dead prez's M1, Stic, and Umi Talk Cymatics, Hip Hop as AI and the Tip of the Spear
Nearly a decade since their previous album under the dead prez nom de guerre, one of America’s most influential hip hop groups returns with a new project and all their “Revolutionary But Gangsta” RBG energy. Though times have changed(?), we still need champions to speak truth to power. Justice, equality, freedom, mental and spiritual health - OG teachings for dead prez - affirm that the truth still stands and they’ll be the ones to tell it. Look around, the revolution is being televised! Are you listening?
Watch highlights from Honeysuckle's exclusive interview with dead prez:
dead prez have been a constant presence in hip hop culture since their debut in the 1990s. M1 and Stic met as teenagers, bonding over their love of music and Afrocentric politics. As they pursued a combination of both entertainment and activism, they were discovered by producer Lord Jamar, and released their debut album Let’s Get Free in 2000, which was critically acclaimed as “the return of politically-conscious rap.”
Honeysuckle’s founder Ronit Pinto and Creative Director Sam Long caught a sacred sesh with Stic, M1 and longtime collaborator umiRBG backstage at the Let’s Get Free Concert this spring, an event to benefit the Last Prisoner Project nonprofit in conjunction with SXSW. The trio parted the curtain to discuss their process: it’s the magic relationship between hip hop, cannabis, Black power, sacred music geometry, spirituality, and the latest magic being created.
How Has dead prez Evolved?
SAM C. LONG: You have a new album on the way?
STIC: Yeah, man. We working on a new project, a new dead prez album. Been over a decade or so. We’ve been taking our time, living life, rediscovering our joy for the music in new ways and working with our extended team. Airbnbing, sharing ideas and beats and musicianship, and it’s coming together. I’m excited for the new stuff.
SAM: You guys have been together for awhile and you’ve grown together as artists. What has it meant for you to see each other evolve?
M1: Good question.
STIC: Wow, good question. M1 has always been, to me, our statesman, our spokesman. We both emcee in the group, but M1 is just a people’s advocate. And when I met him, he wasn’t rapping. He was living his hip hop culture to the fullest, DJing and styling and breaking, but he hadn’t created his emcee voice just yet. Over the years I’ve watched him become a poet, a wordsmith, and a real articulate advocate for all of the issues that we believe in. M1 is a really unique and original writer. Lots of flows, heartfelt energy onstage and in the booth. Just one of the best voices and energy that you could feel in hip hop. Like when he says, “How you feeling?” You feel that shit. I’ve been seeing him mature as a man and still has the same fire as when I first met him, if not more.
M1: I feel every word Stic said, ‘cause definitely the journey’s been real. I met Stic when we were in our teens. [Stic] was 15 years old; I was 17… I feel definitely our brotherhood was like we’re able to learn from each other, teach each other, and all that. [Stic] was already a practicing lyricist, very honed in skill and adept. Like he said, I wasn’t an emcee, but I was. I was a DJ and a B-Boy, and I probably wrote like one, two raps in my life ever. But here was Stic, he had the mastery of someone who had done it like Big Daddy Kane or Rakim at a young age. It was very inspiring to me because I had not known a lot of other young people who had that kind of mastery.
I came up listening in the bathrooms to my homeboys writing rhymes about girls or this and that. You beat on the wall, you’d freestyle and do that. But there was a sense of taking that to the next level. [There was] even the intensity of understanding lyrics that Stic made me study a whole lot more from his own studying. Like syllable, word flows, and intention of what the lyrics mean when people hear him. He was singing songs that were already indicting the state; it was very critical of the system in a way that I could totally understand, ‘cause I came from that. I come from straight attacks on Black people. That’s my life. When I met him, my mom was in prison, so I had a lot to understand and then to develop into words. So what Stic is talking about, how I was able to develop, was a lot to do with how he had already developed a way to communicate.
Stic is evolved because he did and does all the deep multisyllabic flows and double times. That’s what Malcolm [X] does, and he’s compared to Malcolm in his consciousness and kind of stature, but more in the fact that he makes it plain… So the Stic you hear today learned to be clear, laser-focused on certain kinds of communication. Hip hop is not the same today as it was then. Now I think the evolution of it, the “AI” of hip hop or message music, is the essence of what Stic brings to the table.
