Liberation Won't Be Televised | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Liberation Won't Be Televised 

From Digable Planets to Dead Prez, Liberation's black radical precursors have been locked out from the music industry. Still, this rap group believes they hold the key.

In a quiet Jersey City neighborhood, two cars filled with dreadlocked, cornrowed, Afro-ed and braided black men come to a stop. Nuke Knocka and Tomorrow get out their rented Pontiac Grand Am and meet up with Joe Blak, Young Zee and Franchise, who are in the rented Ford Focus behind them.

The crew is in standard gear: Knocka's wooly 'Fro spreads from below a blue Yankees cap. His oversized matching Yankees jacket is not so large that it covers the waistline of his jeans, which are hovering just above his kneecaps. Franchise has a black fishing cap pulled deep over his eyes, a black hooded-sweatshirt and equally sagging jeans.

Tomorrow rocks a red and black velour Phat Farm sweatsuit and an all-black cap. He takes it off, revealing cornrows and a hairline that recedes back at its left and right edges. If Tomorrow smiles -- and it's seldom -- it looks like his hairline is smiling with him. When he's not smiling, his hairline still protrudes forward like a fist.

Joe Blak wears a black T-shirt that reads "got melanin?" and a red, black and green head bandana and matching wristband. Of the three scruffy beards, his is the scruffiest. His locks fall from underneath the bandana, which itself sits under a black and red St. Louis Stars Negro League ball cap.

Young Zee's hair is braided down in four fat pigtails. At the ends, folded Corona and Heineken beer bottle caps serve as barrettes. With his charcoal black Tims and jeans he wears a black Dickies hardware shirt, the back of which reads "R.B.G's For Life" around an assault rifle and a crossed capital letter "Z". ("R.B.G." stands for "revolutionary but gangsta," a slogan coined by rap group Dead Prez.)

As little white children are whisked into their homes by their parents, the five jog up to their friend Akira's front porch. Tomorrow tries for the doorknob only to find it locked. Apparently, Akira normally leaves the door open for them but forgot to this time. Tomorrow gets him on the horn and explains their lockout situation.

"He's right around the way," Tomorrow tells his company. "He said he'll be here in about 20 minutes."

This gang of five makes up Pittsburgh-based rap band Liberation, including Nuke Knocka, their deejay and Franchise, one of their producers. They're scheduled this Saturday noon to record tracks to finish their upcoming album. Judging by the reactions of the other families in the Pleasantville neighborhood, though, their wait outside might not be so pleasant.

Young Zee, the oldest of the trio, plops down on a small stone wall gating off a small grass yard from the sidewalk. Smoking a Newport, his attention is captured by a curvaceous young woman wearing pants that trace her plump ass with pinpoint precision.

"I'm gonna write a report on foods in the hood and the effect it has on women's asses," he jokes.

Minutes later another woman walks by, but the sight isn't as pretty. She angrily storms up the steps adjacent to Zee's sitting post.

"Do you mind if I sit on your property?" Zee asks.

"Yeah, I do," snaps the lady back.

Zee hops off the short wall and heads back to Joe Blak's rental car, where Tomorrow and Franchise have piled back in.

"I hope she doesn't call the police on us," mutters Zee under his breath. "In fact, I know she's gonna call the cops."

It's a scene that could have played out in one of Liberation's songs, which deal with police confrontations as well as terrorism, economic and educational racial inequity and the plight of black revolutionaries.

Lately in Pittsburgh, adding Liberation to the lineup has meant the difference between a slow feet-dragging march demonstration and a fist-pumping, adrenaline-rushing youth rally. A recent rally in Market Square against black-on-black violence didn't find its pulse until Liberation took to the stage doing their usual number: taking popular rap hits and replacing the more negative lyrics with their own positive and inspirational words. Invoking a moving call-and-response session with their commanding voices, Liberation caused many of the hundred or so attendees loafing around waiting for a spark to bolt to the stage and romp with the high-voltage rappers. Even the salt-and-pepper-haired crowd felt compelled to wave their arms and chant for the stage spectacle. Motorists driving through on Forbes Avenue slowed down to peer and gawk.

