The big music news of this week (besides the annual madness known as SXSW) was the surprise early release of Kendrick Lamar
's masterful new record To Pimp a Butterfly
. It's an unabashedly political record, tackling a host of hot-button issues facing contemporary society. And it got us here in the office thinking about some of our favorite political hip-hop tracks. So, we decided to put a little mix-tape together for you guys. Enjoy.
Public Enemy -- "Fight the Power"
Public Enemy wasn't the first hip-hop act talking about politics, but they were the first mainstream act to be this militant. I can't even imagine how much the video for "Fight the Power" with Chuck D marching down Bed-Stuy with Black Panthers scared racist white guys back in 1989. Well, we know what Chuck D would say: "motherf*ck them and John Wayne!"
Killer Mike -- "Reagan"
The legacy of the Reagan presidency lingers in so much political hip-hop. Trickle-down economics crushed impoverished communities and annihilated any strides Great Society programs made, and if you share Killer Mike's view, Ronald Reagan is the devil for letting it all happen.
Common feat. Kanye West -- "The Food (Live version)"
Is there even a studio version of this song? The Food performed on The Chapelle Show is classic Chicago rap. With Kanye kicking a catchy chorus about the struggles of raising children in the hood with no means of support, Common let Daves comedy expecting audience know that it is no joke to live in the ghetto.
Tupac Shakur -- "Keep Ya Head Up"
Trying to choose which Pac to use here was ridiculously, but it would have been too easy to choose "Changes" and "Hail Mary." This was Tupac's feminist anthem when nobody in hip-hop was talking about feminism, and it's the inspiration for the last song on this list.
Ice Cube -- "Amerikkka's Most Wanted"
Before becoming a Disney dad, Ice Cube was a part of Americas most dangerous group, N.W.A. After going solo, his debut album Amerikkkas Most Wanted
continued the themes of discussing political and social problems that could be found in every hood, but specifically Compton, California. Painting vivid images of violence, Ice Cubes survival mentality and lyricism was lauded as a landmark in hip-hop culture.
Mos Def -- "Mathematics"
After splitting from Talib Kweli and looking to make a name outside of Black Star, Mos Defs debut album established him as a legend. Mathematics was the sure classic off the album. Describing governmental injustices and the hardships of living in Brooklyn, Mos Def reminds the world that hipsters arent the only residents of the big borough.
Jadakiss feat. Anthony Hamilton -- "Why"
A quintessential radio hit in the early 2000s, Jadakiss had the masses asking Why? Detailing the issues not only in the music industry concerning capitalist centered hip-hop content but also breaking news stories and questioning the hood mentality, Why? forced listeners to take a hard look in the mirror and wonder if there was more to life than just having the biggest house and flashiest car. Ironically, Jadas other output would never reach the success of this song.
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five -- "The Message"
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five beat Public Enemy to the punch for the title of the first mainstream political rap hit. There are a bunch of problematic elements to this song -- some homophobia and transphobia -- but taken in the context of its release in 1982, there was nothing else like it, and it became the political lightning rod that every other political hip-hop act formed from.
Run the Jewels feat. Zach De La Rocha -- "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)"
Besides Kendrick Lamar, no one else today comes close in terms of making great political commentary rap like Run The Jewels. The group, made up of Killer Mike and El-P, have taken the world by storm with their in your face "fuck you" mentality to the powers that be. Mike even had a large role in the recent protests that occurred in Ferguson post-"the failure to indict Darren Wilson." How do they top their already critically acclaimed debut? By getting another radical rebel on their next record, Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. The collaboration is the soundtrack to a riot for justice.
Black Star -- "Respiration"
This famous Brooklyn duo composed of Yasin Bey (Mos Def) and the very talented Talib Kweli left their fingerprint on the game. At a time when rappers like P. Diddy and Jay-Z were living it up extravagantly, these poets reminded listeners that there were major issues to be found in the hood, following the work of A Tribe Called Quest. While they only had one album, it is definitely a classic. Respiration was a stand out, detailing a day in NYC including fighting for your life and finding hope in religion, philosophy, and other any means besides violence and wealth.
Aesop Rock -- "Labor"
Aesop Rock currently holds the record for the biggest vocabulary in hip-hop
, and he lets that entire dictionary and thesaurus loose on this track about the lives of the working poor in the communities Aesop Rock grew up in.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony -- "Tha Crossroads"
Prior to "Tha Crossroads" release, Eazy-E had lost his battle with AIDS. The N.W.A. icon was the man that helped Bone Thugs-N-Harmony break into the game in the first place, and his death was the emotional breaking point for the band in the face of all the loss the rap community was shouldering. This song is their elegy to all of the dead. It's not as angry as the other songs on this list but sometimes heart-ache can be just as political as anger.
A Tribe Called Quest -- "Infamous Date Rape"
Like Tupac's "Keep Ya Head Up," this is a song imploring Tip and Fife's listeners to respect women. It's 2015, and there are still too many hip-hop smashes that treat women like mindless sexual objects. It's not surprising that feminism was another area where Tribe was 20 years ahead of the curve.
There's no music video for this song anywhere on YouTube which is impressive. So, click this hyperlink to Spotify
Kanye West feat. Gil Scott-Heron -- "Who Will Survive in America"
If you can pair this song with "Lost in the World," it's a contender for Kanye's best track, and it's indicative of the anger and isolation that would define both My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
. Kanye can be an ass at times, but the times where he talks about the shit white America doesn't want to hear aren't those times. And by ending his best album on that note, Kanye lets Gil Scott-Heron speak for his fears, paranoia, and anger.
Nas feat. AZ & Olu Dara -- "Life's a Bitch"
You can't talk about socially aware hip hop in the early 90s without bringing up Illmatic
. All respect to Biggie & Pac but Nas beat y'all with that one. "Life's a Bitch" is the ultimate statement on the terrifying nihilism of generational poverty and violence.
Ab-Soul feat. Danny Brown & Jhene Aiko -- "Terrorist Threats"
Two of raps biggest weirdos with a penchant for pure honesty, Ab Soul and Danny Brown are a deadly lyrical combination. Coming off his very political Control System
, Terrorist Threats finds the rappers waxing political about how they plan to f*ck up the system and do whatever the hell they want while having the most fun possible. Its interesting to note the U.S. government HAS seen rap groups as possibly terrorist and gang organizations. This duo is flipping that concept, embracing, and coming straight at the man. The true power of art.
Jay-Z & Kanye West -- "Murder to Excellence"
What do you get when two of the best rappers ever combine for an album? A great look into life in the black community, of course. While Jay-Z and Kanye do plenty of bragging about their bank accounts, Murder to Excellence revealed the issues they see in the community. The idea of the black community seeing each other as the enemy on the path to greatness is prevalent. This corrupted mentality lead to a stand out song on Watch the Throne
Kendrick Lamar -- "The Blacker the Berry"
20 years later, Kendrick Lamar continues the legacy of Nas & Pac by talking about the ways that institutional oppression in American society attempts to destroy the very soul of Black America. But Kendrick invites controversy in the final line by accepting responsibility himself for the role he played in the violence that nearly destroyed Compton in the 90s and early 2000s. It's heavy stuff, but Kendrick handles it with the respect & subtlety it deserves. If political hip-hop is now in Kendrick's hands, it's going to be okay.
If you want to listen to this playlist on Spotify, you can find it here
, or if you want to listen to the whole mixtape on YouTube (minus the A Tribe Called Quest song), it's embedded below.