UMI: What can I say about these guys? I’ve never felt prouder to be with a clique. We were young and I always had my own thing going on, ‘cause that’s just who I was as a man. But these guys had a movement behind what they were doing, and I was never so inspired. Jay-Z got a line [in his song “Allure”] where he gives props to this dope dealer [Calvin “Klein” Bacote]: “I never felt more alive than riding shotgun in Klein’s green Five.” That’s how I felt with these n****s. And we wasn’t even on that shit. We was straight shooting the realest shit that you ever could shoot to any person, authority member, gang member, whoever the fuck was out here. We was telling them, “Yo, stand up and be about something and resonate truth in what you deliver, how you live your life as a person.”
And that’s it. And we were so gangster in that shit as kids, it makes me proud to be able to play that to my daughter. I never felt more alive than riding around with [M1 and Stic], and I never felt more right in terms of my aspirations and what I wanted to accomplish and believe in. We had each other, and that fueled a whole portion of my life… They also provided a lane for everybody that was around who wanted to do something with music. We were all gifted. We had a crew of gifted, talented young men and we just worked together. They did a great job of leadership. So here we are now, back at it, leading each other still and aspiring for more than the average person can see.
dead prez And The 50th Anniversary Of Hip Hop
SAM: This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip hop. Where, over that 50 years, would you say hip hop has been the most impactful?
M1: Hip hop is the number one export of America. Hip hop is the byproduct of America, the repression and pain from Black people that has been bottled, processed, and delivered to every single aspect of life to the world that represents America. I think it's underestimated in what is old and the code that is distributed to the world around like hip hop, music, lyricism, culture, fashion, politics, et cetera. Even breaking norms, becoming new people and who we are. I think the ramification of what hip hop means to that [are] yet to be seen for a long time.
I’m so glad that this is 50 years of hip hop, but this is more than that for African culture. Hip hop is African culture. So we’re talking about a tip of the spear, with a long shaft of African culture that’s going through the heart of imperialist bullshit. This is what it’s always been. It’s been fiery, it’s been hot. It’s been really clear and explosive and exposing in its way. We’ve been a part of that riveting through life to figure out the meaning. We’re not talking about 50 years of hip hop, we’re talking about an amass of resistance culture, science, forethought, rhythm, and coding that has yet to be seen. I’m proud of us, from like Kool Herc and [Afrika Bambaataa] and Grandmasters Flash and Caz, Kurtis Blow. The Fat Boys. LL Cool J. Those guys were breaking atoms.
M1: We probably wouldn’t even be here without Rakim and all that. We wouldn’t have known how to do what we do, or be walking and feeling like we do, or even have some pride. We have a lot of pride, like African pride, and it comes from them instilling in us the pride to be Black. And that’s a fact. I wasn’t proud to be Black before that. I didn’t know how to be proud to be Black, you know what I’m saying? So at the end of the day, salute the hip hop for that, but it’s so much bigger than hip hop.
SAM: Stic, where do you see the impact of hip hop? It’s definitely a force, exposing these truths and serving as protest music and it’s active. But it’s been 50 years and some things haven’t changed.
STIC: The biggest impact hip hop has had in the world, huh? It’s been so many different dimensions. Hip hop has been a vehicle for young Black men’s voices to be heard and respected around the globe, in a way that had never happened before. When Martin Luther King was dreaming about little Black boys and white boys and everybody will hold hands, if you think about it in the racist reality we’re living in, that has never happened. But in hip hop, it has happened.
Hip hop is the culture where everybody can get in the cypher, where everybody can contribute, where everybody from all nationalities can be a part of it. It’s one culture. Elsewhere, everybody goes to war with each other, but in hip hop, you could come how you are. You could be classically trained pianists or beating on a bucket. So I think hip hop has been a cultural unifier.
In that way, I think hip hop has been outreached for a lot of issues from police brutality. We, the rappers, were the ones who started telling you [that]. Ice Cube and NWA, they put down that that’s been happening to us forever. But it ain’t start getting talked about until the rappers started putting it on wax. Hip hop is responsible for our consciousness in every way. Fashion, business, marketing, education, hip hop is in all the colleges and schools. You could get a Nas fellowship at Harvard right now. Hip hop is everywhere, from the jails to the higher institutions. It’s the language of people around the globe.