In less than two years, Liberation has amassed a respectable following mainly among kids high school-aged and younger -- impressive considering these are the kids with the shortest attention spans. With Joe Blak, the tallest, standing only 5 feet 8 inches (if you believe his rhymes), and Zee and Tomorrow only three or four inches shorter, Liberation sees literally eye-to-eye with most of their young fans. More importantly, all three work with youth, particularly those of color, when they're not doing music. Tomorrow is a program director for Urban Youth Action, the 37-year old Downtown program where he's known as Chennits Pettigrew -- Mr. Chennits to the kids -- training black high school students in political and entrepreneurial leadership. Joe Blak (né Joseph Chambers) lives in Washington, D.C., where he counsels adjudicated youth -- teens sentenced to probation, house arrest or halfway houses. Young Zee (Kenneth Grimmet), a Pittsburgh native but recent Philadelphia transplant, has worked extensively in the local theater scene and with Shadow Lounge while also volunteering for various youth mentoring organizations.

Opting to steer clear of anything corporate, everything Liberation writes, produces, mixes down, records, distributes, lawyers or promotes is done in-house. Even the studio they're using to record at this afternoon -- or, at least, where they hope to record if Akira ever shows -- is literally in someone's house. They're concerned that corporate-capitalism has found a way to commodify even the artists who bleed anti-establishment words and images.

"Liberation wants to stay as independent as possible," says Tomorrow. "Ours is truly a grassroots movement. We have no intention to mess with any [record] labels. We build our own networks and sell through that, that way we can determine our own fate."

Liberation's brand of hip hop is unique in that few rap acts, especially in Pittsburgh where they're based (even though only one member actually resides in Pittsburgh currently), deal with this kind of content, given its controversial nature. Liberation's sound and image is a throwback to a time in hip hop when pro-black political messages were the norm.

One of the last hip-hop albums of that era, Digable Planets' Blowout Comb, happens to be in Tomorrow's CD player as he waits. In 1994, when Blowout Comb debuted, America was recovering from cold wars, civil-rights wars and Reaganomics -- all of which contributed to the zeitgeist that birthed hip hop's first generation.

After winning a Grammy and achieving platinum-status, DPs -- as they were referred to then -- were dropped from their label. Many speculated the sudden drop was because DPs took a decidedly black-militant posture with Blowout Comb, only their second LP. Blowout Comb's sleeve book was itself a replica of the ultra-radical The Black Panther newspaper named after the militant '70s black nationalist organization of the same name -- one page reading: "The people call for the release of Elmer Pratt, Mumia Abu Jamal ... and all political prisoners the world over!"

The highly charged black-empowerment rap songs of the '90s are now anomalies to the hip-hop equation. There's even a new DP out, this one called Dead Prez, who maintain their blacker "revolutionary but gangsta" stance got them dropped from their label after just one album. Hence, Dead Prez, like Digable Planets before them, have charged a "lock out" from the industry

Not only has hip hop changed, but so has its children. Many of the kids who once donned leather medallions shaped like the continent of Africa or the country of Jamaica, who wore T-shirts that read "It's a black thing ... you wouldn't understand" and had slogans "Free Nelson Mandela" and "End Apartheid" stickered on their Trapper-Keepers have grown up and apart. They drive Mercedes-Benzes, have IKEA credit cards and are knocking on six-figure salaries now ... and that's just the drug dealers.

The '90s boasted an unprecedented sudden boom in black college graduates, black elected officials, and public and private sector black professionals. Attitudes turned away from African-American racial pride and towards Assimilated-American consumer prowl -- not exactly the best audience for a race-conscious outfit like Liberation.

Liberation's message just might be too black for white America, but it might be too black for black America, too. They'll have to contend with that, along with the fact that other similar hip-hop acts before them didn't fare well in the industry.

So what makes Liberation think they'll fare any better?

They've assembled here in Jersey to record music they believe will thrive because as Tomorrow says, "It's hard to hate it when you're for the people." One of the songs they hope to record this weekend potentially will land on a tribute album for the '70s black radical-chic spoken-word band, The Last Poets -- mentors to Liberation and founding fathers of the entire hip-hop generation. If Liberation's song lands on the compilation, it will play amidst the work of industry stars such as Bilal, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, Common, Nas and Busta Rhymes.

But first Liberation has to get in the door.

An hour after Liberation arrived in front of his house, Akira still hasn't shown up and, as prophesized, a police car rolls up. The cop pulls next to the car the Liberation clan is bunched up in then drifts forward slowly. The squad car then darts around the block only to re-appear with another squad car behind it. This time they stop completely next to Liberation.

The episode lasts 20 minutes. Two white cops order the Liberation crew out of the car, apparently for violating a parking-while-black ordinance. Each is questioned about why they were sitting in the car for so long and who the car belonged to. Even as Akira walks up explaining that they were waiting for him, the police continue with their questioning.

