For the past three months I’ve wracked my brain over what to say about Rebel Diaz’s long-awaited debut album Radical Dilemma. It’s not exactly out of the ordinary among American revolutionaries to say you’re a fan of the group, and that I am. But the stakes are potentially high with an album like Radical Dilemma. After so many mixtapes that relayed a rough urgency around a host of struggles the group identify with, one would hope that a full-fledged album would deliver something on a higher level, a cohesive arc and worldview that dug down into the hip-hop imaginary of post-Great Recession America. A tall order if there ever was one.
One concern that arose in my own head prior to the album’s release is whether they would include their boom-stomp reimagining of Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” Given that it was simultaneously the track that put Rebel Diaz on many radars and yet was also somewhat played out after all these years, would there be room for it on Radical Dilemma? They deliver an impressive answer; not only is “Which Side” included on the album, but they’ve recorded a new version featuring guest appearances by dead prez and Dilated Peoples’ Rakaa Iriscience. It doesn’t disappoint.
Still, it has been difficult to pin-point exactly what makes this album stand apart. The lyrics are clever but also of a suitably blunt nature. You can definitely picture RodStarz and G1 delivering them on street-corners. And indeed, many of us have. I remember in particular during the height of Occupy Chicago, when I was first helping assemble what would become the Rebel Arts Collective, introducing Rod and G to perform a capella before we attempted to take Grant Park. Naturally, they killed it.
Remembering this is when it finally clicked. There are a great many dilemmas that the group are referring to on Radical Dilemma, but the one that sticks out is one that is perpetually hidden in plain sight: In an era when the hip-hop industry is so hegemonic, when rebellion is so easily turned into money, how do artists of any true revolutionary consciousness relate to their audience in a way that is as engaging as it is uncompromising? How does one make the aesthetic of rebellion genuinely rebellious and not just a gimmick?
These questions are partially answered by walking the walk as well as talking the talk. We take the words of Rebel Diaz or Boots Riley or Tom Morello as genuine because they have walked the picket lines and marched alongside us. But Riley and Morello have also made art that occasionally faltered in its aims; that put the politics before the art and as a result missed the mark on both. They’ve been rare instances, but they have happened.
What prevents those moments from being few and far between on Radical Dilemma is the layered connection between the lyrics and beats. DJ Illanoiz has been proven to be a crucial part of the group here. Just as the words sound like they could be soapboxed effortlessly to the listener, so does the album’s audio make it seem as if the world itself springs from the cracks in the pavement.
The first full song, “Revolution Has Come,” takes more than just its title from the Black Panthers. The track’s swaying flute and smoky guitars are accompanied by generous sampling from Bobby Seale expounding on fascism in America. Without these elements, it’s not hard to imagine Rod and G’s lyrics feeling somewhat rootless. As they stand here we’re reminded that there’s something being built upon here.
“Revolution Has Come” ends, appropriately enough, with a sample of Tupac explaining his views on violence. The Panther-hip-hop connection isn’t lost here; it’s also not lost through the short track “The Origins” two thirds of the way through the album, sampling Afrika Bambaataa expounding upon the way the Black Power movement lives on through hip-hop culture.
Describing all this in an article may appear old hat. After all, who doesn’t know at least a little bit about these lineages in this day and age? A year ago those connections bubbled to the surface once again when the Obama administration added Assata Shakur to the FBI’s Most Wanted list. That seems all the more reason to connect the dots as boldly as possible though; and even more so to present the two ends as emerging from the same urge for basic freedom.
That those connections are being actively uprooted hits home right now, particularly for Rebel Diaz themselves. Gentrification in the group’s home base of the Bronx is reaching a fever pitch right now. This past fall saw the final elimination of the graffiti mecca at 5 Pointz. Rebel Diaz’s own arts collective space was evicted and shut down just about a year ago. One wouldn’t know it from the mainstream discourses, but at the grassroots, hip-hop is under a state of siege in Obama’s America.
What Radical Dilemma affirms, however, is that those roots run deep. That even if our infrastructures of dissent are barely skeletal, what persists is the notion itself. That it can persist even when the other side has the upper hand shows how much it has soaked into the fabric of our world. Revolution, after all, isn’t just a matter of political ideas, strategies and tactics. It’s about making possible a full reimagining of everything we see around us. With our communities, resources and the planet itself being shoved to the brink, that kind of imagination is probably more important than ever.
Published at Red Wedge