So I think it has become the vehicle and the voice of the voiceless, and it is only just growing and proliferating even more. From the 70s on, hip hop has been our AI. It’s that disruptive, radical technology that allows us to learn in our own way, at our own pace and express ourselves and have the tools of people like Massive Melle Mel, Run-DMC, and Scarface. Those tools and soundbites and phrases where they’re pleading the case for our life. It is the technology of the freedom of our culture, and it’s in its baby stages still.
UMI: That’s why it’s so important to be careful as hip hop artists, who we align with when we do business. Shifting into the shit that we’re into in the cannabis culture right now, we always make the parallels that hip hop definitely got sabotaged. And because of how powerful that shit is, they made sure that n****s that look like us don’t have ownership of it. As the pioneers and the voices of the voiceless, we’ve got to be careful who we’re making deals with, to bring into this world of hip hop. We’ve got very little movements as it relates to ownership, and gave away so much to motherfuckers that don’t have no alliance to our communities.
[Rapper Yasiin Bey] said, “Hip hop is the CNN for Black people.” You want to know where the community’s going? Look where hip hop’s going. That shit’s still true… And sometimes, that can end up being misfortunate, and we have to be careful of that. Be careful who we allow in. We control the helms of this music until we realize that we’re going to have all kinds of perpetrators pulling the strings.
dead prez On Cannabis, Music, and Creativity
SAM: Getting into cannabis, obviously you all have long-term relationships with the plant, culturally and spiritually, and economically because you all work in the industry. What has been the thread in the music with cannabis, that creative lubricant that’s helped to differentiate the whole process from anything else out there?
M1: It was so crazy. I remember this moment. Cannabis allows us to be out, really, truly ourselves. Let down certain inhibitions and be who we really are. I remember being in Tallahassee in 1990, 17 years old, and I had been smoking weed. I was with Stic and I remember Stic saying, “What that shit do to you?” And I was just like, “It relaxes me.”
Nobody had to tell me. I’m pretty sure it was ingrained from my father. You smoke weed a lot around me and I didn’t even know, ‘cause weed was the normal smell in my house. And for me, I know for sure that getting in touch with my soul and what we felt was that we were angry with the system, but it allowed me to be okay with being [angry]. We could talk about it, learn from teachers in a way that was respectful. Without weed I probably would have been disrespectful to the teachers because swallowing what the system was trying to give us was not easy. And it made us revolutionaries, but we had to become that knowing it was a fight. And in order to do so, we had to decompress every time. We had to go to the crib, we had to talk about the politics, what the system is, understand and delete it. With the aroma of cannabis around us every fucking time, it is the truth.
Cannabis… was the gateway to lead the police to come in to bust the movement. Even in our own way that we were proud of Black people and wanted to celebrate the movement and [Black Panthers] Huey Newton and Bunchy Carter and all the beautiful revolutionaries, and The Last Poets who were talking about these people in such colorful ways, we still had to do it in such a clandestine way. We still were not openly accepted, but this is something we were completely participating in all the time.
So today I’ve got to acknowledge cannabis as one and completely unified with all of our aims to free everything. We can’t separate it and act like one part is one part and the other part is the other part. It is completely organic. Today it makes more sense than it ever did before.
STIC: I started smoking herb in my teens with this guy right here. Being that he was from Jamaica, the way I started learning about the plant was from teachings he would give me about Rastafari. I was fascinated by how this African-inspired group was looking at the plant with such high regard, and respecting the experience that you have when you smoke. It was a whole indigenous respect for the plant.
Then I used to ask, as a young person, “Why is this illegal?” And it would feel like, “Why are we illegal?” There was a kinship in what ganja was to who we are. We’re just naturally being ourselves, but we were considered illegals. The rebelliousness of it made me connect with the plant like that, and people like Bob Marley. I associated the magic of the plant with how I felt about his music, how he would sing about the challenges and the frustrations, but in a sweet way. Bob was special with that. There’s a sacred space for ganja in a rebel artist’s heart. People like Tupac [Shakur] and Fela [Kuti], they all [had] some ganja in the studios at some point.