Finally satisfied that they had broken no laws, the cops allow the young men free. "We'll see you soon," says Zee walking up the steps.

"You want me to come back with an attitude?" an officer replies.

When Zee begins arguing with the cops, Blak and Tomorrow rush back down the steps to gather up Zee and drag him upstairs to the studio. Blak chose to mediate. He suffered most of the interrogation, given the car was rented in his name, but he makes clear he's not looking for trouble.

"I'm not gonna let them ruin the positive energy of this day," says Blak. A few moments later, though, after pacing through the small studio he begins reflecting on how the cops "punked him" even as his brethren assure him that by walking away they made the wiser decision. Blak isn't convinced. "Either our people are gonna get organized to the point where we can walk around armed and check them like they check us or some time in the next 10 years I'm going to die from a confrontation with the police."

They've been here before. Blak and Tomorrow met while students at Penn State, where they were founding members of the black student organization Sankofa, whose members found themselves the targets of hate mail and death threats for their campus activism. They were amongst the leadership of a movement at Penn State that brought thousands of students and activists state-wide together to protest Penn State President Graham Spanier's handling of the hate-crimes and investigations into the murders of a black man in the State College area.

Graduation day for Tomorrow and Blak meant escorts through metal detectors at their commencement with bulletproof vests under their gowns due to sniper threats and a bomb scare. It was during those turbulent college years, though, that Liberation was born: Tomorrow, Blak and a third member named Pocket who's no longer with them. Both shared a love for rap and saw an opportunity to use the music to relay the experiences and lessons learned from their ordeals.

They also realized that hip hop could be used as an educational tool for young kids going astray. They met up with Zee when they moved to Pittsburgh, where Zee was going by the name Keen Intellect and was already part of a rap group called Middle East. With Middle East, Zee and his partner Ezra abided by the same principle: hip hop to educate as well as entertain.

Before recording Zee says he needs three or four shots of something at least 80 proof to get him ready for the studio session. He'd prefer the more potent Bacardi 151. Of Liberation's three personalities, Zee's is the more, er, street.

"I did the vegetarian shit for two year, maayn, then I realized sumtin' wasn't right," says Zee, pulling from his square. "That whole culture, I was just getting tired of it."

"I gotta stop drinkin'," he mentions way too often. His vices and common-man mentality makes Zee the Liberation element most appealing to the hood's more rogue-ish characters. It balances out with the vegetarian Tomorrow's grimmer no-nonsense demeanor.

The righteous talk and swagger, in fact, was something that turned some in Pittsburgh off to Liberation. Hip-hop denizens on the local front were initially suspicious of Liberation's presence. At first it was because of Tomorrow's old association with a local rap producer who had burned too many bridges in the Pittsburgh hip-hop scene. Then there are those who simply just aren't buying the too-black-for-business bizness going on with Liberation.

"The general public has a preconceived notion that all groups that have a positive message in their music are either preachy or judgmental or both," says Will Feagins, part of Liberation's marketing and PR team and veteran music producer of the local hip-hop community. "The challenge that I face is lessened because Liberation does not exhibit those characteristics. The audience they reach does relate to them -- to how they look and sound. This allows them credibility amongst the average hip-hop and rap fan that most positive groups don't. So, while I do foresee the obstacle of overcoming that stereotype as a challenge I don't think it's insurmountable."

"Most people aren't riding the fence when it comes to their opinions or feelings on [Liberation]," says Masai Turner, formerly of Pittsburgh-based rap group Strict Flow. A self-described "historian on Pittsburgh hip hop" who's known Tomorrow and Zee for about eight years, Turner explains that Liberation became more digestible when their work was taken off stage and put to CD.

"A lot of people, when they come to hip-hop shows, they don't necessarily want politics and socially conscious messages through the entire performance," says Turner. "If you give people a record that they can eat at their own pace, [you get] a lot less criticism, defense and resistance."

One local musician (wishing not to give his name) who's been on the local hip-hop scene for years says that Liberation's style is unoriginal, complaining how all the group does is "bite" catchy hooks and phrases from more popular artists and rap over more popular songs' beats.

There's truth to that charge, but for a reason. Tomorrow calls it "putting the medicine in the applesauce." He understands that the issues Liberation deals with are unpopular even among his own people. So they purposely and purposefully take a song like Ludacris' "Stand Up," whose lyrics talk of bribing sex out of girls for VIP access at nightclubs, and changing it to mean, "stand up" for revolution and struggle.

"Liberation is more than a rap group, it's a movement," says Tomorrow. "It's not a game, we've dedicated ourselves to this. We form-fit our songs around real black community issues."

