The Message Or The Money
By Sion Tetlow
'You better off rich and guilty than poor and innocent.'
I gave the Immortal Technique album Revolutionary Number Two to a particularly insane friend of mine who, at the time, was plumbing the depths of cocaine and alcohol addiction. Maybe not the most sensible idea, but fuck it, I know it would light a fire under his ass if there wasn't one there already. Whether there was a connection between Technique's flow and the resulting anarchy (which involved the abuse of fire hydrants, an ex-girlfriend, and an axe, though not all at the same time) is open to debate. My thinking is there may have been a slight link.
For that is the overriding effect of this album on those that hear it and understand it-an invitation to anarchy, an evocation of dissent, an inflammation of the soul. As the Clash once sang 'anger can be power' and Chuck D repeatedly pronounces rap 'the black CNN,' Immortal Technique combines the two lyrical concepts and throws the rulebook out of the fucking window...
Real name Felipe Coronel, Technique was born in Peru but relocated to Harlem at the age of ten. Half black, half Latino, maybe it was this experience of the external world of global politics (even at such a tender age) that helps to give him his edge in his music. But who am I to comment on the what, where and how of this mans life? I was not there, I do not know. Fuck the traditional music critic biography. What I am aware of is the music, and the temptation is to simply scrawl all the lyrics from this album on to the page for people to read.
Why write about Technique? For one thing, to make more people aware of him. Turning someone on to Technique can be like a religious conversion, especially for those who are perhaps slightly removed from the hip-hop underground, as I was when I first heard him. Being a white, middle class Welsh boy, one might assume that I have no place listening to this man. But this is not a wannabe wigga thing, nor an attempt at tokenism in my own music collection. Insurrection is the watchword when it comes to this album.
The album crosses the divide, from micro to macro. Technique makes the links between cocaine slingers in Harlem and corrupt regimes in South America. He attacks everything from the Bush administration to ghetto misogynists, from the corrupt celebrity culture to the futility and cruelty of the American drug war. Nothing is sacred and everything is open to scrutiny, but Technique chooses his targets (much like his words) very carefully.
Tech is interested in the cogs that whirr inside the machine. There is a link, consciously or unconsciously, between this music and the HBO series The Wire, with both attempting to show how 'all the pieces matter.' Everything in Technique's world matters, from the Harlem streets he grew up in to the upper echelons of the CIA. This is where this music differs from most hip hop, even the hip hop that is overtly political-Technique is not merely discussing the reality of life in his corner, in his ghetto, but taking those truths and seeing how they link in to the world at large.
Technique's words are mainly concerned with politics, global politics, music industry politics, ghetto politics. I am not a fan of overtly political music, but this is different. Perhaps it is because Technique does not adopt a stance, as such, or ally himself with any movement or party. Technique is political in much the same way as Bill Hicks was. There is an undercurrent of dissent and questioning fuelled by anger, and a desire to wake people up to what really goes on. They are revolutionaries, plain and simple. No fucking party politics for him, no-global politics, reaching up and out of the ghetto to see who is sponsoring it's existence.
There is, of course, a thin line between protest and preaching. What is most striking here is the intelligence of the words. No glib sloganeering or patronising ghetto platitudes in sight (how I hate the gangsta rap staple of the 'message' song which pleads with the kids to stay in school and look after their mamas, even though the previous eighteen songs were all about dealing crack and fucking whores. Hypocrisy?) Technique is fully aware of the complexities of the subjects he approaches.
The humour is incredibly biting- check out "Obnoxious" for some of the most darkly funny lyrics ever put down on vinyl. Technique harnesses the same strain of nihilism that runs through most gangsta rap with this song, but placed against the political (rather than ghetto) and to an extent intellectual backdrop of the album, he manages to elevate it from the usual bragging rights. It is not to say that Technique is not arrogant, or egotistical. Rather it is that these qualities are backed up by intelligence rather than wealth or status or how many times he has been shot. He places himself outside of his own peer group, though he could take most of the commercial rappers to school on rhyming skills alone. It is this conscious desire not be just 'another stupid motherfucker out on the curb' that elevates this album from mere skilful rhyming to true genius.
For me it ran through the same vein as The Clash's London Calling, or Nirvana's In Utero, or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions... It is a ringing slap around the face, backed up by questions and anger that is rarely articulated in any genre of popular music, let alone hip-hop. It also manages an incredibly bittersweet, heartbreaking moment on the penultimate song "You Know" in which Technique describes a tragic love affair that you feel is potentially autobiographical (though you hope to God it isn't). With this again, he takes the stereotype of the soulful hip-hop peon to 'the ladies' and twists it, adds weight to it, makes it come from the heart. In this sense the album almost has a link to punk rock in its inherent sincerity and devotion to anger and honesty. It ain't all about the politics- in this, the personal is the political and one impacts on the other. This is as much an album to get drunk and smash the room up to ('drinking Bacardi at AA meetings') as it is an album to learn from.
In these days where hip-hop is in decline, where its original fierce innovation and lyrics have descended into marketing formulas and tired stereotypes, Technique fires a warning shot across the bows-hip hop is still alive, at least in his heart, and has the power to do anything. What I hear is a great strain of insurrection, a desire to chastise and educate not only those living the 'ghetto' life but everybody, everyone who chooses apathy over anger, who chooses ignorance over knowledge. And he does it all with fucking style and biting humour- 'if you choose to ignore the reality of my words, then you just another stupid motherfucker out on the curb.'
I'll drink to that.
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