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Authentic By Design

“When I first saw the poster, I was like, ‘No way,’” he said. “No way is a hardcore, leftist rapper like Immortal Technique coming to a rich white kids’ school like Amherst College.”

It’s half an hour before the concert begins. He is talking to his friends, his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans, tapping his sneakers against the corkboard that has been duct taped to the gymnasium floor, long brown hair falling over his eyes. We are both standing near the stage. He would look less out of place at a Phish concert, I keep myself from saying.

I silenced my prejudicial impulses and thought about what he said, instead of judging who was saying it. If it had been a day later, it would have been the perfect April Fool’s joke. The first hip-hop concert at Amherst College since the Common and Talib Kweli spring concert of my freshman year had finally arrived. On March 31st, in Amherst College’s alumni gymnasium, one of the most critically-acclaimed, politically conscious lyricists of our generation, Immortal Technique, performed a sold-out show with DJ G.I. Joe, and opening acts J Arch, Da Circle, Akir, Poison Pen, and Diabolic. Immortal Technique, who raps about American racism and socioeconomic division, coming to Amherst College. Yeah…what is up with that?

With so many opening acts slated to perform, the wait until Immortal Technique’s appearance looked painful. However, each artist captivated and held the audience’s attention without overstaying his welcome. J Arch took the stage first, and performed one song and one a cappella freestyle verse. Between songs he jokingly informed the ladies in the audience what room he was staying in at Howard Johnson, and during the rest of the show, his responsibility was to splash water on the audience at carefully scheduled intervals.

His performance was followed by Da Circle, a rap duo consisting of two Brooklyn MCs known as FDA and Goodtimes Slim. After their short but sweet set, Poison Pen performed, and then introduced the first of two middleweights—Akir, who appears on the last track of Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary Vol. 2, “One,” and the last song of the show. After Akir came Diabolic, best known for a verse he performs as an interlude at the end of Immortal Technique’s most notorious track, “Dance With The Devil.” Although “Dance” was an understandable omission from the set list (a seven minute long morality tale about a wannabe gang member who must commit rape as part of his initiation), Diabolic gave an a cappella performance of his notable verse, which contains such lyrical gems as “Beneath the surface, I’m overheating your receiving circuits / By unleashing deeper verses than priests speak in churches / What you preach is worthless / Your worship defeat the purpose / Like President Bush taking bullets for the Secret Service.”

After just a handful of songs from Diabolic, Poison Pen took the stage and introduced the main event. Immortal Technique’s set lasted 45 minutes and consisted mostly of songs from his most recent album, 2003’s Revolutionary Vol. 2. He came out with a freestyle a cappella verse, followed by an intense rendition of “Industrial Revolution,” a polemic against major label record companies, then “Harlem Streets,” during which he demanded that the audience join in during the chorus, responding to his shouts of “Homicide Harlem” with, “BLAOW! What’s the problem?” He performed two songs I didn’t recognize, the first of which he introduced as a new song from his upcoming album, The Middle Passage, as well as other singles like “The Point of No Return” and fan-favorites like “Peruvian Cocaine,” on which all of the rappers present joined in.

While the core of the concert was energetic performances of incisive songs, the less than sincere fluff around it was inescapable. At the start of the show, DJ G.I. Joe took the stage in a black T-shirt that read “Government = Conspiracy.” He addressed the audience, lamenting his tiresome experiences with the commercial hip hop crowding the radio. He then proceeded to pump up the crowd with a few tracks from his upcoming album, Underworld Vol. 3, starting off with a song by Massachusetts-based MC Militant Mic entitled “All The Same” (“I used to listen to rap, but now I don’t ‘cause it’s all the same / All the same”). He faithfully started off the formulaic agenda that would inform the speeches the artists made between songs: tout yourself as a real hip-hop artist; rail against record companies and sucka MCs; call for Bush’s impeachment; rinse; repeat. The performers took many opportunities to overstate their authenticity between songs, which never detracted from the quality of the performances, only heightened the anticipation for the one innocuous sentence that would clue the audience into which song was coming.

In the middle of his set, Immortal Technique took a moment to remind the crowd that “Hip hop didn’t start with rap; it started with the DJ,” and turned the reins over to DJ G.I. Joe, who then astonished the crowd with his lightning-fast reflexes on the turntables. It’s another move that’s becoming a staple of “real” hip hop shows, also seen at the Common and Talib Kweli Amherst College spring concert from three years ago. I was left wondering why DJ G.I. Joe could not have simply displayed his scratching skills as he warmed up the crowd at the start of the show. It seemed to be a convenient way to give the performers a breather, at the expense of interrupting the flow of the set.

Of course, Immortal Technique is known for even more polarizing postures, which do more to enhance his image as a “conscious” rapper than to achieve intellectual honesty. Towards the end, he performed one of his more popular songs, “Bin Laden,” which is known for espousing the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration was somehow responsible for the events of September 11. Since Mos Def was not at the show to perform the chorus, the audience filled in, shouting, “Bin Laden didn’t blow up the projects / It was you, nigga / Tell the truth, nigga / Bush knocked down the towers / Tell the truth, nigga / Bush knocked down the towers.” It would be interesting to see how many of those singing along actually take those particular lyrics seriously, and how many were leaping on the opportunity to shout the N-word without repercussion.

The evening was a reminder that image and reputation are no less important to an underground hip hop artist than to a commercial rapper. Although the rappers clearly have a commitment to enhancing their craft that many on the radio and MTV do not, at the end of the day, they need to dress themselves and parse their words in such a way as to make an honest buck, too. But what separates underground artists like Immortal Technique and most commercial rappers is that after the show, the personal bodyguards escort the commercial rappers back to the tour bus, while Immortal Technique heads back to the merch table, and put CDs and T-shirts into the hands of his fans himself.

Note: This article was originally published in the April 7, 2007 edition of The Indicator.



1. Default Layouts - February 3, 2008

Hmm I agree

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