How crucial an influence were the Watts Prophets on hip-hop? Put it this way: Not too many poets have been sampled by both Digable Planets and Dr. Dre.
A West Coast version of NYC's Last Poets, the Watts Prophets emerged out of South Central Los Angeles' pre-Crip bohemian arts scene in the late '60s -- a crucial time for African-Americans. The civil rights movement, the assassination of Malcolm X, the rise of the Black Panther Party, the mire of the Vietnam War, and the Watts riots all resulted in an acute level of social awareness, as well as a need to define both cultural identity and community responsibility. Gravitating toward a tell-it-like-it-is, pro-black ideology, the Watts Prophets were among the first raptivists, "rappin' black" before hip-hop was considered a genre.
But while the Last Poets' seminal contribution to rap is well documented, the Watts Prophets have remained somewhat obscure until very recently, when their long-out-of-print albums Rappin' Black in a White World and On the Street in Watts were reissued as Things Gonna Get Greater: The Watts Prophets 1969-1971. This reissue takes you back to a time when folks cared about the distinctions between a "black man" and a "nigger," and you criticized the shortcomings of your own people as forcefully as you decried police brutality.
The Watts Prophets don't use the n-word with an "a" -- a later distinction brought on by the advent of the Hip-Hop Generation. In their worldview, a "nigger" is an ignorant, brainwashed person of color, a step down on the evolutionary ladder from a "black man," or enlightened African American.
That's all par for the Afro-pick course, but how relevant are the Watts Prophets in this day and age? The militant rage of the Black Power era has all but disappeared, and cries of Afrocentric activism have been rendered obsolete by down-ass white boys like Paul Wall and über-niggers like 50 Cent, whose entire image is based on a hyper-exaggerated, super-macho blaxploitation stereotypes -- he's a drug dealer-turned-rapper with corporate sponsorship deals, the son of Shaft and Superfly, but without any pathos or emotional substance.
To answer that question, C2tE has enlisted the help of Brother Los and Rashidi, aka the Oakland crew Company of Prophets, whose new album Done Deal mixes street sensibilities and social consciousness, much like the Watts Prophets did 35 years ago. These new-school Prophets have been part of the Yay Area's "conscious rap" scene for a minute; while they share styles with groups like Zion-I and Lunar Heights, on Done Deal the Prophets expand their sound to include multicultural elements such as reggaetón, and though you wouldn't exactly call them turfed-out, they are surprisingly turf-aware -- possibly a carryover from Los' work as program director at Youth Movement Records.
While both Los and 'Shidi are aware of the Last Poets, neither has heard their SoCal counterparts before. It doesn't take long, however, before they are fully immersed in the Watts Prophets' poetical -- and often political -- proselytizing. From the first song, "Sell Your Soul," they're captivated by the words, attitude, and flavor. When the movement politics tribute "Dem Niggers Ain't Playing" came on, the Company marvels at the background vocal arrangements and sheer verbal gravitas of Watts members Amde Hamilton, Richard Dedeaux, Otis O'Solomon, and Dee Dee McNeil. As McNeil's soulful singing and piano playing wafts through "What Is a Man," Los and 'Shidi praise the "melodic nature" and "literal-ness" of the Prophets' imagery.
"I'm really digging the way they deal with things with such complexities," Los notes, an odd statement considering the material's simplicity: raw, nearly naked poetic segments (enhanced with call-and-response repetition of key phrases) linked by sparse musical backing, which provides just enough contrast to let the words really sink in. Are you a black man or are you a nigger?, the Watts crew queries on "Hello Niggers." It was meant as a serious question, but it's delivered with such emphasis that it's almost comedic now, like one of Chris Rock's Nat X routines from his SNL days. A full 35 years after the fact, the words still resonate with shock, even if the distinction is now almost moot.
"Now the debate isn't so much about whether black folks are niggers," Los explains. "It's a question about why so many other people are calling themselves niggers, you know what I'm saying? But it's like, sociologically, who is a nigger, now, in 2006?" Nowadays it seems like everyone wants to be ignorant and unenlightened, yet freedom, justice, and equality have yet to be fully realized where black folks are concerned. For that reason, 'Shidi concludes, the Watts Prophets' messages are "maybe even more relevant" now than they were back in the day.
On "Everybody Watches," for instance, the Prophets examined the mentality of a black woman who thought she was sophisticated, but lacked full racial consciousness. "I like how he said Let me stop highsiding and tell you about her mind," 'Shidi observes. "And at the end, she didn't have one. I like the way it came back around." The song's message reminds Los of Tupac's "Brenda's Got a Baby," so much so that "if you were mixing [records], you could go right from one to the other," he says. "That was cold, though," he adds with a laugh. "That's not supposed to be on a record. That's inside talk."
The contemporary parallels don't stop there. One of Things Gonna Get Greater's deepest statements comes on "A Pimp," where the Watts Prophets break down the sociological and psychological reasons why a black man would want to be a pimp, but then flip the script by suggesting pimps should buy firearms rather than Cadillacs. And after McNeil -- an obvious precursor to Ladybug Mecca or Lauryn Hill -- slips inside the mind of a hooker on "The Prostitute," 'Shidi reminisces on his days working at juvenile hall, interacting with young hos so clueless to their own oppression, they referred to their pimps as their "boyfriends."
Los, meanwhile, related strongly to "Fucked," another poem so serious it's almost funny. "I love that word," he explains. "When it's used well, it's a thing of art. It takes me back to the Last Poets, who said Niggers would fuck fuck if it could be fucked. Until I heard this, I think that may have been my favorite 'fuck' quote."
Ultimately, the Watts Prophets' sociopolitical commentary remains highly controversial to this day, especially when you consider that Kanye West was the only high-profile black artist to speak out about the Bush government's lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina, or the irony of living in an era when former crack dealers have six-figure endorsement deals with multinational corporations. But what's perhaps most significant about the Watts Prophets is they weren't so easily limited to predictable "off the pigs/kill whitey" sentiments. They used the n-word casually, but not as a term of endearment. Although the burning embers of the Watts rebellion echoed in their verses, it's clear they were "rappin' facts" about a revolution of the mind -- which may never be televised, but still might one day be realized.
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