Last Tuesday I had one of those rare and wonderful musical experiences that comes from hearing something great for the first time and feeling the excitement just course through your veins. I was basking in an obscenely sunny day off, about to head out for a walk when I ran a across a Reader review of a new mixtape from some Chicago rappers that seemed worth checking out. From the opening beat of the first song I was blown away at the audacious and righteous power of the music and I found myself reveling so deeply in the joy of discovery that I got a little giddy as each new song came on, anxious for each new song like a kid on Christmas Eve.
In terms of introductions, I think that the group themselves does it best on their Bandcamp - "Epic, Illekt, Jasson Perez, and DJ Esquire are the creative force behind BBU (short for Bin Laden Blowin! Up or Black, Brown, and Ugly, depending on the day), and they're committed to making socially conscious rap that doesn't sacrifice an ounce of fun." I didn't know it at the time, but I'd heard their local dance hit "Chi Don't Dance" before which certainly showcased their adeptness at creating unbearably catchy songs. What blew me away was how well they could marry that kind of off-the-wall danceability with lyrics containing more humor, pathos, anger and urgency than anything I'd heard in a while.
bell hooks is an album bursting at the seams with great ideas, executed expertly. Every song seems built around a unshakably catchy chorus and an equally massive beat, whether it's double-time workouts like "Outlaw Culture" and "The Wrong Song" or more laid-back fare such as their big guest tracks, "The Hood" with GLC and "Please, No Pictures" with Das Racist. "Kurt De La Rocha" not only pays homage to Nirvana and Rage, but shows that they can steal a great hook as well as any hitmaker, but need only use it sparingly to be effective. Hell, even the skits are funny enough to have replay value (and they toss off a few amazing "commercial" song parodies in the Mr. Goodbar sketches).
Every proper song contains at least two and generally all three of three of the following things - 1) angry indicts of commercial hip-hop 2) angry, politically-charged indicts of modern America 3) a hook massive enough to carry the song for people who don't care about #s 1 and 2. This is a group that gives away its music and names its releases after a radical scholar of racism and feminism so perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that they put this much work and quality into a mere mixtape, but it does. This is a blue collar record in terms of its workmanship, lack of bullshit and relatability but it also has a sophistication and grandeur of a big city - in other words, this is a Chicago record, through and through.
Their political and social awareness is has the depth and thoughtfulness to match and shape its intense anger, a necessary balance. The aura of hyped-up dread "26th & Cali" evokes the uncertainty and simmering anger wrought by the war on black communities in Chicago symbolized by its title. "Jumpers" employs a sweet guitar look and laid-back groove but no-less frustrated lyrics, musing on the right's reaction to a black Tea Party.
Indeed, the musical touchstones drawn on for bell hooks are from all over the map. Certainly the beats are anchored in Chicago juke and Dead Prez tracks but there’s also nods to the Bomb Squad, OutKast and, of course Twista and ‘Ye. As Tapez notes on “Tommy Buns”, they also love art rock, grunge, punk. Their idolization of racial and musical iconoclasts Bad Brains gives you a strong idea of their goals – exposing the punks to black music and the black community to punk and its ability to turn anger into political demands. Their multi-racial makeup and intellectual omnivorousness also give their rage a direction that makes it all the more effective. The boys in BBU can even be pretty damn funny about their worldview when given a chance. At one point they deadpan "no, not a racist / no, not a terrorist / just want white America to go and see a therapist.”
Their anti-pop rhetoric walks a fine line throughout the record because while BBU has no tolerance for mindless party-and-dance, they're also unabashed in their desire to make music that challenges you as you party. Their respect for the early Black-Eyed Peas hints at their desire to achieve not just purity but popularity (and the BEPs are all over this album, with Fergie serving as the avatar of their decline). There’s plenty of scorched-earth level diss tracks like “Tommy Bunz” and the golden age-inspired “Jumpers” but “The Wrong Song” steals the show with an indelible Latin-inspired chorus and raps that indict the vacuousness of hits like Jersey Shore while tying that distraction to things like Arizona’s legalization of racial profiling. "We dance to all the wrong songs" the female chorus moans before adding "we fight all the wrong wars", again tying media distraction to its real-world consequences all within a house-leveling party track.
What’s amazing is how seamlessly all these elements are melded. Like all truly subversive art, it allows you to get lost in the medium (the music, in this case) with the message flowing naturally from that. That’s how you go from marveling at the “Polly” sample to moving your feet when the beat drops to, before you know it shouting, “fuck no, I won’t do what you tell me!” at the top of your lungs. The music stirs and directs your emotions on a subconscious level so that, by the time you process the words it’s like someone’s reading your mind (or a more articulate version of it). Even the party tracks manage to make a point without being a annoying about it. “Beau Sia” is named after an Asian beat poet, but what gives it its goofy charm is BBU’s willingness to use Sia's cheesy pickup line as the chorus and talking about how sexy it is when women vote (and the thing is, the more they say that the more they prove it right).
The problem that BBU set out to fix can be summed up with a line from “The Hood” - "too many conscious rappers can't face facts / the drug dealers happen make better rap”. After a full album of in-your-face tracks determined to prove that statement wrong, they put their case on ice by bringing in local DJ Gods, The Hood Internet and hip-hop’s current critical kings, Das Racist. Over a boom-bap beat, some chill synths and chirpy vocal hook (that is thankfully not overplayed) they rip Miley Cyrus and Wocka Flocka Flame right next to Andrew Breitbart (it’s all the same enemy) and easily hold their own with Das Racist.
At the end of the day I’m just another leftist bearded white music nerd preaching about the next “revolutionary hip-hop” act. If BBU were doing their thing and couldn’t rope me in, they’d be having a rough time indeed. The trick for them will be to see if they can overcome either the “white guy-approved conscious rap” or “local internet hit” ghettos and catch on with a large audience. That mythical “large audience” is harder and harder to come by these days but theirs is a commentary that people of all colors and views could stand to hear and lord knows pop music is one of the few places left we can still at least occasionally talk across the lines of class and race. If such an attempt were to succeed, this would be the kind of album that would be able to make that happen.