a strip club. We would’ve just ate lunch at a strip club.
Poison Pen: Rump roast and rump roast, right?
DX: On a non-strip club note, we need to see that Immortal Technique and Nardwuar interview.
Immortal Technique: I still gotta do a Narduwar interview, and I got a gift for you if they let me into your goddamn country in Canada. We’re going to resolve that.
Immortal Technique: I’m still banned.
Immortal Technique Talks Hip Hop’s Global Reach
DX: What happened? Let’s refresh.
Immortal Technique: [Takes a deep breath and sighs]
Poison Pen: [Starts singing] I’m a goon…
Immortal Technique: Nah, what’s funny is I just got déjà vu [laughs]. I had a lot of violent crimes when I was a kid. It wasn’t for shoving somebody on the floor after I stole a purse. I lived in a very negative type of way, and I used to speak with my hands a lot. Nowadays I’m more than willing to let people throw the first shot, because I know they’re not going to get the second. Back in the day I would love to hook off first. That’s a product of very poor impulse control like I said before. I think also, I was a less mature individual.
When we’re talking about being banned from countries, we’re missing out on money, missing out on being able to connect with supporters and fans that number in the thousands. It’s a reminder for people who are up and coming right now that you’re going to have to pay for all the things you do now. It’s sad, but you consider the rappers you grew up listening to—the majority of them passed away in the last 10 years. Not from bullets or guns but from the terrible food we’ve been eating. It’s not even that they need to stab you or kill you, they just get you by giving you the food with all these terrible ingredients and chemicals.
In your mind, you’re thinking, “This tastes so good, blah, blah, blah…these ingredients? I don’t care what’s in there [laughs].” But at the same time, that’s what’s getting motherfuckers. It boggles the mind where I’m still in this position legally. But just remember, you gotta pay for whatever you’re doing right now. If you’re at that roach coach eating food at 3:00 in the morning, when you’re 40-years-old, then your heart is paying for that, my G. If you’re out there committing crime right now, and you’re thinking about a future in entertainment, you’re going to want to be around the world, because that’s your market. If you’re an entertainer or rapper, your market is not America, it’s not LA—this is the Internet Age. Your market is the world! What are you doing? What the hell are you doing sitting in your room talking to someone next door? Go to Japan, dude. Go to Canada. Go to all the places I can’t go to. And I’ll live vicariously through your stupid ass until I can get there myself. Lawyers on deck.
Immortal Technique Responds To Ryan Lewis’ Shout Out
DX: That whole Nardwuar/Canada tangent came from a Macklemore and Ryan Lewis interview with Nardwuar where Ryan Lewis cited, Revolutionary Vol. 2 as an inspiration. Are you a fan of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and the attention they’re getting now?
Immortal Technique: I actually have known their manager, Zach [Quillen] for a while. I heard for about what they were doing a couple years ago. I’ve seen their manager and given him congratulations on their success. I know those guys worked really hard for what they got. It may not necessarily be the type of music I listen to all the time, but it’s not like I wouldn’t give ‘em a shot. I appreciate different types of diversity in music. Not everybody wants to hear murdering and killing all day. Not everybody wants to hear political Hip Hop all day. Not everybody wants to hear some trap music all day.
Sometimes you want to hear something more introspective or something that touches the soul. So, I have nothing against them. I think in this generation of Hip Hop, every time you extend your hand, it’s to grow and not to shut somebody down who didn’t do anything wrong to you. If them niggas came at me sideways and we’re doing this interview, then I’ll have something different to say. But they haven’t done nothing but show me love, so I can’t do anything but show love in return.
That’s how I was taught by my OGs. If someone shows you love, then it’s your responsibility to show them love back because they went out of their fucking way to say your name and paint you in a good light. If you return that with negativity, then that’s all the fuck you can expect after that. So a big shout out to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I appreciate the shout out.
