Verbal Tec: The Nat Turner of Hip Hop (interview © 2007)

verbal-tecMy interview of Philadelphia’s rising political-underground Hip Hop artist Verbal Tec, which was the cover article for the February 21st, 2007 issue of Play Philly Magazine, which is now out of print. –CS 14.06.2008

PLAY and Verbal Tec discuss the life, death and future of Hip Hop… Out of the bloody streets of Baltimore, with rhymes that sizzle in spiritual and political fury, comes Verbal Tec, shouting, “I write for those who never had a voice!” A rising prince of Philly underground rap, this cold-eyed Temple University sociology graduate is determined to massacre what he deems as the apathetic consciousnesses of the listening public — or die trying.

If you were at all involved in the grass roots campaign battles of the 2004 presidential election, then you probably heard Verbal Tec’s break-out hit Dear Mr. President, the first track on the mix tape released by the political action committee, SlamBush, released in conjunction with California-based record label Hard Knock Records. The tape also features material by Mos Def, Jadakiss, Wyclef, Wordsworth, Immortal Technique and Mr. Lif.

Verbal Tec’s philosophy of wrath, race, and populism is unrelenting: “Listen to my words and say it ain’t the realest scripture,” he declares in his upcoming album, No One Cares. “My rap fervor embodies the past of Nat Turner,” referring to the mystical slave insurrectionist whose 1831 rebellion slaughtered 57 white Southerners and ultimately helped cause the Civil War. “He used an axe and hatchet; when I’m in session, I use facts and rapping.”

His lyrics have evolved from poetic prayers and reflections in his 2002 first album, Nsult 2 Njury, which was greatly inspired by the lives and assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, to enraged urban Leftist manifestos in his 2004 EP, In the Meantime. The beats are of a higher, sophisticated Jazz-Funk quality than one hears from most other underground or mainstream rappers. The instrumentation of his songs mingles spirited cellos and delicate xylophones with primal scratch and bass. The result conjures up images of Kasbahs and inner cities, of Algiers during the French counterinsurgency and Baghdad and Philly today.

Play Magazine caught up with Verbal Tec at the Connelly Library at La Salle University, where he is also a Master’s student. A library is an appropriate place for a man like Tec: at their core, his lyrics are about the intrinsic connection between knowledge and truth — and the motivation (or today’s lack of it ) that one needs to grasp for either.

PLAY: What is the Hip Hop you make?

VT: I like to think of each of my projects like a book or a movie. When you make a project, I think it has to be cohesive and at the end you should bring it to some kind of end. I’m not into anything open-ended. You can see that in my first album, just how it’s constructed, where I put it in interludes and stuff like that. This next album is going to be like that, but building from my EP, so it’s going to be conscious, organic, and soulful. The major themes of my first album were more about a young artist trying to make a cohesive project; I only touched on political themes. Now I feel that I’m more centered, that my content is more centered. That process began with Dear Mr. President, which is a precursor to my next major project, tentatively titled No One Cares.

I don’t want to call the kind of Hip Hop artist I am “being conscious.” A lot of rappers shy away from that label. It’s music with a message. I call it being socially and politically aware, rapping about what’s going on. From my point of view I speak for the common people. I think if you’re speaking from that perspective then the majority of people, ’cause that’s what they’re going through, when they hear it they’re going to identify with it. That’s when I figured out that I’ve got to have some kind of message in my music, to tell the people’s story and get it out somehow.

Besides all that, I’ve got to talk about something. [Laughs] I’ve always felt that I’ve got a lot of knowledge, but if you don’t share that knowledge, what’s the point of having it?

In your eyes, what is that story?

Disenfranchisement. That’s the biggest thing: people being exploited, undervalued, underappreciated, ignored by the powers that be. I don’t really want to say “the establishment,” but policy makers and people with wealth and resources. I mean in America, the people with immediate powers, so we’re talking about the government and corporations. I don’t want to restrict what I’m rapping about just to political and economic disenfranchisement; I’m talking about in general, socially as well as culturally, everything. I feel that my rhymes are giving people perspective, the perspective of most people in America, what they feel and why they feel this way.

[This is what it means to be “independent” or “underground.”] Underground started out simple: it just meant people who couldn’t get signed to a major label. But now it’s got a whole different connotation: not necessarily “revolutionary,” but its message is feared by the powers that be who control what is disseminated to the public; they’d rather keep the message dumbed down. So, when you’ve got a message that is shunned by the mainstream, you’re “underground,” and that’s why I think I’m always going to be an underground artist, because I’m never going to change my message.

Hip Hop’s been around roughly for thirty years. Is the emergence of an underground, as well as a mainstream, a recent development?

It happened within the last 15 years. Once Hip Hop became commercially viable, something people could get rich from, that’s when the division came. So, you either had people who stayed true to what they were doing, or they changed to meet the corporations’ needs.

In what way is this division manifested?

