I Meant To Listen To: Dead Prez, “Let’s Get Free”

I’m a white dude who grew up in American Suburbia in the 90’s, so naturally I was raised on some form of hip-hop. I’m sure there are plenty of musical pundits that can explain in many ways the correlation between the explosion of popularity of the genre in my specific demographic in that time frame. Perhaps it was a natural progression from the bouncy pop hits from the 80’s that saturated the radio waves and MTV that lead to more beat driven music? Maybe it was the message delivered from the lyricists that held a bit more weight than the disposable media at the time as well? Again, I don’t have the answers; I’m just a curious, faceless blogger (?) who is connecting the dots.

I was eleven when I used the money I received for my birthday to purchase Naughty By Nature’s, Nineteen Naughty Three on cassette. There was when my fascination with hip hop truly began. In true form, I probably only listened to “Hip Hop Hooray” until the tape wore out and the rest of the album remained unlisted to. Perhaps I will go down memory lane and give that another listen? Doubtful, but who knows?

Throughout the nineties, I consumed as much as I possibly could when all you had was the radio or the occasional wallet-busting excursion to Record Town or Strawberries to obtain a physical copy. From Dr. Dre to Domino. Snoop Dogg to Snow. Nas to N2Deep. I wanted it all. With the advent of file sharing and the internet uncovering the underground at the end of the decade, I was further exposed to more conscious hip hop. Artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots, and Jurassic 5 (one of my all-time favorite groups) helped develop and redefine the genre.

I was more than likely with my best friend Nick driving around in his parents’ Dodge Durango listening to CDs of everything we could steal from Napster where I heard the appropriately titled “Hip-Hop” by the group Dead Prez. It had everything you could want: a banging beat, fierce lyrics, and a hook that will stand the test of time. Needless to say, the song became a staple in many mixes for years to come. Dead Prez were featured in the great concert film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party a couple years later and stole the show with their electrifying performance.

Combining monstrous beats and instrumentation with intense social and political commentary, Dead Prez’s 2000 album Let’s Get Free is required listening for any hip hop fan. Nearly every subject that is affecting the disenfranchised is touched upon. From the failings of the education system in the inner cities in “‘They’ Schools” to anti-capitalism to even the health benefits of switching to a plant-based diet, nothing is out of reach and all is delivered with a fiery, cautionary tongue.

As years go by, I feel myself slipping away trying to keep up with today’s hip hop culture.  Most of it is not meant for me, and THAT’S QUITE ALRIGHT. Honestly, most of it never was meant for me (the good stuff, anyways. There’s plenty of horrible stuff out there that was specifically made for people like me growing up). While I realize that, I remain hopeful that there are still a swath of artists that continue the legacy set forth from groups from the “old school” and the backpacker/activism eras of hip hop.  The years may change, but the issues remain and the artists who use hip hop as a platform to point out these injustices provide an invaluable service.

Sometimes it’s bigger than hip hop.


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