Poson Pen & Immortal Technique Reveal Rejected Endorsements
DX: I want both your opinions on this. During NBA All-Star weekend, their song, “Wings”—which questions the value of sneakers and how much we would sacrifice to get some shoes—was used for a commercial. They used a piece of the song, cut out the rest of the message and he got some negative feedback. Going off-topic, but you also have songs with messages in them. What do you think about that?
Poison Pen: I agree with what [Macklemore] said. There can definitely be some backlash. It depends on how it’s used in the situation. They can totally use one clip to misconstrue the entire message of the song. At the same time, it’s millions of other people like, “What’s this Macklemore guy talking about?” They’re going to listen to the song’s proper context. But then it’s like you’re a sellout because you let them take it and utilize it in a different fashion that you never intended to use in the first place. It’s a catch-22. On a business side, hey, I’m pretty sure he’s sitting pretty off of that little look. It also depends on the type of artist you are and how you’re trying to convey. Most artists won’t have messages anywhere; they’ll rap for the sake of rapping. You can take it and put it anywhere. You can put it in a fried chicken commercial, wherever.
I got hit up for a McDonald’s commercial, and I was like, “Nah, I’m good.” They wanted me to do the Dollar Van thing that my man Wordspit did. I was thinking about it heavy, but I was just like, “I don’t know, man.” I’m fat anyway, and a fat dude rappin’ for McDonald’s is probably not a good look.
DX: That would make the next battle that much more difficult.
Poison Pen: They’d see me and be like, “That’s the dude from the McDonald’s commercial! That fuckin’ clown.”
Immortal Technique: I got asked the same question where another artist named K’Naan made something with Coca-Cola. And I said, “I don’t understand what that deal was. I don’t know the backstory of it.” So with Macklemore, I don’t know the backstory of that. I just know that for me, I couldn’t do Coca-Cola because I know they have way too many issues in terms of them shutting people down and union busting in a violent way. This is an unreported fact, but there are several deaths in Columbia related to Coca-Cola practices and them trying to shut unions down. I think for that, I would have a problem with it. In terms of NBA sneakers, I’m not a sneakerhead. I wear the same shoes all the time. I don’t care or worry about it.
I can understand somebody making a song like that, and if somehow you want to get more people to participate or get in touch with your music, that’s one thing. I think there are wilder hypocrisies in Hip Hop than that. If you rhyme about being a gangster, and you’re really not a gangster, and you’re a person that chases and incarcerates gangsters, that’s different. If you’re a person that sells drugs, and you take drugs, and you’re sitting there doing a “don’t take drugs” campaign, you’re a fraud. There’s two sides of it. You can pretend to be an angel, but really be the devil, or you can pretend to be the devil and be an angel. It’s just a way of functioning within the market of Hip Hop. I think that’s the difference. If we don’t recognize that this is all entertainment at some point, then we’re taking the game too seriously, and the joke’s on us.
I’ve had this argument a couple days ago. I was like, “You know this is all a fraud and everybody here is dancing for the amusement of mainstream America.” What you got isn’t gangsters killing people behind you—they might hang out with some, but that isn’t the business they’re in anymore. Their business is entertaining fans. Their business is making a story interesting and taking emotion and playing it on a blank screen. It’s like a painter. He paints with his emotions and experiences in life on a blank canvas. The canvas is the track. You gotta be naturally sensitive to the world if you’re going to do that. That’s why a lot of artists are sensitive. The reason I’m not like that is because I accepted my sensitivity from day one. We have to have thick skin in the underground, because you had that much more proximity to the actual fan base.
They’re right there, so it’s not like you can ignore them the way mainstream artists like to do. Like that Louis XVI attitude, “I don’t have to deal with these people; I have nothing to say.” After the show, we literally jumped off-stage through the crowd, took 20-30% with us to the merch table, caked off, and we out. You have to understand what business you’re really in. You’re in the business where you do want sponsorships. For me, I think it’s a bit more complicated, because my politics are much more extreme or vocalized more extremely than someone else. For me, it’s different. I’ve been offered sponsorships and stuff like that. I turned $15,000 down the other day for an energy drink, because I don’t drink that. Why would I recommend that to other people? At the same time, my friend is saying, “Hey man, if you’re on that, maybe more people will get into your music.” I’m like, “Maybe,” but I think individuals fail to realize one basic truth—that everybody does have a price.