In the message. In the beginning, during the ’80s, there were a lot of varieties of Hip Hop that were popular. I don’t want to romanticize everything back then; you always had your artists who talked about money and getting women. But you also had artists talking with a pro-Black message, artists talking a politics and struggle. That’s the biggest problem with it today: there’s no variety. When it comes to becoming popular, you’ve got to fit into a certain mold; it’s not about the art, it’s about money and numbers.

So Hip Hop has de-evolved from protest and party music, where groups like Public Enemy could be both mainstream and political at the same time, to apathy today, even so far as material worship. You’re saying this is wrong, and it’s the fault of commercialization — but hasn’t the audience played a role in this?

Word. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, a lot was going on — the end of the Cold War, the economy under the first Bush, all that — the times forced people to have care.

Today we’re knee deep in an unpopular war with a slowly unfolding economic crisis, and yet we still have apathy?

It’s because there are still some people making a lot of money off of it. Apathy is still commercially profitable.

But the audience still has a choice. I’ve noticed that at most underground Hip Hop concerts, the listeners there aren’t poor inner city minorities, but suburban white youth or college students.

Yeah… Most of the independent Hip Hop fans usually don’t resemble the artists. I don’t really know why that is. I think it has to do with the image of the music. I think for a lot of them it’s a phase that they’ll grow out of.

What about inner city whites, like from North or South Philly?

[Chuckles] I don’t see any of them. Them and minorities, people from my neighborhood, aren’t who come out and support us. This is pretty much the situation everywhere, in Baltimore and New York, not just Philly. This is what I mean by Hip Hop getting away from the community which started it.

But the catch is Hip Hop today is global. There’s Arabic Hip Hop, French Hip Hop, Jewish Hip Hop, even hicks in the sticks rapping. Clearly none of these groups are part of the same community which gave birth to the music’s forefathers, but they all find meaning and usefulness in it. Are you saying that there’s got to be a racial, Black element to it, otherwise it’s not Hip Hop?

It doesn’t have to be, but at the end of the day that’s what it’s based in. I mean you can do it, but it’s still an urban, Black art. That’s what it is. Now, there may be sub-genres shooting off from it, but at the end of the day, nobody can say it didn’t start in the South Bronx in the ’70s. That’s where it’s centered at.

I find similarity between music and religion in the way they both evolve and spread from their original innovators. Take Islam for example: it started as a religion by and for the Arabs, but today, by demographic numbers, most Muslims are living in Pakistan and Indonesia, which are Asian, and it’s the fastest growing religion among Black Americans. I’ve heard people of this faith often say that the non-Arabs are better Muslims than the Arabs. Christianity is the same, starting as a reform movement for Judaism, but now it’s completely gentile. Couldn’t this be the same for Hip Hop?

I’m not saying someone who’s Latino or Asian can’t make good Hip Hop, I’m not saying that at all.

So are you saying that Hip Hop’s subgenres are not only stylistic, like Mad Libbing or Reggeaton, but also racial and locational, what you are and where you’re from?

No, I don’t think subgenres occur because different people are doing it; I think it happens because others put their own spin on it. I don’t mean that in order to preserve Hip Hop only people from the South Bronx should do it. But I think once it’s out the hands of its forefathers, out of the hands of those who created it, it’s going to get crazy and turned into something else. I’m worried that all these subgenres are splintering Hip Hop.

What do you fear as a Hip Hop artist?

[Pauses] What I fear is taking place now with the whole genre of Hip Hop music. It’s been completely co-opted by corporations, like Viacom and Clear Channel, into something it’s not. What I fear the most is seeing Hip Hop stop being about minority people in urban environments and stop telling the story of the people who created and doing it. It’s a difficult thing to see how it’s going away from what its forefathers wanted it to be, toward something negative and exploitative. There’s too much garbage being peddled by the corporations because it’s profitable, and the art itself is dying.

I honestly think that’s what’s happening. When Nas came out with his album, Hip Hop is Dead, he was bringing light to how the genre ain’t keeping real and needs to be rejuvenated. But I think it’s a lost cause right now and it’s going the way of other genres, like Jazz, the Blues, R&B, and Rock ’n’ Roll. Once something is seen as commercially viable, the corporations suck it dry until it’s mutated into something else.

But those music forms persist.

They do, but what happens is that they’ve splintered into sub-genres. Like today with Jazz, now you’ve got progressive Jazz and smooth Jazz and cool Jazz. [Laughs] It’s getting out of control. I see a lot of parallels between Jazz and Hip Hop. Real Hip Hop, the old Hip Hop of the ’80s and early ’90s, will never be popular again.

The thing with Hip Hop is that, of all the music forms, it’s the easy one. I don’t mean that as a slur; all you need to make it is a mic and a beat. How can a music form like this ever possibly die?

I mean it will die as a tool of inner city people to communicate, to get out their voice. People will still do it, but they won’t talk about stuff that’s relevant to the community, but that’s not what it was intended for. Its original mission and intent will die. It started as a creative method for inner city minority youth, but now it has become nihilistic, destructive, and materialistic. It’s not in the hands of the people, it’s in the hands of the corporations. The people don’t dictate what is good Hip Hop and what is not.

