15 Years Ago, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common & More Used Hip-Hop for Justice. The Fight Continues.
Police officers (and law enforcement officials) murdering unarmed people of color has been a resounding issue, especially since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin. However, while mainstream media has not always looked at the issue that extends back throughout the United States’ history, other media has. One of those sources for reflection and commentary has been Hip-Hop music.
In the film Straight Outta Compton, viewers can see the personal experience with the Los Angeles Police Department that prompted an angry Ice Cube to combat racial profiling and police brutality with his opening verse in N.W.A.’s 1988 subversive street anthem “Fuck Tha Police.” Three years later, for the 1990s, Large Professor and Main Source equated America’s pastime to police beating down Black people with bats in “Just A Friendly Game Of Baseball.” For the 2000s, less than six months into the millennium, that conversation piece was Hip Hop For Respect.
Just months removed from Black On Both Sides, the four-song EP (plus instrumentals) was led by Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharaohe Monch, and others. Grantland and journalist Thomas Golianopoulos examine the Rawkus Records effort more than 15 years later, with reflective commentary by Kweli, Monch, in addition to Jean Grae and one of the label’s co-founders, Jarret Myer.
“I was inspired by artists who were directly involved in actions through music and beyond music that spoke to the need of the community,” organizer Talib Kweli explains today. Recently, the Brooklyn, New York MC traveled to Ferguson, Missouri with Pharoahe Monch to perform a free concert fundraiser for locals. “I just thought that that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.” Throughout his nearly 20-year career, the Black Star/Reflection Eternal/Idle Warship MC has promoted activism, and civic pride. “Local, state, federal cops have been paid properly / To protect the property /How can I just stand by and watch a man die for nothin’ and not react? / The way we spit on this track is how we bustin back,” rapped Kweli on the Organized Noize-produced title track he helped orchestrate. The April 25, 2000 EP released just days after Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss were acquitted for the murder of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo. On February 4, 1999, Diallo was shot at 41 times, with 19 of those cartridges striking him in the Bronx, New York. A crime scene investigation and report from the officers on duty revealed that Diallo drew a wallet to show officers upon apprehension. The aforementioned NYPD officers believed it was a gun. Thought to be a wanted rapist in the area, Amadou Diallo died an innocent man.
Jean Grae, who at the time had come from underground Hip-Hop collective Natural Resource recalls, “It absolutely changed the navigation of what some of us as artists chose to start writing about.” Interestingly, Kweli, Yasiin Bey (f/k/a Mos Def) and Rawkus opened a call to the Hip-Hop peers, prompting the title. More than a month before the EP was released, the organizers sent an industry-wide call to recording arms, for those hurt and affected by the climate of policing. In turn, Common, De La Soul’s Posdnuos, Kool G Rap, PMD, Flipmode Squad’s Rah Digga, Ras Kass, Channel Live, Rockness Monstah, Aesop Rock, El-P, Nine, Wordsworth, J-Live, and others responded. In speaking with Grantland, Kweli recalls being optimistic, given the profile of some of the diverse supporters. While stars of the day like Puff Daddy, Master P, Ma$e and DMX did not show up, plenty of established, charting, and acclaimed voices did.
However, when it came to commercial, radio, video, and historic response, Talib says the impact was lost. “No one supported it, and that was a bit of a surprise to me because we worked hard on it. I was young and I was naïve and I know a lot more about the music business now.” Today, the former book-store owner says, he would be prepared for ignorance. “Now it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
The feature also examines how this particular unified call to arms was darker than that of Self-Destruction’s “Stop The Violence” or the West Coast All-Stars’ “We’re All In The Same Gang.” In many places, the message to the oppressors was closer to narratives from Cube, Paris, or Ice-T. “Pretty dark,” Monch admits, looking back at some of the project’s specific lyrics.
Jarret Myer, Rawkus’ co-founder, was surprised by this reaction. “We thought we were making history, but we also expected the media and DJs to embrace it more.” The label found strong success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, introducing and re-introducing MCs to the masses. Kweli maintains belief that the label did not give the project the muscle they had with Black On Both Sides months earlier, a subsequent gold-certified solo debut.
Fifteen years later, Hip Hop For Respect is tragically relevant. In the wake of ongoing murders and brutality, the extended play resonates. “I feel like the overall impact we had over time, history favors it,” says Kweli. He also points out that today’s climate misses the point, citing Game’s mass-led Michael Brown tribute being quickly forgotten in the fast-moving digital timelines.
In remembering a unique, embarrassingly topical, and powerful Hip-Hop moment, do you think the recognition and response to musical protest and power has shifted? Why?