I was warned. Immortal Technique was going to be a difficult man to interview. However, when I sat down with the legendary rapper backstage at Rock The Bells in Holmdel, New Jersey, I found nothing but an insightful, intelligent, and loyal artist and activist.
Peruvian by birth but raised a Harlemite, this emcee has focused his time not only making politically and socially-representative music, but on making the world a better place; he's helped open an orphanage in Afghanistan, he's done charity work in Haiti, he's spoken out about his experience in prison to inmates...the list goes on. Not only does he speak candidly in his music about what's going on in the world, but he actually attempts to make a difference.
Unfortunately, the stage where he was to perform that evening was closed due to inclement weather; his performance was canceled. However, as a treat for the crowd at the other stage, he came on and freestyled for about ten minutes before J. Cole, which, if you ask me, was the first sight of sunshine on a rained-out Day 2 of Rock The Bells.
Artists today arguably rely mostly on social media to promote themselves. What do you think about music, specifically hip hop, collabing with social media?
I think it's huge that artists now have the opportunity to connect with all of the people that love their music and made their music famous. Obviously, some people had a little bit of difficulty with social media; you saw some people take things very personally, and you find a lot of other artists that are very sensitive toward criticism of their work. I think because I came from the underground and therefore had a lot more experience with social media before I had any modicum of success, I take it with a grain of salt. You know, I read YouTube comments to laugh, not to get a clear and concise picture of what I'm doing right and wrong. Artists are naturally sensitive people that have had to create something out of nothing...most of them. Some of them already have the shit written for them. But the majority of artists have to be sensitive people; they're drawing in from their environment to retell their experience so that naturally creates somebody that feeds off the energy that's given to them. If all the energy is negative, or if someone says "I hope this nigga dies," obviously you're going to feel some kind of way. But you have to look at the positive aspect of it, which to me is the ability to inform people about new projects, to show people where you're going to be, and to make it easier for them to schedule the time they have to meet up with you or to get on with their motherfucking lives if they don't like you.
What do you think of the shit that's out there now? Are you liking anything that's popular right now?
Popular is a very loose term, but there are some talented people out there. This new generation of hip hop that's performing now and that's just emerging from the woodwork, they're very concept based from what I've seen, which is dope, but it's obviously a less aggressive rap than we're normally used to. Not everything can be "murder, murder, kill, kill." Hip hop needs some diversity too, so I'm glad to see that. The hood will always be represented in hip hop in some way, shape, or form. I look forward to seeing today's talent move forward independently.
In the documentary, "The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique," you said that hip hop brings people together, no matter what race, social standing, or background. Is this still true with the hip hop that's out there today? Where do you think hip hop is going and in your eyes, where should it go?
Where is it going? It's obviously going to splinter a little bit more. There are people that have decided to come up with their own versions of it, whether it's regional, sound-wise, or a somewhat different format of hip hop that's going to keep expanding. Obviously, a few of them won't make it. Like any evolutionary chain, there are some freaks of nature that are meant to hang on for a few thousand years and then go into extinction, so that's how some of these people's music is going to be, on some disco shit. Then there's some people that are going to break into something else completely and evolve it into something different. Regardless, even those styles of music that don't get the 100% followthrough are still going to be used as pieces to put together another puzzle which will be the evolution of the art form. I'm hoping that it evolves into something that doesn't forget to address the problems that it originally started with; things that happened in the inner-city ghetto, the way poverty has no color. People can't look at you and guess where you're from, they don't know what kind of life you live or if your community was full of drugs and horrible violence. I think that hip hop always maintained that sort of reporting-live-from-the-streets attitude, and I hope it never loses that.
Who was an inspiration to you when you were young, musically, historically, or otherwise?
