Dead Prez is kicking up the proverbial dust once again. Last October, the veteran, rebellious hip-hop duo of stic.man and M-1 released their third album Information Age. And in true D.P.’s fashion, the work has been met with controversy and eyebrow-raising curiosity. Yes, the politicized duo, who made their major label debut with 2000’s landmark Let’s Get Free, is still throwing Molotov cocktails at the racist, corporate powers that be. But they are doing so over a sucker-punch of a new, risk-taking sound: synthesized, electronic, and keyboard driven. VIBE caught up with dead prez member M-1 to discuss the making of this curious, brazen release, his thoughts on Chief Keef, his views on the current gun control debate, and why the hip-hop world needs dead prez now more than ever.
VIBE: The synthesized, electronic production on the new album has caught a lot of your longtime fans by surprise. What made you go that direction sound wise?
M-1: We are both fans of conceptual music. And what that means is music that takes you all the way into an element; a place. Some of my highest influences have made albums that were catered to a certain feeling or emotion or time in their life. When we decided to go into the concept of Information Age, me and Stic thought, “We’ll, maybe it’s time for us to make that.” At that time it was five years until 2012 and we were also thinking what the sound of the future actually sounded like. We went to where our minds conjured that and actually linked up with some really talented people to create that [futuristic] sound.
Did you recognize how bold of a challenge, musically, it was going to be given there is the risk of alienating the same people who have followed dead prez since 2000’s Let’s Get Free?
I think for whatever it’s worth, everybody needs a change. Why not experiment? We’ve been cultivating this record for years. When we made “Dirty White Girl” we sat in the studio and kind of just laughed like, really? Hell yeah, we are going to do this. But I’m not surprised by some of the reactions we’ve gotten. I think those of us who see the world of through different lenses. This is dead prez’ view of things. But I can also see how it flies in the face of someone who says, “Oh, this ain’t dead prez!” We welcome all of that. Personally, I’m not surprised by any of it.
You brought up “Dirty White Girl,” which has become the most controversial track on the album, and not just because it gives a winking nod to synth-new-wave club music. There’s a line that goes, “Lady liberty wanna get with me, but that bitch ain’t never mean shit to me…” And you use phrases like jungle fever, but in a nod to the evils of cocaine, cigarettes, and even drinking milk. What inspired you to write this song and did you know it would cause such uproar?
One thing that’s not new to dead prez is expressing our consciousness about the environment we live in. We’ve always talked about the traps that we face everyday. We’ve made songs like “Window To My Soul” about addiction. Me and stic have talked about our own health battles and challenges. We’ve seen family members go through [substance abuse]. We figure out ways to make it a priority in our community. I commend my partner stic because he has taken that into a specialized campaign into itself. Really, the manifesto behind what created “Dirty White Girl” is our every day lives. We talk about how long it’s been since stic smoked weed or how long it’s been since we’ve both become vegans. A song like that makes sense.
But of course people point to the controversial “dirty white girl” element of the song…
Of course, but what we wanted to do is give it a panoramic and skewed point of view and keep our artistic integrity. We played with the old adage of all things that are black are bad. We flipped it on its back and started to discover things and play around with it. To me, the song is fun. It’s like a poster campaign for “Don’t Do It!” It’s our “White Lines” of 2013.
It’s a sneaky song that sounds like Lady Gaga could be on the chorus…
[Laughs] That’s true. But at the same time some of our fans would not like to hear Gaga on a dead prez record. But to each it’s own. Again, we really went hard on the concept. But what we are and what we stand for still shines through.
There’s a lot of talk of spirituality on Information Age, especially on the track “No Way As The Way,” which doesn’t pretend to know all the answers about God. What do you see as the biggest issue with organized religion today?
I think it’s the control organized religion has over people. Organized religion is part and parcel to the system that has been creative of imperialism. But spirituality is a God given right. So what it boils down to is no matter which way you pray, a lot of times we are not able to see real spirituality because of the agendas. A song like “No Way As The Way” is very difficult to make. If you an artist who has any kind of integrity and wants to cover the subject of religion in any credible way it’s a tough song to record. But at the same time, we don’t want to offend anybody—but we do have an experience here that we would like to share. It’s an open handed thing.
You are not telling people what to believe…
Right! In many ways “No Way As The Way reflects what the cover of Information Age looks like. It’s sensitive and delicate like a lotus flower; there’s the overarching philosophy of Buddha; the impending doom of Uncle Sam standing over your shoulder; and the support of the people. That all reminds me of “No Way As The Way.”
Early on, dead prez was an advocate for responsible gun ownership. What are your views on the current gun control debate? Do you believe that there should be an automatic weapons ban and background checks?
I really believe you have the separate the issues because they create manias. There’s a media swerve on it…and they have put millions of dollars into this one. The fact that we can mention the Sandy Hook tragedy with guns with all the other many instances of gun violence that could be cited says something. Sandy Hook was glaring. If we are talking about the issues of [six-year-olds] dying from gun violence, that’s one thing. But if we are just talking about guns as a human right, we need every right that we have. We do have a right to protect ourselves, especially as Africans who have seen the most attacks of anyone in history. But I don’t mean anything senseless. Because when you say that people automatically think gun rights as something senseless.
