self released, 2011, CD & DD album, 55m 1s
£8 (CD) £5+ (DD)
Political music takes many forms. Music that subverts conventional aesthetics can be political without any overtly political content, because it calls into question a hegemonic ideology that is as much a mechanism of control as any law. Widespread notions of musical ‘quality’ serve to keep musical production and activity in the hands of an elite whose membership is in the gift of a few very wealthy individuals; such structures operate in every area of our culture and society, and any refusal of them is a revolutionary act. Of course, the alternative, and more widespread view, is that formally experimental, avant-garde art perpetuates cultural elitism, and yields its meanings only to those with the requisite cultural capital. I disagree: cultural capital is ours for the taking, and we can take it precisely by avoiding the mass appeal of received aesthetics, and finding the stuff that appeals directly to us as individuals. Avant-garde art is a specialist interest, but we live increasingly in a world of overlapping special interests, and that diversity is the cultural wealth of our species. Verbal Terrorists inhabit an area of special interest (underground hip-hop), but they also employ an accessible creative language: their politics are overt, and the aim of their formal approach is clear, explicit communication. This is a crew with a message, and their medium is appropriately easy to decode.
The most sophisticated formal aspect of The War On Terra is its playful cut-and-paste of politicians’ words to create statements that they would never make, but which sound closer to the truth than anything they say. In fact, the album’s title is the prime example of this strategy, but on reflection, this is the core practice of hip-hop, which has always subverted the found materials of a generic urban environment, be they blank walls reclaimed with graffiti, anonymous public spaces reclaimed by breakdancers, or commercial records re-purposed by DJs. This is an inherently subversive, politically significant process, even when its actors are still fully engaged in the mass market and consumerism; that many hip-hop artists don’t question their own ideology, and espouse violently homophobic and misogynist views, makes their work no less anti-establishment. Verbal Terrorists are extremely self-aware however, and their literal meanings all reinforce and support their metaphorical power. This is a rigorously inclusive album, that recognises how much everyone would benefit from a redistribution of power. Its beats are powerful, bass-heavy affairs, with clear affinities for reggae and electro, and its flows are rapid fire, sounding sometimes as though there is just so much to say that they had a job to fit it all in.
If, like me, you share Verbal Terrorists’ belief that a ‘war … is being waged upon the Earth, its inhabitants and its resources by the predatory capitalist system’ (from the sleeve notes), then it shouldn’t take much to get your head nodding and your fist pumping to this. This stirs the soul and brings out the righteous in the same way as roots reggae (and without requiring me to set aside the fact that I don’t believe in God or want to move to East Africa); ‘let me see you bounce to this/ raise your left hand and clench your fist’ says the refrain to ‘Viva La Terrorista’, and I have to admit I can’t listen to the track without doing precisely that. This is rabble rousing music of the best kind, that gives its rabble credit for being able to think for themselves; in fact, that’s what it’s rousing them to do. ‘Thoughts must flow like the Forth, Thames, Tyne or the Humber/ before we can rise from the slumber/ … gotta know that you’re sleeping before you can wake/ no more time for ignoring it mate’ they tell us in ‘Dreamer’. Verbal Terrorists’ agenda is to promote awareness, critical analysis, autonomy and independent direct action; they don’t shy away from telling us what they think we all need (‘we need grass roots democracy/ starting from now/ … /rather than bow to the monarchy/ we need a policy/ of redistribution of wealth enforced properly’ from ‘The Solution’, for example), but what they really want is for everyone to grasp the nettle of defining their own needs. They have learned the lesson, repeated endlessly over the past two centuries or so, that hierarchical solutions to problems of disempowerment and inequality simply generate their own rebranded hegemonies; horizontal networks are a lot easier to envisage in our newly interconnected world, and I think they’re probably easiest of all for independent and DIY musicians to see at this exact historical moment, but I’m still very pleased and surprised to hear a hip-hop crew stating the case so directly. Verbal Terrorists could take the hammer and sickle out of their logo for my money, but the anarchy sign is exactly where it should be.
The production on this album takes a back seat to the lyrics and the message, but it’s worth listening to closely, with lots of nice details, and unexpected samples; more than one of the producers uses the device of whipping out all the chordal and textural stuff at the start of a verse, letting the beat come down really heavy and drive the words home harder. The fact I’ve said so little about it (and about the individual MCs) is a tribute to how well it does its job. The War On Terra is all about the message, and it’s all about people coming together in collective action to make something happen, not about a number of creative individuals strutting their stuff competitively. It’s a listenable and enjoyable album, simply as a piece of hip-hop, although perhaps a little on the wordy side, with compelling beats and exciting flows, but as a statement, as a call to arms, as a message of empowerment and a manifesto in musical form, it’s really fucking inspiring.