Hip Hop, Cultural Diaspora and the Creative Expression of Rage

Al-Islam and Maspyke's The Blackout
Suicide Bombers
Iron Sheik
More to Come

The Blackout


Originally published in Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life www.badsubjects.org

The strength of hip hop is that it lends itself to individual testimonials, and fierce personalities, that animate the narratives of urban life. That’s why some of the best rappers out there are also the most politically abhorrent. Too $hort becomes an archetypal sadist in “Blowjob Betty,” but damned if he wasn’t the funkiest guy in Oakland for most of the eighties. Ice Cube’s “Get Off My Dick Nigga, and Tell Your Bitch to Come Here,” is, by hip hop standards, one of the more elegant pieces in the pantheon, but it’s also rampantly misogynous. And as Tupac entered the dark and twisted world of Death Row czar Shuge Knight, his raps started getting better –culminating with the classic track “Get Em Up, Shoot Em Up.”

Compared to these hip hop forerunners, Maspyke’s The Blackout LP seems devoid of personality. It’s not that frontmen Tableek and Hanif “H Bomb” Jamil don’t have anything to say –in fact, as devotees of Islam, they treat every rap as a screed. At the beginning of The Blackout, Tableek announces "we ‘bout to go into this joint called Far East politics," and "we educating the masses, with 100% Truth.” And Maspyke is nothing if not consistent, peppering the entire album with homiletic raps against the “cash rules everything around me” ideology that pervades mainstream hip hop, delivering rousing cries for peace in the Middle East, and, overall, preaching a strict – if perfunctory – line of edutainment. Still, it seems like they’re preaching to the already initiated.

If there’s one thing the album doesn’t suffer from, though, it’s quality production: DJ Roddy Rodd’s beats are the steak and cobbler of The Blackout. If you put the album on before falling asleep, the beats creep under your skin –they’ve got a mordant, slightly goosepimply sound. Stronger numbers, like the title track, are affably funky, punctured by wah-wahing synths and wicky-wicky scratches. The cut “Idol Minds” sticks in your head after a first listen, because of its grim-reaper zither sounds. While Tableek and Hanif seem a little more down-at-the-mouth than most of their East Coast brethren, they've still got a cool, adenoidal lilt that recalls Q-Tip or Heltah Skeltah.

Ergo, the sound is pretty ill, and perhaps you’ll find the lyrics satisfactory, if you think that hating on gays and praying five times a day is gonna set a brother free. The Blackout’s most polemic track, is "Lost in Belief," in which Hanif raps about being dissed by a lesbian when he tries to pick her up in the park. He retorts: "Listen girlfriend, that’s a crime in the eyes of Allah/…now I see/ why you didn’t call me/You see Adam had a wife named Eve/It’s written in the holy Quran/ So now how can you believe/It’s cool to desire a female/Do you want the garden or the fire?"

Maspyke could have been talking to me when they wrote that song. After all, I’m one of those wayward, waffling hasbians who might abjure all trace of homosexuality if she heard a really convincing argument against it. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear it in “Lost in Belief.” It's not so much that I'm offended by Maspyke's lyrics. After all, it's probably a good portent that hip hop is progressing from straight misogyny to fundamentalist politics, which are more benignly patriarchal. But for some reason I was willing to forgive Ice Cube for lines like "a bitch is a bitch is a bitch." It's always scared me a little, that I consider myself a feminist, and yet I'm drawn to the most grizzled, bitch-slapping gangsta rap on the planet. And if I feel the beat, I'll overlook the lyrics.

I think, at heart, that it’s the taboo nature of lyrics about bitches and hoes that excites me so much. There’s something inherently sexy, and outlawish, about the thug image that rap so effusively promotes. It’s that self-same misogyny, untethered criminality, and rebelliousness that makes it so appealing: I end up confusing Ice Cube’s misogyny with his charisma. In contrast, Maspyke seems overly bland, a little too safe, and even abrasive, because Tableek and Hanif spend too much time telling us how to behave. Because Maspyke’s delivery falls short of other rappers, they failed in their project: I’ve listened to “Lost in Belief” so many times that it played in one of my dreams last night, but I’m still unphased.

It’s tempting to argue that fundamentalism is just ill-suited for hip hop, in general. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. After all, Wu Tang Clan’s “Wu Revolution” – the first cut on the album Wu Tang Forever – imports the doctrine of Five Percent Nation, a mystical sect spawned from the Nation of Islam. In fact, “Wu Revolution” is a Five Percenter sermon delivered straight-no-chaser, and it’s totally intoxicating. The difference is that Wu Tang’s raps have deep, personal resonances that Maspyke avoids in The Blackout. “Wu Revolution” begins with Ol’ Dirty Bastard lamenting: “I’m callin my black woman a bitch/ I’m callin my peoples all kinds of things that they not/ I’m lost brother, can you help me?/ Can you help me brother, please…” Poppa Wu answers: “…all you fake ass niggas thinkin you’re gonna survive out here/ Without your black woman/ You’re wrong/ They have attraction powers on the planet/ We are the original man/ The Asiatic black man/ The maker/ The author/ The cream of the planet earth.” While I don’t espouse Five Percenter doctrine in my private life, my blood still ripples every time I hear Poppa Wu deliver his sermon.

Tableek and Hanif would probably argue that, even if their raps sound more stifled than the Wu Tang’s Five Percenter litanies, at least they’re more principled. And they’d have a point. In “Idol Minds,” for instance, they chide Five Percenters for having a loosey-goosey interpretation of Islamic doctrine: “by the way, I heard a brother say that he was a god, I said really?/ I didn’t know Allah drank beers and smoked phillies.” Which is a perfectly fair jibe. After all, Five Percenters claim that every black man is a god –and if you’re a god, you can make up the rules as you go along. Technically speaking, a Five Percenter can drink and smoke weed and do all sorts of scandalous shit, and still be a Five Percenter. Though Maspyke has a tenable argument, I still think Ol’ Dirty Bastard comes off as a more sympathetic character, simply because he’s more pithy and self-deprecating. Perhaps, in the case of hip hop, the power of an emcee’s delivery should always outpace the substantive content of his message, in order to really be effective.

I wrote a good chunk of this review from memory, because I stopped listening to The Blackout awhile ago. At first I was really feeling it – after all, Roddy Rodd’s beats seem pretty ill if you can groove with the fundamentalist politics. But technical flourishes can hold my attention only for so long; eventually I got tired of Tableek and Hanik constantly gonking me on the head with their doctrine. It wasn’t even so much that I was offended, as just plain bored. Religious didacticism sometimes works, if it’s really impassioned, but The Blackout failed to convert me to Islam – or even to convince me that I should regret having bumped uglies with one of my female bros. I still dig the beats, but I had to put The Blackout in a stack that I’ve dubbed “good cooking music.”

As I’m writing this review, I’m listening to Ice Cube’s sinister “Down for Whatever,” in which he raps, “Damn I’m such a G it’s pathetic/ Here comes the big headed/ Nigga that’s dippin/ Sippin on Courvoisier/ Goddamn I must havta floss today/ Now pimpin aint easy but it's necessary/ So I'm chasin bitches like Tom chased Jerry/ I'll put the pedal to the flo – uh/ In my two - tone Ford Explo – uh/ You know how it's done.” And it’s delicious.

The Blackout is available from Boiling Point Distribiution 



copyright 2004 by Rachel Swan