HIP-HOP HAS always been a music with two souls. One soul rages against ghetto life, against racism, police harassment and "the system". The other soul reflects the divisions among those who suffer. It promotes sexism and celebrates a cash-rich lifestyle that will always be out of the reach of most of the fans. Dead Prez come from the soul of resistance. Their hip-hop is about a rebellious tradition that goes back to the Black Panther Party.
Let's Get Free, their first album, offered themes that varied from a Marxist account of the development of the state, to why US schools fail black kids and the need for revolutionaries to have a good diet and regular exercise (no, I'm not joking). The new album, Revolutionary But Gangsta, has a disappointingly narrow scope. Ghetto life still informs the lyrics but there are too many concessions to the "gangsta" style.
Dead Prez paint a picture of people struggling to make ends meet. It's a life of welfare lines, food stamps and "minimum wage" jobs. It's a life where the fat gold chain image of hip-hop never meets the reality. Speaking from experience they rap about how hopelessness can lead to alcoholism and how the violence of the system tears people's lives apart.
Revolutionary But Gangsta is also about resistance-but resistance of a certain type. Many of the tracks are fantasies about turning the tables on racist police. There is a near obsession with guns and martial arts training and, while the anger of "gangsta rap" is generally directed against other rappers, Dead Prez have more fitting targets.
But as they reel off a list of black revolutionaries who have been killed in gun battles by the police you can't help but think that the strategy of armed confrontation has problems. The limitations of this album are not only political. Musically, Dead Prez seem locked into a style that does not appear to have developed much in the last ten years.
It's disappointing that, while mainstream hip-hop presses ahead with experimentation and is embracing influences from Asia and Latin America, political hip-hop shows so few signs of making something that sounds genuinely new.
Fusing to create a new sound
"FLAMENCO FUSION" music has been making waves in the music press recently. MIGUEL ARIAS looks at two of the bands that have been prominent in the new wave of flamenco.
BEBO Y Cigala's album Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears) is a pleasure to listen to. It is full of emotions. It is an album that mixes several opposites and the result is sublime. A New York Times critic nominated it as the best album of 2003.
It mixes harmonious, romantic Cuban music and the passion of flamenco singing. It also has the youth of the Spanish flamenco singer Diego el Cigala, and the maturity and experience of Bebo Valdes. Valdes is a Cuban pianist who emigrated to Sweden in the 1950s and worked as a pianist in hotels for decades. Their album is a blend of Latin American music. Argentinian tango, Brazilian music and traditional Cuban and Spanish music mixed with Diego el Cigala's guttural flamenco voice.
Flamenco fusion is an inaccurate definition of the music. Flamenco has always been always a fusion of different music. The Gypsies brought their music and rhythm probably from north India. This culture mixed with others in the south of Spain-Jew, Arab, Berber-creating what is today known as flamenco.
Flamenco now has modern influences such as blues, jazz and more recently rock, hip-hop or techno. Even the purists have to admit that flamenco has been saved from extinction by this. Another band which mixes flamenco and world music is Radio Tarifa. Flamenco is simply one music among several that they play.
This Spanish band mixes medieval music with North African drums, flamenco voices and Sephardic songs. It uses ancient and exotic musical instruments like the gimbri (Moroccan guitar), Egyptian double clarinet and others from classical Greek and Roman times.
Tarifa is the southernmost point of Spain, from where the Moroccan mountains can be seen a few miles away. Hundreds of Africans risk their lives trying to cross those few miles in crowded boats. The band's live performances are superb. Unfortunately, after 11 September many of their US concerts were cancelled due to the paranoia of the authorities. Radio Tarifa sounded too Arab for them.
Music reflects the society in which it is created. Trying to keep flamenco or any other music pure brings extinction. Music fusion in general, and flamenco in particular, reflects the multiculturalism of today's world.