Revolutionary Hip Hop - An Immortal Technique For Change

  • Original publication date: 3 May 2011

"I'm fallin' and I can't turn back"

Amidst the head-nodding beat and haunting piano loop, this Mobb Deep vocal sample eerily foretells the horror of what is to come. It sits unremarkably in the mix, like a stranger you saw at the traffic lights two blocks back. But only now do you realise who he is, and it's too late to do anything about it. You must finish the song.

This was the choice (or lack thereof) I faced when I first confronted Immortal Technique. His aural presence entered my neighbour's dorm room in college like a ghost late one night, with little to no introduction. Josh was an avid hip hop fan; an affable young Kenyan with a big afro and diverse interests in music & art. This time, his recommendation was oddly blunt: "just listen to this".

Six minutes and fifty seconds later, 'Dance With The Devil' mercifully came to its conclusion. We both just sat there, staring at the walls in dead silence. I rewound the song in my mind. Josh waited for a comment from me but I had none at first. This was hip hop unlike what I'd ever heard before, and it shook me. But it also enticed me.

I'll Bring An End To Your Pretender Agenda

Immortal Technique - Performing Live 1

I'll go for broke and say that my view on hip hop changed completely after I first heard Immortal Technique.

Before that fateful evening, my own story lent itself handily to the stereotype of suburban white boy raised on rock and angst; the firstborn pitfaller who had a passing interest in a few hip hop artists and a weak song vocabulary to boot. The little I was exposed to was amusing to me rather than any other feeling. Listening to Eminem's 'My Name Is' fifty times in one weekend as a 10-year-old whilst giggling uncontrollably is a testament to that.

So it wasn't like explicit language, violence, or Parental Advisory stickers on CD's were completely foreign to me. It was the bare-bones production, the bare-faced aggression, and the hunger for meaning beyond the tropes of the mainstream. I just needed to hear some underground hip hop.

Speakin' Is Hard When You Got Strings Attached

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Immortal Technique (one person, real name Felipe Coronel) is one such revolutionary rapper. His songs command the minds who hear them (almost certainly not on corporate commercial radio). He is uncompromising as he is insightful, and for the time being he remains underground - not signed to any major record label, and free to spout forth a manifesto many mainstream artists wouldn't dare touch.

Being of Afro-Peruvian heritage (having been born in a military hospital in Peru's capital Lima), Tech feels a close bond with the Central and South American nations, as well as the Latino community at large. He grew up in Harlem, New York and experienced much of the hard street life that is catalogued or glorified in hip hop songs. However the dangerous life he lived in his teenage years eventually caught up with him, and Tech spent a year in jail for multiple assault-related offenses after his brief period at college.

Tech's time in incarceration was when he started to write down his thoughts, hone his songwriting skills, and begin to research Latin American history. Once out of jail, he pursued hip hop, and soon his reputation become one of a 'battle emcee' - one who is known for his skills in defeating others in freestyle rap battles. Tech has taken much of this ferocious style of rapping and channeled it into three studio albums thus far (Revolutionary, Vol. 1 & 2, and The 3rd World, all released between 2001 and 2008), as well as numerous mix-tape which live freestyles and lyrical beat-downs.

All three Immortal Technique studio albums thus far

All three Immortal Technique studio albums thus far

I Drop Knowledge So Heavy It Leaves The World Unbalanced

At first brush, Immortal Technique appears as rabid as any wannabe gangster rapper, barking out caustic verses, which at a superficial level, could come across as just for shock value. It would be safe to assume this, as his battle-rap persona looms large over much of his music, and that clique can be difficult to understand outside the context of street-side 'cypher' circle.

