There was a time in hip-hop when African medallions and braided hair were not just fashion accessories but expressions of a larger movement. Think back to when KRS-One rapped about Akebulan. Think back to a time when the Jungle Brothers were seen as musical trendsetters. Think back to a time when the colors red, black and green were the three most important things a rap artist could talk about. “Back to the Motherland” was in and jheri curl juice was out. For a brief period hip-hop was consumed by a largely non-violent, pro-black spirituality that was as bohemian as it was educational. Even those such as X-Clan who took the dawning of Afrocentricity in hip-hop and made it militant unintentionally converted whites who either “dug the rap” or embraced the counter-cultural opportunity to distance themselves from a Eurocentric culture with suburban values. White kids wearing dashikis? Hell yes. Now admittedly this was a sign to some people Afrocentricity had gone too far. At its peak there were definitely people who wore the beads and talked the talk without ever studying the rich and diverse culture of the African continent or how both the Middle Passage and European colonization left permanent scars on its history; in other words, poseurs.
By the time Arrested Development hit it big with their bohemian brand of rapping, singing and black pride the backlash had already begun. Looking like an extra from “A Different World” was out, wearing baggy shirts and sagging pants was in. Hip-Hop rebelled against having too much positivity shoved down their throats and got negative with a vengeance. Malt liquor was the drink of choice and gang colors took the place of African garb. Gangsta rap was always one of the many voices hip-hop had, but overnight it seemed to become the SOLE voice to the definite exclusion of Afrocentricity. A.D. frontman Speech found his group out on a limb trying to be proponents of a movement all but abandoned save for academics and die-hards. When they released the song “Revolution” for the Malcolm X soundtrack the pendulum swung back hard and cut that limb right off of the tree. When their second studio album “Zingalamaduni” flopped in 1994 a collective “so what” shrug was given as the harder styles epitomized by Snoop Dogg and the Wu-Tang Clan took shit over. The funny thing is that even though the group broke up, Speech never gave up. Sadly neither his self-titled 1996 solo debut nor the 1999 follow-up “Hoopla” made much of a dent. In defiance of the increasingly vapid materialism and conspicuous consumption which became a parody unto itself, Speech stayed true to his roots no matter how well it sold.
Some artists go with the flow, and some stand firm and let the ocean waves break around them, unbent and unswayed. Speech’s “Vagabond” puts him firmly in the latter category, proving that he may value his political beliefs and artistic truths more than putting food on the table – which in 2006 is about as Afrocentric as hip-hop is going to get. The posse-all-in opener “Braided Hair” featuring Neneh Cherry and 1 Giant Leap is a defiant throwback to the 1992 era of “3 Years, 5 Months…” and a big FUCK YOU to so many of today’s rappers who stand for little other than increasing their wealth. Of course Speech doesn’t phrase it that coarsely – in fact the production is so smooth and Speech’s rap singing style so warm and embracing you might miss the deeper agenda between the lines:
“From the same dirt, from the hills of my ancestors
The naked rows and the fields where the pain festered
I wonder where the hole came from
In the deeps of my heart, make me yearn for the drum
It’s the same place where the crosses burned
The same place where the loss was earned
It’s the place where the floss was yearned
Gold teeth and bling ice on the rings baby sure
But they’re just the things that make us real
Not the maps to guide where we go from here
The road twists and braids our hair
Until we all get there”
It should be noted though that this song is not exactly debuting as new on “Vagabond,” nor is a lot of the material presented within. Some is culled from the obscure 2002 Speech album “Down South Produckshuns,” including the aforementioned song, while others are from the even more obscure 2003 release of “Peechy.” There’s new material to be sure but you’d be hard-pressed to figure out what is and what isn’t just by looking at the CD, let alone the inner folds of the package which double as liner notes. Ultimately it’s more important just for him to get the material out in wider release, as its going to be new to anyone who didn’t hear it before now anyway. One still has to wonder if new material such as a cover of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” is really going to connect with hip-hop fans. How many of them will even understand what “Jai Guru Deva Om” means? Thankfully songs like “Gone Away” are much more accessible – this one being a personal lament for his brother Terry who passed away at 29.
“Since you’ve been gone, gone away
My soul has been blue, my skies have been grey
Since you’ve been gone, it ain’t the same
Since you’ve gone away
I bet you never knew you always pushed me to a higher level
Lookin up to you in every single endeavor
You let me know the type of stock I come from
Could be a fight or gun, you wasn’t the type to run from
nothin; I compare myself to you, or at least contrasted
all the things you tried to do I do the opposite so I can fit
I feel inadequate cause you were so fantastic
at everything you did; when you stood, I’d sit”
To be fair to Speech’s steadfast desire to be an iconoclast in the modern rap era is something he deserves to be proud of. Still at times this album is just so damn bohemian and spacey it’s hard to picture a rap audience getting into it. I hate to crib from a fellow writer’s review but the words that Pedro ‘DJ Complejo’ Hernandez wrote a couple of weeks ago while covering Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere” haunt me listening to songs like “Shine” and “Love” that have more in common with Seal than Scarface, and here’s what he wrote: “A strange and unique album that is more rock and pop than anything most rap fans are used to.” Say word. If you want a dose of hip-hop that’s uncompromising in attitude, musical approach, and political consciousness “Vagabond” will be perfect for you in a very boho-hip sort of way. I suspect the difference between this CD and Gnarls’ is that Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse are trying to crossover by being unconventional and funky, whereas Speech could be accused of being elitist if he wasn’t so soft spoken and sincere in his convictions. Of the two Gnarls is more likely to be commercially successful and in a way that’s a shame; Speech makes fine music that’s unfortunately a little too pop for rap fans and a little too rap to crossover as pop. He seems happy stuck between those grooves, so let’s just let it be.