Musically, wow. Rakim, KRS-one, Kool G Rap, of course Public Enemy, Dead Prez. Organized Confusion, I like them too. Brand Nubian. I like Boot Camp always have, always had a gritty New York sound. It's funny, I always tell them, we used to perform such horrible music with their music playing in the background. I feel bad about that! [laughs] I mean, nobody died! Then it would be a fucked up story to tell, but a lot of people got hurt and a lot of dumb shit happened. All the while, we had "Bucktown" playing in the background. It was another life. But I grew up listing to a lot of classic stuff and it was definitely the age of independence. I got a chance to see that contrast and that difference, and much more importantly, something that helped me a lot in the development of who I am today, I saw the difference between how the golden era was in terms of music and how it was monetarily for those artists, because it wasn't the golden era for them when they were getting ripped off and they had no publishing and Jive, Sony, Def Jam were at their peak eating everybody up. That's not to stay that they didn't contribute to hip hop and help music get out there, but the business model that they gave the rest of the world was bullshit. I think that there's a lot of positive things about it, and I definitely saw a huge influence in terms of music, and in terms of business, definitely the contrast between the way I saw independent hip hop coming up and the way I saw the business of the golden era be stifling to artists; suing over sample clearances and nonsense. Those people are the ones that can give themselves a big fat pat on the back for fucking up the game for everyone else because now we're not sampling anything of yours. Now you broke, old motherfuckers don't have anything to eat when we could have all made money together. Like, 'let's not milk this cow until she dies in the next three days, why don't we keep something going for 30, 40 years?' But I guess that was too much to ask from the greedy music industry. So we circumvent them whenever we can.
How do you feel about being labeled as an outspoken or politically-minded artist?
I'd rather be labeled that than as an ignorant, or whatever colorful words that hip hop journalism...which is an oxymoron in itself because that would actually mean that you have to be perfectly critical and not just do puff pieces on people, which is tough because then you don't get people that come back. Y'all are caught in that crux that prosecutors are where they have to deal with cops; you do business with these niggas all day long so you don't want to offend them too much, because artists are sensitive. You say one word, and someone bursts into tears in their mansion, like 'I don't know if I still got it! Fuck these niggas! Fuck the news media!' [laughs] Look, over the course of all the years that I've been involved in the music of hip hop, the culture of hip hop, I've seen a lot of positive and negative changes. There are things that helped the independence, like the internet or the advent of social media. But I saw a lot of things that hurt it in terms of the marginalization of music, or people trying to split rap up even further. So to me, it doesn't matter so much that people are labeling me one thing or another. Just to be included in the conversation of hip hop is the task now, because it's being white-washed completely. When I say white-washed, I don't mean in reference to race, I mean in reference to what the subject matter is and what it deals with. It's not just party music we're talking about; we're talking about the blues, we're talking about pain and suffering. We're talking about the reality that exists in this game.
Additionally, in "The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique," you were being interviewed by Al Jazeera and you said, "if democracy in the eyes of American people is voting once every four years, then we're really fucked."
I mean, you can't tell me that democracy is voting 25 times in a century and that's where it ends. You have to get yourself involved on a level politically, locally. You have to be let your voice by heard. Honestly, the people who control the society don't control it by much. At some point, people have to get more involved if they want to see things change. If they don't care if things change, then don't get involve, but don't complain when it all fucks up.
How should they get involed?
I would say that before someone tries something that's world-changing, start with something small, something you know that you can accomplish. Something that gives you the self-confidence of reaching a goal while also realizing the amount of work that goes into doing human rights work or doing anything that's charity based. Get to know what you're going to be a part of.
Your activism is unparalleled. Do you have any future plans for work you'd like to do or be a part of?
I would love to do a whole gang of other things. I have so many ideas in the works that I'm waiting to implement. I will be traveling back to Haiti, though. We set up homes for people down there and got them some emergency relief. But what I'd like to do there is not just return and continue the project to build more homes for people; they actually offered to let me teach kids about history of the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, which I'm totally willing to do. That's the responsibility of an artist more than anything else: dealing with what you dealt with and discussing it with others. If you've never had any hardship in your life and niggas handed this to you on a silver platter because you can put words together well, but you ain't never really lived that life, then I guess that you don't have any responsibility. Go get high and have a good time. But if you're actually a real nigga that's been to prison, or you have some real grimy shit that you went through in the drug game or whatever else when you were coming up and you made it through that, you owe it to all the people who didn't make it through that or who are still locked up. You have to tell these young brothers and sisters that it's not a right of passage, that it's nothing but slavery in there, and to change their life and do something different on the outside rather than expecting things to change from the inside out. That's where the responsibility comes in, dealing with shit that you know. If you have no idea about something , then I don't expect you to really be up there talking about it.
Your time in Kabul working on establishing an orphanage, Amin Institute, without any real funding, corporate or otherwise, was a large undertaking. How long were you there for, and what was it like for you?
