By Lucien O’Brien
Immortal Technique is a lyrical rapper. Whenever you search up one of his songs on Youtube, the first thing that comes up is always a lyric video. It’s what he’s known for. So considering the fact that the most popular rap song of 2017 consists of a guy repeating the words “Gucci Gang” 50+ times, how exactly does Immortal Technique fit into today’s sphere of hip-hop? I went to First Avenue last Thursday to find out.
Introduced by one of his numerous hype guys as “the man behind the Third World”, Immortal Technique had no time for small talk at any point in his songs or the spaces between them. He put his all into the performance, pointedly addressing topics ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“This ain’t about religion, Muslim, Jew or Christian/It’s about people making money off of that division”) to the drug trade in his native country of Peru (“I’m on the border of Bolivia, working for pennies/Treated like a slave, the coca fields have to be ready”). While I don’t agree with all of Tech’s views, particularly his conspiracy theories (yes, 9/11 gave America a convenient “just cause” to invade Afghanistan, and yes, the CIA did fund certain Afghani militant groups in the 80s that later morphed into what is now the Taliban, but that doesn’t mean that you can just jump to the conclusion that “Bush did 9/11”), I do think that he brings up some immensely important issues that aren’t being discussed anywhere else in modern rap, or in any other popular music genre for that matter.
I’d never listened to Immortal Technique before last night’s show. All that I knew about him was based on people making fun of him on the internet. Although a select few actually make valid points (this RationalWiki article points out the most glaring flaws in his rhetoric), most of the criticism tends to fall less on the content of his lyrics and more on the fact that they have any meaningful content whatsoever. See, unlike Tech, who I do admit fits the whole “Old Head” archetype a little too perfectly at times (with lines like “If your message ain’t s***, f*** the records you sold”), I’m fine with dumb rap that you can dance around to and blast out of your car. There’s nothing wrong with fun. But when fans of that style of rap attack people like Tech for making music that has an actual message, problems begin to arise. I realize that this generation is extremely averse to “fake-deep” messages being embedded into their media. Sometimes this can be a good thing. Look how badly Jaden Smith’s debut album flopped this week. But when people shield themselves from pretentiousness so much that they start to block out anything with intellectual value whatsoever, much stands to be lost.
Like it or not, Immortal Technique is an essential part of the rap game. Speaking up on important social issues is a key aspect of hip-hop, and it’s beneficial to the genre as a whole to have someone at its forefront who can do that from not only from a national perspective, but an international perspective as well. I do wish he was treated with more respect by the horde of suburban American teenagers who have brought on the popularization of rap over the past 5-10 years, but I suppose having any sort of expectations tied to those little bastards is a mistake. Whatever. Immortal Technique certainly doesn’t care what they think of him. He knows he’s no “coffee shop revolutionary”—he’s as real as they come.
Fun fact: last night was my first time going to two separate shows in one night! I had already bought a ticket to White Reaper’s 7th Street Entry show far in advance when Rhymesayers Entertainment contacted me about working on the street team campaign for Brother Ali’s show at First Avenue on the same night. I never say no to Rhymesayers, so I promoted the heck out of the Brother Ali show and earned myself a spot on the guest list as usual. I was double booked! However, the nice thing about First Ave and the Entry is that they’re right next to each other (there’s even a little door where you can cross between them), so I figured that I’d try and make both shows—why not?. In the end, I got to see Immortal Technique and White Reaper’s sets in their entirety, but unfortunately, White Reaper went on a little too long (you can read a review of that show here) and I was only able to catch the last six songs or so of Brother Ali’s set. I don’t feel like I have the right to give a show that I only saw ⅓ of a formal review, but that being said, here are a couple thoughts I managed to jot down-
- Up until this show, one problem I’ve always had with Brother Ali’s live sets is his refusal to use curse words. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with clean rap. I love the fact that I’m able to bump some Oddisee in the car without freaking out my parents. The problem with Ali is that he used to swear all the time, so now when he performs songs from any album pre-Mourning In America, they’re filled with awkward little holes where all the swears used to be. I respect and support his decision to go clean, but trying to listen to clean versions of explicit songs is really distracting to me. It’s like trying to have a conversation with an old friend who, in the time since you last saw them, decided to shave off their eyebrows. You aren’t thinking about the conversation. You’re thinking about how weird they look without any goddamn eyebrows. Anyway, the last 2 times I saw Ali, the only clean album that he had intentionally recorded that way was Mourning In America, which I didn’t particularly care for. Now that he’s touring behind All the Beauty in This Whole Life—one of my favorite albums of this year—he performs less radio-edit versions of his old stuff/Mourning In America stuff and more of his fresh, new, clean-by-nature All the Beauty in This Whole Life jams. This change did a lot to smooth out my overall experience.
- Of the three times I’ve seen Brother Ali live, this was my favorite. I guess I was just in a great mood from having a wild night with my friends and from discovering my love of show-to-show hopping. Plus there was the thing I mentioned earlier about not getting distracted by cleaned up songs. But it was more than that—the energy in the room was just so positive. Whenever Ali told the crowd to “say love!”, I never hesitated to yell “LOVE” right back at him at the top of my lungs. Good vibes all around.