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dead prez - Let’s Get Free Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit dead prez’s debut, an iconoclastic rap record built around the politics of liberation.

To be woke is not the same as to stay woke. The gap between adjective and verb contains worlds. Before it was co-opted and reframed to signal a certain kind of performative righteousness, wokeness meant honoring an instinct for preservation. Keeping one eye open to the realities of life in a patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist society, for some, has meant the difference between life and death. The phrase is often attributed to Erykah Badu, whose 2008 song “Master Teacher (I Stay Woke)” holds one of its earliest mainstream uses. But I’ve been hearing it, in different variations, for way longer.


Few people embodied the concept more acutely than M-1 and stic.man, a pair of MCs who met as students at a Florida HBCU in the early ’90s, and found some success later as the duo dead prez. Let’s Get Free, their 2000 debut, is one of the most radical rap releases in history. On “Hip Hop,” the mosh pit rumbler that remains the group’s best-known song, having served as the walk-on music for Dave Chappelle’s Chappelle’s Show, stic.man raps, “Still a nigga like me don’t playa hate, I just stay awake.”

While the song’s chanted hook and lines from its fiery verses are often misinterpreted as an endorsement of hip-hop purism, it is more than a judgment on the state of commercial rap at the time. Hip-hop was only a few years off from reaching its status as a billion-dollar industry, and labels were taking expensive bets on all kinds of artists. Puff was flexing furs, artists like Nas and Mobb Deep were experimenting with glossier sounds, and a crew of rappers from New Orleans had everyone calling their jewelry “bling.” On the East Coast, in pockets of Brooklyn and Philadelphia, a neo-conscious subgenre was thriving, with artists like the Roots, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli being positioned as ideologically and aesthetically in opposition to their more commercially successful peers. dead prez were often lumped into this loosely political movement, having come out of the tutelage of Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar.

Despite their affiliations, dead prez were singular. Over a warped, wobbly bassline written by stic, “Hip Hop” offers a reading of the capitalist functions of the music industry, its reliance on the exploitation of black people, and the dangers of internalizing the values perpetuated by those structures. A potent warning: “These record labels slang our tapes like dope/You can be next in line and signed and still be writing rhymes and broke.” (Ironically, a remix of the song was produced by dead prez acolyte turned preeminent capitalist Kanye West.)

Existing at the turn of the millennium, stic and M-1 sat squarely between the Rodney King riots and the election of Barack Obama, events that would come to define America in radically different ways. Halfway between the carefreeness of the ’90s and the apathy of the aughts, dead prez saw through the false promises of a crooked empire at its height. The music industry is just one of many targets of Let’s Get Free, a statement of political consciousness so specific and carefully articulated that it’s a wonder to think it received major distribution, and charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

The album is dense with words. They tackle public education, the prison system, the police state, media complicity, economic inequity, and more, making historical connections between the oppression of the enslaved and the oppression of the black poor. They identified threats that seemed paranoid then, but from the vantage point of 2019, were deeply prescient: surveillance, food injustice, the fear of false-flag operations. Even when staying woke veers into conspiracy theory (“I don’t believe Bob Marley died from cancer,” goes one line in the hook of “Propaganda”), it is clearly the byproduct of a rightful mistrust in authority.

Lyrics and audio collages from films and speeches are built around layers of soundscapes. The uptempo, Afrotech-y club on songs like “I’m a African” reflect stic’s Tallahassee upbringing and the time the pair spent developing their sound as college students in Florida. But the album was also shaped by the stretches of time the pair spent in Brooklyn, bridging the warm-weather energy of South Florida with the more conventional drums-and-orchestration of the East Coast. One song, “Animal In Man,” is a retelling of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegory for class struggle narrativized in rhyme. The track closes with an extended, cinematic instrumental outro, all strings, guitar, and drums. It sounds ridiculous in theory, but on record translates as a moment of galvanizing storytelling.

Notably, Let’s Get Free wasn’t built around the aesthetics of consciousness—like some of their incense-lighting, kufi-wearing peers in the late-’90s “conscious-rap” boom, one of the most prominent of whom would go on to sell raps advertising Microsoft's artificial intelligence program—but around the politics of liberation. The best rap has often served as a cultural and political diagnosis. But dead prez didn’t simply observe and analyze, they offered a solution: revolution.

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They wanted to burn it all down, and then rebuild in a more generous, cooperative, self-sufficient mode. “We live in a society that tells us exploitation and getting over on people is the highest form of civilization as opposed to cooperation and sharing,” said stic in a 2000 Billboard interview. As student organizers and members of the pan-African National Democratic Uhuru Movement, they lived what they rapped. Their approaches were informed by the political action groups and fundamental hopefulness of Eastern spiritualism. But they also follow a rich history of black socialism in the U.S. For decades after emancipation, when black people were free in theory but excluded from economic activity in practice, cooperatives sprung up to fill the gaps in needs and services.

As a teen experiencing a personal awakening through music, I found in Let’s Get Free a blueprint for thinking about the world. This required an emphasis on personal health; a revolution needs strong bodies. Years before Gwyneth Paltrow made veganism and high-intensity workouts facets of an aspirational lifestyle, stic.man and M-1 were tossing apples into crowds and doing push-ups on stage. “Music was a way to do what I couldn’t do with a leaflet in my neighborhood,” M-1 said in an interview celebrating the album’s 15th-year anniversary. They were onto something; one academic study credited Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s public embrace of a plant-based diet as pushing veganism into the mainstream. stic and M-1 are continuing this philosophy; their work spans nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness.

There is a tendency in today’s world to forget that nothing is new. There are no new ideas, no new problems. “I wish our album was obsolete. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant in the present,” stic.man said in a recent interview. As global inequality and anti-corruption activism reach a peak and people in countries like Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, and Iraq take to the streets to advocate on behalf of themselves and their communities, the message of Let’s Get Free remains especially potent: Their system is not working for us.


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