The trip took a little more than three weeks. The experience was from another world. You see a very culturally diverse country there. You see people that look as white as the whitest white man, and then Arabic looking, and Latino looking. So many different aspects of a human being in terms of their representation through Islam; some of the country is Sunni, some of the country is Shiite. You have some people out there that are honestly trying their very hardest to live in peace, and they feel like they're being occupies by a foreign government. In 1980, didn't we boycott the olympics because the Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan? Now here we are occupying Afghanistan. Of course, our rationale is different; that's what we tell the world, that's how we excuse it. If someone else breaks into someone's house, they're stealing from them. If we break into someone else's house, it's because we want them to be safe...because we don't trust them to be safe with their own knives in the kitchen, we don't trust their kids around them. Your kids might grow up believing in the wrong thing. It's interesting to see the relationship we have with that country and other places in the world. But, I loved it. They were very hospitable. Obviously there were a lot of difficulties and there was some violence that occurred while we were there, but thank God, no one I know got caught in any of that, and the project turned out to be a complete success. We started with about a dozen children, and now we have double that number. It's been very trying, but at the same time, it's been very fulfilling.
Was there a reason you took such a long hiatus after the success of Revolutionary Vol. 2?
I was touring. I did four world tours. Everywhere. And really, I'd been working on a couple of other things, like half of The Martyr was written during that time as well. The Bin Laden stuff wasn't on that, neither was 'Caught in the Hustle.' I did a couple of movie soundtracks, and I bought a farm with some of that money. They was a point where I'd spend 200 days on the road. Anywhere I'd go, I'd do a show.
Do you have a favorite place that you went on tour?
I really had a good time in London, and I'm going to go back there in October.
So the farmland you bought in South America...what drove you to do this?
I was thinking about investments, and if I'd followed the bank's direction, I'd probably have half the money I have now. So I decided to invest in good things: I paid off my parent's mortgage, I put my sister through college, and all of a sudden decided that I was going to get a means of sustenance. What if the stores closed? I want to be able to make my own food myself, natural, fresh, no biological tampering. It worked out well.
How do you feel about all of the gentrification going on uptown? Does it still feel like the Harlem you knew and loved?
No. It's not the same Harlem. I still love it, but it's not the same. Imagine if you married the woman of your dreams, and she started getting old, but instead of growing old gracefully with you, she got a whole bunch of plastic surgery that doesn't look right. You don't look young, bitch, you look fucked up! [laughs] Harlem doesn't look young, it looks fucked up now. Not like, 'oh my God, the streets are clean, there's less crime.' No, 'oh my God, you moved everybody out. You made it unlivable, you raised the rent, you systematically and methodically went after people of color so the property value would raise.' These are slight accusations that have been brought up against [Columbia] University, but I dare them to prove people wrong. That's what it looks like. That's a white-washing. That's a racial white-washing, and it's being done economically, which is very sad. I still feel like it's home, and I don't care what color my next door neighbors are. But, if I lived in a community full of white people and someone else just came in and started preying upon them and taking their land and stealing from them, first of all I'd remind them that they did that to Native American people so they can't be too angry, but second of all, I'd be mad at that shit. You can't just do that to regular people, low income individuals, working families. It doesn't matter where you come from or what skin color you have, that's horrible. Where are these people going to move? Apparently, they have to go to Jersey or the Bronx. But it always feels nice when you cross the Tri-Borough and you're coming home. I don't care what they call it. RFK died a long time ago, God bless him. That's the Tri-Borough bridge. It'll be the Tri-Borough bridge until the day I die. But whenever I see that bridge and I'm coming home, [closes eyes and nods] I feel wonderful.
You once eloquently said that "a revolution is a sacrifice and a responsibility...it's playing a hand in your own destiny." What words can you give to artists or people in general to push forward and make this a reality for themselves or for or with others?
I would tell them to be original more than anything else before they follow a trend because they think it's going to be successful, because when that trend is over, so are you. But if you invent something brand new that just you had a hand in, or that you and your people create, it gives people a window into how you think and how your mind works, and human beings are fascinated by the way other people think. We're constantly trying to connect and answer those questions, "Why? Why do people do things?" Even when somebody kills somebody, we know they killed them, but you have to know the motive. We want to know why. When we're delving into people's minds, I think that people really want answers. So when you create originality and concepts and things that make your artwork interesting, it makes it more of something that people are willing to gravitate toward naturally, more than something you have to market to them and convince them that they need in their life, even though they really don't.