So at stake are both artists’ rights and audience rights. As you see it, how has this happened?

I’m talking about the mass audience here. It’s got to do with marketing and the business plan: you’ve got your target audience and you know the type of things they’d be attracted to.

So, the mass audience is ignorant and manipulated?

I mean that a lot of this audience supporting the Hip Hop that’s out now are for the most part younger kids who’ve got no concept of the historical relevance of the music, how and why it was founded. All they know is what’s popular now, and what’s popular now, quality-wise, is awful.

Couldn’t rappers such as Nas or Kanye West, though they may not be the best examples of “conscious” Hip Hop artists, serve the function of good gateways into that whole way of rapping?

I think with him Nas been around too long, and Kanye West… [Laughs] Well, compared to what’s out, he is. But that’s only a couple when you look at how much they are outnumbered by rappers like 50 Cent, who don’t have a conscience.

Again, at the heart of all this is the question, who’s buying: why aren’t the people from the inner city supporting artists like you?

[Thinks] Well, the main reason is economic.

They can’t spend two bucks to buy one of your CDs?

Oh, I don’t think so. [Laughs] But they aren’t going to buy it when they can get it bootleg.

Those who should be listening to your music aren’t — and those who shouldn’t are?

They’ve been conditioned to seek out what’s been playing, to seek out negativity. That’s all the radio stations play. You hear this all day every day, it gets inside you and that’s what you want. When you finally hear something opposing that, you’re like, “Man, what’s this? This isn’t what’s hot.” Your average inner city kid wants to hear about the person singing about sex and money, the superficial things. They don’t want to hear about education and progress, they don’t want to hear truth, because they don’t see it as a viable option.

Could there be a class and educational divide between the underground rapper and the audience he wants? After all, so many of you are educated, either via college or self-taught, and that requires a certain amount of financial stability.

Yeah, I think it is, but it’s not like they’re speaking crazy complex SAT-type vocabulary. I think the listeners just don’t want to hear it.

Class isn’t necessarily economic; it’s a way you hold yourself, possessing refinement or just being interested in the world. You can be poor and have a lot more “class” than someone who is rich. So what if there’s a fundamental clash of class between those who are artistically and musically creative, and those who aren’t?

I think that definitely is part of. Most of the good artists are trying to invoke change at some level, but we’re talking to an audience about issues that concern them and even though they know it does they don’t care.

Your next album is going to be titled, No One Cares. Who exactly is the “no one”?

[Chuckles] That’s like my character figure of speech: I say it a lot on the fly, ’cause that’s really how I feel. People in those positions of power and people on the streets see what’s happening globally and domestically and are just apathetic.

Disenfranchisement not only originates vertically, from the people on top who have control of the economy and political machines, but also horizontally, from each other down here below?

Word. The “no one” can be anybody, the audience who’s hearing it, radio stations, or the people in power. Who is the no one is up to the listener to decide — if they themselves are the no one. But at the end of the day, I don’t think people can honestly, as a whole, be like, “Yeah, I dig what you’re saying,” ’cause everything’s being motivated by self-centered concerns. If you ain’t affecting what they’re doing, they are like, “Fine, do what you do and I’ll do what I do.” They don’t want to be bothered.

This whole next album is kind of like an inside joke: I may put this whole thing out, but how many people will hear it? Will labels care to put it out? Will the public listen and do something about what I say? Do I even care if people out there like it? So I’m posing this question from all these angles.

So, what does it mean to care, to give a damn?

That’s a kind of relative thing. Everybody has a definition of what that means, so I’m trying to get them to think independently on that level. For me it’s having a vested interest in whatever it is you’re doing or where you’re from: however it ends up, you’re affected by it, and you want to help contribute something to it.

[For example] people might not vote even though they have feelings about issues and the political process. I mean, we’ve seen it, we see it, every election, only 40% of this country votes. Well, I don’t feel like it completely. It’s just that apathy is the pervading and general sentiment in most Americans, and I feel that. I guess I’m just too cynical a person, but look at our president or our environment, the climate shift, it just keeps going on and on. Everyone’s apathy for meaningful music is just a small part of the whole problem: people are just, “Ehhh,” and keep going onto the next thing, not trying to improve anything.

How do we get your message out to a mass audience? Should we even bother?

We’ve got to try, but it’s up to the corporations to take more chances on artists with different messages and more content.

Are you conceding the power of your words to the corporations?

Only specifically as a means to distribute it, because your average independent author nowadays is lucky to sell five to 10,000 records, and that’s mostly because they can’t get it geographically far enough.

How do we push new viewpoints onto what you see as an essentially self-centered audience?

That’s the million dollar question. I think they first need a fundamental change within themselves: they’ve got to be ready to hear. But historically, the majority people are just not aware; it always comes down to a small group of people to change things. Without that majority, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. If everybody becomes progressive in their thinking, there wouldn’t be a need to make art and reach people. What makes it worthwhile for me are those who appreciate the art that I put forth.

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