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Keeping with the times, 4Play examines the best of political hip-hop

Dylan Dobson, 4play Editor
November 7, 2012
Filed under 4Play

With election season winding down, I decided to examine some of the most influential names in political hip-hop as well as the albums and tracks that made them famous.

Arrested Development

Must-hear tracks: “Mr. Wendal,” “People Everyday,” “Lost Soldiers”

Rapper Speech and his best friend, Headliner, started Arrested Development in 1988 as a conscientious alternative to what they viewed as toxic rap music. Neither knew how integral the movement would be to the future of hip-hop. Arrested Development rejected the lyrical content of mainstream ‘90s rap, which they viewed as derogatory toward women and as promoting a lifestyle of violence. They instead decided to rap about religious and racial identity.

On its album “3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of… ,” Arrested Development lamented on such topics as poverty and racial inequity. The group questioned the necessity of higher education as well as corporate greed. “3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of…” went quadruple platinum and put the socially conscious group on the map. Arrested Development would go on to win several Grammys and work with Spike Lee on the soundtrack to one of his films.

However, the real success and notoriety when it comes to Arrested Development is in the way it challenged the identity of hip-hop as a musical genre. They opened the door for acts such as Atmosphere and Kanye West to talk about social issues and challenge the status quo of rap.


Immortal Technique

Must-hear tracks: “Crossing the Boundary,” “Freedom of Speech,” “The 4th Branch”

Immortal Technique snuck onto the mainstream hip-hop scene in 2001 with his independently-produced and distributed album, “Revolutionary Vol.1.” He did this using the funds he earned from underground rap albums. He was adamant about spreading his message while avoiding the gatekeepers he felt were corrupting it.

Technique’s album “Revolutionary Vol. 2” begins with a sample from death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. The no-holds-barred album takes jabs at the U.S. government on drug trafficking reform, women’s rights and urban violence. He also pulls punches at Disney and media consolidation in the track “Freedom of Speech,” which samples Disney’s 1940 classic “Pinocchio” in order to criticize album labels and the politics of the entertainment industry.

The lyrics on “Revolutionary Vol. 2,” like the rest of his work, ask listeners to ponder the way information is displayed and transmitted in modern society. On the track “The 4th Branch,” Technique implores his listeners to turn off the news and read.


Dead Prez

Must-hear tracks: “Police State,” “We Want Freedom,” “Animal in Man”

Formed in 1996, hip-hop group Dead Prez took the mostly peaceful themes of the conscious rappers that preceded it and set fire to them like a Molotov cocktail.

Blending racial consciousness with punk mentality, Dead Prez called for radical, militant social justice and the end of what they viewed to be a corporate-controlled media.

The group’s 2000 album, “Let’s Get Free,” spawned much discussion among black activists and earned it praise not only from critics but from hip-hop royalty, including Mos Def.

Citing Public Enemy and Arrested Development as its influences, Dead Prez sought to change the geography of hip-hop, hoping to inspire rappers to pick up their mics in the name of racial equality rather than partying and consumerism.

Kanye West

Must-hear tracks: “All Falls Down,” “Heard ‘Em Say,” “To the World”

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Kanye West shocked millions of people and embarrassed co-speaker Mike Meyers when he exclaimed, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” during a televised fundraising event. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the single “To the World” – off his G.O.O.D. Music record label’s 2012 release “Cruel Summer” – features such politically inflamed hooks as “White girls politickin’, that’s the Sarah Palin” and “Mitt Romney don’t pay no tax.”

West is no stranger to the realm of political hip-hop. His debut album, “The College Dropout,” discussed issues such as gentrification and racial identity. “All Falls Down” and “The New Workout Plan” addressed consumer identity and self-esteem, while “Jesus Walks” questioned the practices of radio giant Clear Channel Communications.

In “Jesus Walks,” West proclaims, “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus. Guns, sex, lies and videotape. But if I talk about God my record won’t get played.” This rebellious statement alone was enough for the radio industry to prove West wrong and he was thrust to the forefront of commercial hip-hop.

West used his newfound fame to help other socially concerned rappers, such as Lupe Fiasco, to find a platform in the industry to preach their ideals.

Tracks on “Late Registration,”  “Graduation” and “Watch the Throne” continued the trend of featuring politically driven tracks. “Heard ‘Em Say,” is about the portrayal of race in the media. West is one of many hip-hop stars using their craft as a channel to discuss issues and will surely inspire many future rappers to use their words politically in the future.