In a puzzling turn of events, the revolutionary rabble-rousers of Dead Prez ended up on Sony's Columbia division after the label swallowed up Loud Records' roster. The pairing of one of the world's most powerful corporations and one of rap's angriest acts seemed doomed from the start, and Columbia dropped the duo in spite of a rapidly growing following and stacks of rave reviews. At that point, Dead Prez was a hot free agent, but after a bidding war involving everyone from Shady to Roc-A-Fella to Bad Boy, the group's long-delayed new album was snapped up by none other than Columbia.
That long, odd stint in industry limbo helps explain why RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta is conspicuously lacking in post-Sept. 11 commentary. Anyone expecting vitriolic attacks on George W. Bush and the country's sharp swing rightward will be disappointed, but lack of timeliness doesn't mean lack of urgency. Dead Prez's sense of purpose and moral certainty recalls early Public Enemy, but on RBG, the group's anger is joined to a sense of sonic and lyrical sadness over the inequities of a system that crushes those on the bottom.
RBG stands for "Revolutionary But Gangsta," but one of the great things about hip-hop is that words mean whatever the people using them want them to mean. Here, Dead Prez subversively channels the anger, dissidence, and popularity of gangsta rap to socially conscious and productive ends. Combining the hard-edged humanism of The Coup with the Black Panther outlaw cool of Public Enemy, Dead Prez uses its music to proselytize for revolution both internal and external. For Dead Prez, revolution always begins within, with self-discipline and the code of ethics mapped out in the RBG CD bookleta combination of street ethics ("No Snitching") and advice a parent or guidance counselor might dole out ("Be Organized," "Be Productive").
On the anthemic single "Hell Yeah" (Pimp The System)," Dead Prez maps out a Whitman's Sampler of ways to sabotage and exploit capitalism, including the work slowdown, that least glamorous and most passive-aggressive means of resistance. It's a terrific song, and getting Jay-Z to contribute to a remix is a real coup, but the track doesn't necessarily deserve to be on the album three times, especially given RGB's abbreviated running time. Nevertheless, Dead Prez is what it is because it has a strong, authentic voice of rebellion that doesn't equivocate or apologize for its beliefs. In today's musical climate, that's as rare as it is vital.