Right…but the NRA making videos featuring President Obama’s two children doesn’t help matters.
That’s true. At the end of the day the people who are controlling all this shit are the same people who are doing it through sheer fear and terror by weapons and war. So those people are going to do what they do. We should be able to defend ourselves from all of that. People say, “Oh, maybe we should have a gun that only fires 12 bullets and then they wouldn’t be able to shoot so many people.” But I think people are going to find there way around whatever…I don’t think you have to disarm everybody when you have stop and frisks going on in places like New York. I’m all for gun safety. But the violence in Sandy Hook is what America has bred. America has bred violence for years. That violence is the mentality of America.
Dead prez rhymes, “We got to do more than just survive, we got to evolve…” on “Learning, Growing, Changing.” Do you see hip-hop surviving or evolving today?
In some ways it’s mutating [laughs]. Parts of the earth are creating genetically modified hip-hop, so it’s mutating the product. But there are other parts where the soil is good and it’s producing things that are evolving beautifully. But I also see hip-hop getting back to Afrika Bambaataa. His influence on this album—the Soul Sonic Force sound is a tribute to him. But when you get down to it, hip-hop is uncontainable. You will have factions that are just trying to survive, but there is a breakthrough all the time.
You struck me when you mentioned the mutation that we find in some of today’s hip-hop. When you listen to a rapper like Chief Keef, who has been catching a lot of heat for garnering much of his notoriety for his street exploits rather than his actual music, do you think the criticism Keef has been receiving has been fair or unfair?
I really think you have to sum it up as entertainment. Hip-hop goes all outside the boundaries of music. I remember when we used to have guidelines, but there are no guidelines anymore. Chief Keef is an artist that is blurring the lines. The music that I hear is just tapping into the life of a young kid. It’s the rise of a young Keef…and that’s what some people have brought into. It’s more than the music and the sound, but the actual music is rudimentary. It’s all about the producer’s sound and less about the rapper. Jimmy Iovine is tapped in. But I’m a skeptic. The labels produce these artists…they are here today and gone tomorrow. And I’m not saying Chief Keef is that…but it’s not the reinvention of hip-hop or something. It’s cool for what it is. I just look at what is behind all the hype.
Okay, so I take over your music collection. What will I find M-1 rocking to?
I listen to everything, man. And that’s real talk. Mariam and Amadou is one of my favorite joints right now. The group The Very Best, which a combination from Europe and Malawi, is one of my favorite groups of 2012. And I listen to Gil Scott Heron all the time. I just did an interpretation album with Brian Jackson. I keep my ears open to everyone. I even like what the kid Kendrick Lamar is doing. That youngster got spunk.
When I interviewed stic.man a few months back, I asked him about what comes to mind when he listens to the first dead prez album Let’s Get Free. Now I’ll ask you: what pops into your head when you hear your 2000 debut?
That we all learn through our experiences. I can remember the person that I was and that grounds me today. Some of our ideas were young and very naïve [laughs]. We’ve tested those and now we are going to test some new ideas. In 2023, we will be out there like, “Yo, dead prez is about to release our 30th anniversary album. Wow, we were dumb as fuck in 2013 [laughs].”
I just look at that late 90’s/early 2000 as a moment when so called conscious hip-hop acts like Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Common, Talib Kweli, the Roots, and dead prez, had the mainstream platform. You could work in the same lanes as Jay-Z and Kanye West. Hell, you could record songs with Jay, just as dead prez had done, and no one would think twice about it. Why do you think that has changed today?
I don’t think they want us to have that platform. That’s the challenge and it always has been. I have a liking for all genres of music. I want to see what Charlie Parker felt. But bringing it back to hip-hop, I love it because it has always been the underdog, struggle music. It’s the one genre that could do that when the other genres could not whether you are a rapper or an MC. They got all these obstacles in the way now, but we are going to Bruce Lee this shit. We want to be part of that hip-hop music that does not divide, but unites. We want it to be fly and not afraid to get criticized.
Can you talk about your partner stic.man’s evolution as a producer? What surprises you most about him when you are in the studio together?
How intrinsic stic’s understanding of what his craft is. And when I say intrinsic I mean how raw he is as an artist. He understands the music and sounds. When I’m in the room with him I hear something that is a new invention…stic communicates himself in such a brilliant way. It’s just magic. I’ve been blessed to witness it and learn from it.
Is a dead prez tour in the making?
Yeah, we are putting together a tour U.S, wise, trying to get a national one up and running. And we will definitely hit Europe, which has been very receptive to Information Age. We will be there in about a month or so. It’s always about pushing. We are about to drop the “No Way As The Way” video out to the world and the physical copy of the album will drop on January 29th. It will have a few new tunes on it and some features. We are going to have a massive posse cut for the song “Time Travel.” It’s going to include artists from all ranges and all coasts. You are going to hear Bun B of UGK, Reek The Villain, who is a young, up-and-coming artist out of Brooklyn who is under Busta Rhymes right now. And we will have a feature from Busta himself as well as Ab-Soul from the Black Hippy crew. And there’s a few more in the mix. We want to continue to go and never stop.