My view on hip hop/rap changed completely after I heard Immortal Technique for the first time. Before that fateful evening, my interests in the genre were not fervent or far-reaching. I liked a couple of songs and only a few artists appealed to me as a teenage white male. It was but a passing acquaintance.
Then, one night in my first year of university, I was hanging out in my next-door neighbour Josh’s dorm room. He was an avid hip hop fan, and whilst I was there, decided to play this song called ‘Dance With The Devil’. All he said was “just listen to this, dude”. No introduction…
6 minutes, 50 seconds later, and both of us just sat there, staring at the walls in dead silence. The song had consumed all of my emotions, and I couldn’t speak. Very rarely have I ever experienced that sense of shock after hearing a song, before or since that moment. Immortal Technique captivated me, and I needed to hear more.
Immortal Technique (one person, real name Felipe Coronel) is a rapper with substance. Too often nowadays, over-saturated commercial radio dumbs down genres of music so that they’re suitable to be spoonfed to the masses. Sadly, hip hop suffers greatly from this problem, and many potential fans, especially white people (in my opinion), are put off by what is in the popular consciousness. I continue to feel that way too, but after my exposure to artists like I-T, I’ve learnt to dig deeper and find what alternative, often underground, hip hop has to offer.
Since he remains underground (i.e. not signed to any major record label), Immortal Technique is free to spout forth whatever he feels like saying, with intense passion and fervor, and some subject matter that most mainstream artists wouldn’t dare touch. Being of Afro-Peruvian heritage, having been born in a military hospital in Peru’s capital Lima, he feels a close bond with the Central and South American nations, as well as the Latino community at large. He grew up in Harlem, New York and saw much of the street life that is mentioned in most hip hop songs. However, the dangerous life he lived in his teenage years caught up with him, and he spent a year in jail for multiple assault-related offenses after his short time at university.
His time in incarceration was when he started to write down his thoughts, hone his songwriting skills, and begin to research Latin American history. Once out of jail, he pursued hip hop, and soon his reputation become one of a ‘battle MC’ – one who is known for his skills in defeating others in freestyle rap battles. He has taken much of this ferocious style of rapping, and channelled it into three studio albums (Revolutionary,Vol. 1 & 2, and The 3rd World, all released between 2001 and 2008), as well as many mixtapes, which have captured live freestyles and song fragments in stream-of-consciousness form.
On the surface, Immortal Technique comes off as a rabid pit bull, barking out caustic verses, that at a superficial level, could come across as just for shock value. But very soon, one realises that his rhymes are extremely intelligent, well-written and diverse. His songs touch on a range of topics, such as politics & the government, crime, free speech, love, socio-economics, empowerment of the powerless, world history, poverty, the music industry and propaganda. Others just showcase his ridiculously good skills on the mic, as he battle-raps a generic foe, schooling the fool with hilarious, ballsy and brutal rhymes. When such potent lyrics are delivered with a rugged flow like his, each track is like a slap in the face, urging you to wake up and take a look at the world around you.
The proof is in the pudding, and I-T delivers it in lethal amounts. I’ve cherry-picked some of his best:
On ‘The 4th Branch’, he hypothesizes that the media is the fourth branch of the government (after the executive, legislative and judicial ones), and controls how we as the population think:
“It’s like MK-ULTRA, controlling your brain
Suggestive thinking, causing your perspective to change
They wanna rearrange the whole point of view of the ghetto
The fourth branch of the government, want us to settle
A bandana full of glittering, generality
Fighting for freedom and fighting terror, but what’s reality?
Read about the history of the place that we live in
And stop letting corporate news tell lies to your children”
Over a delicate guitar-driven arrangement, he speaks of moving on from past mistakes in ‘Leaving The Past’ (a good song of his to start with):
“You swallow propaganda like a birth control pill
sellin’ your soul to the eye on the back of the dollar bill
But that will never be me, ‘cos I am leavin’ the past
like an abused wife with the kids, leavin’ your ass
Like a drug addict clean and sober, leavin’ the stash
unbreakable, Technique leavin’ the plane crash
I’m out with the black box and I refuse to return
I spit reality, instead of what you usually learn
and I refuse to be concerned with condescending advice
‘cos I am the only motherf***er that could change my life”
Tech assumes the role of a hip hop martyr in the riveting ‘Internally Bleeding’, with some powerful, poignant, disturbing yet profound messages. Once again, I’ll let his lyrics do the talking:
“My mother told me that placing my faith in God was the answer
But then I hated God, ‘cos he gave my mother cancer
Killing us slow like the Feds did to the Blank Panthers
The genesis of genocide is like a Pagan religion
Carefully hidden, woven into the holidays of a Christian
I had a vision of nuclear holocaust on top of me
And this is prophecy, the words that I speak from my lungs
The severed head of John the Baptist speaking in tongues
Like Che Guevara, my soliloquies speak to a gun
Paint in slow motion, like trees that reach for the sun”
In addition to philosophical rants like the above two, he weaves together intricate narratives on a few of what I think are his standout tracks. ‘Peruvian Cocaine’ is a grandiose, character-driven portrait of how cocaine travels from South to North America. Each verse features a different character, as well as rapper (all together seven), in the story, right from the lowly worker in the fields, and through the path of drug dealers, border officials and undercover cops. It’s on-par with Eminem in terms of story-telling ability, and delivers a thought-provoking message too.
Then there are the double-header jaw-droppers: ‘You Never Know’ and the afore-mentioned ‘Dance With The Devil’. Both tug at the heartstrings; the former gently and tearfully as I-T bares his soul for a bit and falls in love (“the type of Latina I’d sit and contemplate marriage with“), and the latter metaphorically wrenching those strings like a rock ‘n roll guitarist.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this recommendation/discussion: THAT song. I’d hate to ruin the surprise of the ending, but it follows the story of a young man’s descent into the darkness of gangster life. The beat is as cold as the character William’s heart, complete with a haunting piano loop that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. Tech delivers each line with an urgent precision, and hopefully by the end of it, you as the listener have learnt as much from it as the rapper himself has. This is his magnum opus.
Unwrapping his music is like peeling apart an onion; a very large and layered one. I hope that by peeling away the first few layers, you have been enticed into going deeper into the music of one hip hop’s true revolutionaries. He maintains the spirit that much of early hip hop was founded on: story-telling, social awareness and an emphasis on wordplay and performance.
Immortal Technique: an MC and poet that I believe can be spoken of in the same hushed tones as the likes of Biggie, Tupac and Eminem…
Viva La Revolución!
Recommended listening (in this order, too, if you think that you might be inclined to get scared away!):
- ‘Caught In A Hustle’ (from Black Cargo Mixtape)
- ‘Leaving The Past’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
- ‘The 4th Branch’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
- ‘Peruvian Cocaine’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
- ‘The Prophecy’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 1)
- ‘Internally Bleeding’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
- ‘Industrial Revolution’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
- ‘The 3rd World’ (from The 3rd World)
- ‘You Never Know’ (from Revolutionary, Vol. 2)
- ‘Dance With The Devil (from Revolutionary, Vol. 1)