You have a price; I have a price. My price just isn’t money. You gotta find something different to get to me. That’s it. For you, if someone offers you money for something, you might feel insulted. But if they say, “Hey listen, you do this. But I’ll give you the exclusive from an artist you don’t necessarily have the greatest access to.” That’s the price. You’re like, “Okay cool. That’s my job and what I love doing, so that makes sense for me.” For me, $15,000? C’mon, man. I’ll do a show. So it’s show day money? That’s all? Get outta here. Next. If y’all offer me $2 million to do a commercial, I’ll build like seven orphanages and laugh all the way to the bank with your fucking money. But don’t ask me to not belittle y’all, because I’ll look through the contract. And right after, I’ll tell everybody, “Look y’all, I really don’t drink this shit.”
Remember when Hammer won the Grammy and was like, “Where’s the Pepsi? Somebody gimmie a Pepsi!” I’m not gonna do that for y’all niggas.
Poison Pen: I remember when one of them old Batman soundtracks came out and it had Method Man doing a Riddler song where he called himself Johnny Blaze; he’s calling himself Johnny Blaze for the entire song. I was like, “Yo, [Johnny Blaze] a Marvel character.” Who signed off on that bullshit? I loved the song but, Johnny Blaze? Your endorsement is [D.C. Comics], but you’re nickname is a Marvel character throughout the entire song rapping about The Riddler. I loved the song, and I thought it was hard. But who’s idea was that? I’m sure he laughed all the way to the bank. Maybe I thought to deep into it.
Immortal Technique Details His Work With An Afghani Orphanage
DX: The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique was around that process of the endeavor. How are things going with the orphanage?
Immortal Technique: As anyone who’s been following the situation in Afghanistan knows, things have gotten progressively worse and better at times. It really depends on several different internal, political factors. It’s a hard truth to bear that those things factor in how the orphanage does. At one particular point, there was a situation where people were trying to infiltrate the orphanage. They literally sent a child in there pretending not to have parents. It hurt, because they were trying to recruit people within there. I was looking at it like, “Are you kidding me? Are you serious?”
DX: They were trying to recruit for the Taliban?
Immortal Technique: I have no idea who they were recruiting for. What happened was, the orphanage is in a positon where we built with all of the people that are inside of the community. They came and rallied around the orphnage like, “Look, this is a safe haven. We’re not going to allow that.” The beauty of this situation that we deal with right now is that we did it the right way. We didn’t come as outsiders from America saying, “We want to ‘civilize’ you.” Nobody’s ever going to someone else’s country to “civilize” them. They’ve taken away their civilization. They’ve taken away their indigenous life—whether it’s in Africa, Latin America, Asia or even parts of Europe. They’ve replaced it with what they think is civilization.
We didn’t go in there like that. We went in there very humble. We wanted to build with a local Mosque. The actual Imam from that Mosque was able to talk to those people and was like, “Listen, this is not an American military operation. These are people who’ve taken their own money and raised their money to do this with the people.” That was basically enough for them to realize, “No, this is not a singular, outside entity that’s coming in.” This is the community of Afghans themselves, which has really acted as a shield to repel all the negativity. I couldn’t even begin to dream about what the situation would’ve been like if we hadn’t done it the right way. But thank God those children are doing well and things are getting much, much better right now in terms of their lives. You have kids who have never read a book in their life who are now reading. We have children who had no idea or concept of family or togetherness, and they’re together now. I look forward to that being a continuing trend. I want to be able to do that in other countries, and here in America as well. I look forward to trying.