Historically throughout hip hop, pro-black resistance art has ironically attracted a fair share of the Caucasian persuasion. It wasn't unusual to show up for a Public Enemy concert in '93 or a Common concert in '03 and find just as many if not more palefaces as you saw black. Many artists like Common and Public Enemy would find it difficult to survive without their white audiences.

Liberation has played primarily to all-black audiences, the bulk of their gigs in predominantly black city schools, prisons, and rallies and conventions hosted by black organizations. But do they fear acquiring White Audience Lifeline syndrome?

Tomorrow's protruding hairline punches forward as the inner edges of his eyebrows sink down like pinball flippers, or Malcolm X in one of his classic interviews before rebuttal. "We wouldn't accept that. We'd think we were doing something wrong if the people we were making music for weren't coming to our shows or we needed the white audience to survive. I'd think either we're not exciting enough to get our own people out or we're not making ourselves accessible enough to our people. Our music is scientifically and spiritually designed to interact with melanin. We have a specific purpose to provide healing for communities of African descent."

Turner says that position is unrealistic. According to him the majority of consumers and grassroots fans of hip hop in Pittsburgh are white. And the fact that a mostly white audience would show up for, say, a Public Enemy concert wouldn't lessen the significance of any of their songs.

"[Liberation] is at the beginning stage of building a fan base," says Turner. "If they go any further, white fans will support them whether they want them to or not. The Fugees said the same thing and they have the largest selling hip-hop record of all time, and guess what -- 17 million black people didn't buy it."

It's 7 p.m. and the crew is anxiously awaiting a special visit from Abiodun Oyewole, one of the last poets alive from the infamous Last Poets of the '70s. Liberation, their producers and a few of their friends all crunch into Akira's tight bedroom, which functions as the studio. An empty closet is the recording booth. Akira's door is unlocked so heads and bodies pop in and out freely throughout the day and evening.

By sunset the group has listened to hundreds of their producer Franchise's beats and are deciding on which to use for their final songs. They need the right beat to match a song they've conceptualized about the trio breaking a political prisoner on death row out of prison. If all goes right, Oyewole will deliver an authentic and original spoken-word piece for the track. If all goes better, the track will be used for a tribute album to The Last Poets.

In the '70s The Last Poets provided the theme music for the Black Power Movement and were the hood ornament for the sister Black Arts Movement -- both formed less with integration in mind for blacks and more to trumpet the ideas and hopes of black nationalism. They were black folks' answer to the Beatniks and claimed one of the Beatnik poets LeRoi Jones as their own after he became the more soulful Amiri Baraka.

For reciting their frenetic poetic diatribes over jazz scores, they are considered by many the forefathers of hip hop. They are credited as the first to take the gritty and grimy nigga-tales of the streets and deliver them in ways akin to the scats of Ella Fitzgerald and the freestyle blowing of John Coltrane.

When Oyewole shows up, all conversations and slouching ceases. Each of the young men and women in the room shoot to their feet to receive the glowing, smiling elder. "Pops," as Oyewole is called by the Liberation members, walks in with his middle-aged son Obadele and his much younger son Ademola, all of them shaking hands and hugging every person in the room.

"Where's the cognac and trees?" asks Oyewole, drawing a shower of laughter.

Pops can't stay long and it's understood. They brief him on the concept of the song then play him the beat, a bluesy strumming of guitar strings and piano chords that resembles an old soulful Roy Ayers tune. Pops bops his head to the rhythm then pulls out a folded notebook sheet from his jacket with scribblings on it.

"Let's do it," he says, heading for the closet booth.

The doors are closed behind him and silence falls across the 20 or so bodies in the room while Pops recites "A Libation for Liberation." In a gravelly Barry White baritone, he begins:

The liquid of soul was trapped in stone / From all the rocks thrown by children just looking for something to do / And the black power movement was maimed and crippled / By the childish behavior of would be-revolutionaries / Freedom stayed locked down in a book / Sometimes stuck on the tongue of a freedom fighter looking / For a Nobel Peace Prize / And somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean years ago / Liberation jumped off a slave ship / Baptized in blackness / Washed in the blood of our ancestors ...

Pops appears from the booth amidst a circle of young adults reduced to kids in awe. They sit, mouths agape as if they just heard the words of God. He gathers up his sons, thanking everyone for allowing him to contribute to the Liberation album and tells them he'll see them tomorrow for brunch at his apartment in nearby New York City. They graciously thank him in return for blessing them with his presence and his words.

