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Uh, one thing 'bout music
When it hit you feel no pain
White folks says it controls your brain
Dead Prez takes a (verbal) stab at all those who equate violence in media with violence in the real world.
Throughout the 1990s, culture critics—most white, but some Black—had done a lot of public fretting about the influence of hip-hop on young minds.
The criticism of hip-hop artists and audiences was so fervent that even figures as big as Bob Dole and Bill Clinton used up airtime criticizing rappers. They focused on what they called "gangsta rap," but also went after figures like Tupac Shakur—who disavowed the title "gangsta rap" and whose subject matter was wide-ranging—and hip-hop in general.
The criticisms went past the music and its messages to the fashion, the language, and even the cars and jewelry owned by some rappers. Some of these critics missed the point made so sarcastically here by Dead Prez: Even though it's important to look at the relationship between media and violence, music itself can't be equated with violence. After all, when it hit, you feel no pain.
Of course, the issue of the relationship between language, media depictions, and violence is still hot, and rappers are still responding to it. More recently, check out Eminem, for example, riffing intelligently on the topic.
What do you think? Should musicians refrain from using violent language? Is rap more violent than other kinds of music, or has it been unfairly targeted?
Two soldiers head of the pack
Matter of fact who got the gat?
Dead Prez hits the press with a little more mockery on the violence issue.
Dead Prez call themselves "soldiers," but they're soldiers for a cause. They're against police brutality and poverty, upset about war and racism, and in favor of healthy lifestyles and vegetarianism.
When they ask, "Who got the gat?" (gat is slang for a pistol or handgun) they poke fun at the expectations about them as a Black male rap duo while also claiming a strong "street soldier" identity.
Later, Dead Prez albums furthered this pairing of the political radical with the street identity, especially the 2004 album RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta. "RBG," Dead Prez says, can also refer to "reading 'bout Garvey" or "ready to bust gats" (source).
It also stands for the traditional colors of the international Black Power Movement (red, black, green).
Whether your project's put on hold
Tons of record projects get put on hold—including, not incidentally, Dead Prez's first album.
Dead Prez completed the album in 1999, but they ended up in a standoff with Loud Records over their proposed cover art, which depicts South-African youth raising rifles in the air during a protest against apartheid.
The 2000 release was the band's first and last big-label release. In 2010, Dead Prez turned down an offer from Jay-Z's Roc Nation label, insistent on maintaining their independence (though, they say, they have no beef with Jay-Z and respect his work).
But then if you a liar-liar, pants on fire
Wolf-cry agent with a wire
We all know what a liar, liar, pants on fire is. But what's a wolf-cry (or maybe wolf-crier) agent with a wire?
Dead Prez is actually using some pretty heavy imagery to criticize inauthentic music: "Wolf-cry agent with a wire" equates the fake music they don't like with government agents, the kind who use wire taps to spy on people.
Dead Prez is particularly aware of the history of police and FBI monitoring in communities of color, which in some cases was used to undermine their heroes in the Black Power Movement.
Uh, who shot Biggie Smalls
If we don't get them
They gonna get us all
Biggie's death was the talk of the late 1990s.
The Notorious B.I.G. a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, was shot in a drive-by in 1997 at age 24. His death came less than a year after the shooting death of equally notorious rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur, and to many, the two deaths represented the hip-hop world spiraling out of control.
But people like Dead Prez saw these tragic deaths as a highly public representation of the violence directed at young Black men—sometimes at each other's hands. These lines are a definite stop-the-violence message, although we don't really know who "they" are: Biggie's and Tupac's murders are still unsolved.
You would rather have a Lexus? Or justice?
A dream or some substance?
Dead Prez' revolutionary rap sets them against excessive materialism and tries to re-frame hip-hop itself.
As hip-hop grew in popularity and commercial viability throughout the 1990s, it increasingly adopted images and goals that some people were unhappy with.
Hip-hop had risen up in the most poverty-stricken areas of inner cities, but commercial success meant that suddenly, a few select rappers had fancy cars and multi-million dollar record deals. To the dismay of many, these were the people who came to represent the image of rap and the aspirations of the hip-hop movement.
Dead Prez, who were active in the underground hip-hop scene from the early 1990s on, consistently presented an alternative to materialism and concerned themselves more with justice than nice cars.
"A dream or some substance" also subtly highlights how the material success experienced by some rappers remained largely unavailable to most people. For most, that Lexus and those gold chains were (and are) a dream, not a reality. Dead Prez would rather focus on social change, what they call "some substance," than on image and commercial success.
Uh, DP's got that crazy s--t we keep it crunk up
John Blaze'd and s--t
We have to admit that this line flew by us a few times with no questions asked.
But we're sure you agree that questions are the creative acts of intelligence, which is why we had to take it a step further.
Fun though it sounds, we here at Shmoop asked, what are they actually saying here? Here are the basics: DP=Dead Prez, Crunk=Dirty South hip-hop beats, and Johnny Blaze=Ghost Rider.
Turns out this catchy line is actually a pretty confusing one. The basic breakdown seems to be that Dead Prez wants to remind us that they have hot beats.
Crunk is a term for Southern hip-hop beats, and more specifically refers to a bass-heavy, speedy Southern dance beat; it can also be slang for crazy-drunk or for a good party. Their beats are so hot that they're "John Blaze'd"—that would be an inventive adjective based on the character who becomes the motorcycle-riding, threatening Ghost Rider character in some comics.
"John Blaze" was also an alias of the rapper Method Man, and in general shows up to mean something hot—Urban Dictionary calls it "the first cousin of Jack Frost" or "a positive adjective that can describe the awesomeness of something." "John Blazed" was used by Fat Joe in his 1998 rap, "John Blaze." It was also the title of a 1997 Aaliyah song, where the John Blaze in question was Aaliyah's crush:
Why do (mm-hmm), I feel this way
All I know (uh-huh), is you're John Blaze (you're John Blaze)