Immortal Technique - Performing Live 2

Dig deeper beneath the surface stereotypes, and one realises that Tech's rhymes are impactful and intelligent, and read like an activist's archive. His songs touch on a range of topics; he weighs up politics, propaganda, conspiracy theories & free speech, preaches socio-economic theories & empowerment of the powerless, rallies against racism, governments & the music industry, and speaks the truth about crime, love & world history. Others just showcase his ostentatious skills on the mic, as Tech battle-raps a generic foe, schooling the fool with hilarious, ballsy, and brutal rhymes. The combination of dense subject matter and a rugged flow means almost every track hits you like a slap in the face, urging you to wake up and take a look at the world around you.

You want answers? Tech knows you want the truth.

On 'The 4th Branch', he hypothesizes that the media is the fourth branch of the government (after the executive, legislative and judicial ones), and controls how we as the population think:

"It's like MK-ULTRA, controlling your brain
Suggestive thinking, causing your perspective to change
They wanna rearrange the whole point of view of the ghetto
The fourth branch of the government, want us to settle
A bandana full of glittering generality
Fighting for freedom and fighting terror, but what's reality?
Read about the history of the place that we live in
And stop letting corporate news tell lies to your children"

Over a delicate guitar-driven arrangement, he speaks of moving on from past mistakes in 'Leaving The Past':

"You swallow propaganda like a birth control pill
Sellin' your soul to the eye on the back of the dollar bill
But that will never be me, 'cos I am leavin' the past
Like an abused wife with the kids, leavin' your ass
Like a drug addict clean and sober, leavin' the stash
Unbreakable, Technique leavin' the plane crash
I'm out with the black box and I refuse to return
I spit reality, instead of what you usually learn
And I refuse to be concerned with condescending advice
'Cos I am the only motherfucker that could change my life"

Tech assumes the role of a hip hop martyr in the riveting 'Internally Bleeding', with some powerful, poignant, yet disturbing messages:

"My mother told me that placing my faith in God was the answer
But then I hated God, 'cos he gave my mother cancer
Killing us slow like the Feds did to the Blank Panthers
The genesis of genocide is like a Pagan religion
Carefully hidden, woven into the holidays of a Christian
I had a vision of nuclear holocaust on top of me
And this is prophecy, the words that I speak from my lungs
The severed head of John the Baptist speaking in tongues
Like Che Guevara, my soliloquies speak to a gun
Paint in slow motion, like trees that reach for the sun"

My Destiny Is To Show The World That The Music Is Real

As impressive as it is to spit fire with the zeal of an apocalyptic preacher, an emcee of substance needs stronger narratives than just battle-rap rantings which border on the pseudo-philosophical.

When Tech tells tales, these intricate stories stand out as some of his best work. 'Peruvian Cocaine' is a grandiose, character-driven portrait of how cocaine travels from South to North America. Each verse features a different character, as well as rapper, in the story (all together seven). You hear the plight of the lowly worker in the fields, right through a twisted path of drug dealers, border officials, and undercover cops.

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He willingly grapples with the topic of love in the heartbreaking 'You Never Know', baring his soul for "the type of Latina I'd sit and contemplate marriage with" in a way that is honest and suspenseful. The track is so personal to him, a sensitive patchwork of real-life relationships, that it is rarely performed live.

But we reach our final battle in 'Dance With The Devil'. The first hip hop song to truly scare the shit out of me. Why? Because it revealed to me the power of storytelling through rap; how cold, calculated delivery of verse is far more frightening than the monster in the closet.

Tech draws you into this spider's web of deceit and darkness, spinning line upon line about a young man's descent into the depths of gangster life. By the end, you as the listener have learnt as much from the track as the rapper himself has. You've fallen, but you can still turn back - and play it again.

Recommended listening:

  • 'Caught In A Hustle' (from Black Cargo Mixtape)
  • 'Leaving The Past' (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • 'The 4th Branch' (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • 'Peruvian Cocaine' (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • 'The Prophecy' (from Revolutionary, Vol. 1)
  • 'Internally Bleeding' (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • 'Industrial Revolution' (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • 'The 3rd World' (from The 3rd World)
  • 'You Never Know' (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
  • 'Dance With The Devil (from Revolutionary, Vol. 1)