The criminalization of herb made it such a potential liability [to even] just have some herb in your pocket. The anxiety that you deal with, ‘cause you want to smoke. We as a community deal with a lot of trauma. And sometimes herb will help you to relax, but the criminalization of it adds to the stress and PTSD of the shit. And I went through a period where, for health reasons too, but also in terms of the laws, I was just feeling like I might get snatched away from my kids just for moving around with some herb. Or I might have to be in court, missing out on business and opportunity. So I had to separate myself from it. I went on a 10-year hiatus to get some discipline, avoid certain unnecessary shit with police stopping you and digging in your pockets. It was a good thing to do – if you’ve been smoking since you were a teenager, just to have some time to clear your lungs out. But I did that, and said, “Well, where should ganja fit in my life?” In a balanced way. In a way that I feel like I’m not abusing it, but am able to experience the benefits of it.
I’ve come full circle with respecting the plant. I respect the discipline and I respect the bliss-ipline of the plant.
What Can We Expect From dead prez's New Album?
RONIT PINTO: Can you speak to the relationship between spirituality and music in regards to the new album? There was a recent Instagram story you did where everyone was sitting around the table talking about that.
STIC: We were talking with one of our mentors, Alan Floyd. He’s part of our collective and in our new dead prez venture with Umi. Sean C is there too. It’s a lot of us working together to bring it to light. But we were talking about the frequencies of music, the tones and how the scientific evidence of different vibrations and tones invoke different feelings and moods and states of mind. You can look it up – it’s called cymatics, the organizing principle of sound. It’s all connected. Everything is vibration.
This is the conversation we were having, how the Earth was formed. In cymatics, if you put sand or powder on top of a speaker and you hit an 8-0-8, boom, like that, the sand will form in a structure like a snowflake or something. You do it again, it’ll form a different one. People said that’s how the Earth was formed, because the sound that is the pulse of the Earth, the vibrations holding the Earth, is what made the mountains ripple. That informed how it was formed when it was in its early [development]. We were asking ourselves how we can tap into that insight and make choices for the music.
We want to do 432 hertz, as opposed to the regular 440, because of how it affects us on a cellular level. So part of how we’re going about this project is considering these kinds of things. It’s not just the surface level of the music, but it’s the medicine and the recipe of the medicine of the music too. We’re exploring that and as young musicians still –
UMI: Music scientists!
STIC: So the new project is going to be layered with a lot of things we’ve been studying and sharing in a way that we hope could have the best impact.
RONIT: That’s full circle to hip hop, right? It started out as revolutionary, conscious hip hop versus the violence and detrimental system. But now we’re almost talking about the evolution of quantum leaps, and contributing to the evolution of humanity.
M1: Hip hop is a continuation of a culture that continues to thrive and not succumb to the most treacherous kind of stuff that’s been laid out to trappers. We could have been gone, you know what I mean? All of us could have been gone. There could have been stories that we could tell from behind enemy lines; we could literally be writing songs to get us out of jail. Then a lot of times America feels like jail to those who are restricted in that way. So we definitely feel akin to the people struggling… and we do indeed know it’s not about us. We are conduits for bigger voices than us. Hopefully our ancestors resonate through the songs that we make, so that when we say all the shit we’re saying, it’s making sense for generations of people, not just here in the present.
And I just want to bring the ancestors into the building, because it felt like the moment to talk about the culmination of what Stic is saying, and the full science of why we’re doing what we are doing, because it’s far beyond us. I would love for us to project a greatness that we know we are going to come into. I choose my words wisely because words are empowered. I try not to choose negative words. Living in our power, becoming who we truly are, actualizing, manifesting, those are the words that matter most to me.
STIC: Absolutely. We want to open up the conversation. Like, what is a song, what is a verse, what is a hook? Is a mantra a hook or a chorus? Why do those things have similarities and repetition? Why does rhyme stick to the memory more than what doesn’t rhyme?
M1: It’s effective.
STIC: Life is rhyme. Rhyme is repetition of the vibration, the sound… and it’s a spiral, right? So [the Universe] is all connected and the more people understand just uttering certain sounds is a remote control for different states. In Qigong [and] yoga, they teach this. Ommm. If that ain’t the 8-0-8, are we woke? That “om,” it’s the same vibration. The closer we can bridge that gap is going to be powerful, ‘cause we are the antenna and we can tune our frequencies. All our chakras at will, as we practice and connect all these ancient things. So the album is in some ways trying to embody that science. Just like herb. You don’t have to know the molecular structure of THC. You just have to –
M1: Get high.
STIC: (Laughs) And it do what it do.
A version of this article was originally published in Honeysuckle's 16th print edition. Click here to get your copy now!