It's all the energy Liberation needs to take their turn in the booth and blow out a supreme recording. Tomorrow steps into the mike room and wraps up his verse in three equally fiery takes: How many soldiers they done claimed before / like Mumia, Sundiata and Assata Shakur / we had the young guns ready for war / and independent

so the state built a case and gave him a death sentence / but remember, we said this wouldn't happen again / that's why I'm sticking to my word so I'm cooking a plan ...

Blak's performance is no less captivating as he masters his portion in equal takes: Time is of the essence, we got a small window / we movin' like the wind blow / our man is on death row / this is the heist of the century / we had it worked so we down in the infirmary / plus security is dealing with emergency / we walked right out the front so perfectly ...

When it's Zee's turn to spit his part, he's knocked out cold behind a bottle of Absolut vodka. Blak shakes him up a bit, after which Zee jumps up, barges into the booth and nails his verse in two takes: We gon' ride for my nigga / die for my nigga / this ain't right for a nigga / ain't life for a nigga / then my body turned numb / do I succumb to reality? / If so, four more lives can end tragically / like Assata, we ain't waitin' for liberation / we takin' our liberation / no shakin' our liberation ...

"What's crazy is he wrote that verse in the car on the way over here," Blak tells the room. "He heard me spit my verse, then wrote his in 10 minutes. He's crazy."

In the song they're rescuing their friend, known only in the lyrics as Will, who's been imprisoned for murder -- hence the name of the song "Free Will." But more broadly it's about freeing the will of black people who want to stand up to injustice but are afraid they don't have the spiritual or military weaponry to do so.

There's not a song in Liberation's catalogue that doesn't have some political or social message. Even their song "To Liberation" -- a party tune for all intents and purposes -- carries an underlying call to arms for blacks. For Tomorrow, there's no other way to rap.

Eschewing all arguments that hip hop is only about partying and bullshitting, Tomorrow believes that words and music possess too much power to waste it on rapping about violence towards and the pimping of his own people, on which much of rap music today dwells.

In African art, every sculpture, painting and song has a specific function. Art for art's sake does not exist in the African art paradigm. There's no such thing as exhibition. If an African artist creates a chair, that chair is meant for sitting, not for gazing. A painting is an instructional lesson; the songs and poems are meant for praise or healing.

According to Liberation, most black artists today have forgotten this -- or never knew it to begin with -- and they want to bring these African tenets back to the art.

"Our music has a practical purpose," says Tomorrow. "Most hip-hop groups are using the music to serve themselves, period, on some 'How much money can I make off of this?' We'd rather feed the masses with our music like the Black Panthers' free-breakfast program."

Recently, Carnegie Mellon University tapped Tomorrow to bring his "medicine in the applesauce" brand of hip hop and the African functional art theorem to their newly launched Arts Greenhouse project. In this program, CMU will offer free studio time and engineering to local rap artists. Upon completion of an artist's album, CMU's business school students will help market and promote the product. The program is free, for the most part, only requiring that the artists go through a series of classes that will be facilitated by Tomorrow, Angela Jackson and Luqmann Salaam, the latter two directors at Community Empowerment Association in Homewood.

"Our [classes] will be like the filter to make sure artists who understand responsibility to the community are the ones putting out music through this," says Tomorrow.

Sunday afternoon Pops Oyewole has opened his apartment, a small Manhattan unit near Columbia University, where he once taught. Every Sunday Oyewole prepares brunch for students and artists to come by and nourish themselves with good food and music. Liberation walks in with their entourage of a dozen or so friends and are greeted by those they know and those they don't.

In the kitchen are plates of salmon cakes and fried fish; a huge blue bowl holds home-fried potatoes and a massive steel pot is filled with creamy grits. The cuisine's aroma blends well with the incense and marijuana -- a lot of marijuana.

In the living room, preppy Ivy League law students sit next to homeless poets and the integration doesn't look fake. The Giants are playing the Philadelphia Eagles on the 20-inch television in one corner of the room, but most of the attention is pinned on the stereo.

As Liberation's "Free Will" pounds from the speakers, every head nods in sync to the marching and tapping drumbeat. The song jumps off with Pops' verse recorded just the night before. The apartment audience ahhhhs and OKs, cheering Pops on as he stands up to take a bow. The chorus begins and those who know the song softly sing along: God loves / man kills / people destroy / it's time to rebuild / our souls on ice / the movement's stand-still / we locked in this cage / it's time to free will.

Pops' son Obadele is consulting with his buddy Mark about some business for their entertainment management firm, Soul Star. They are also helping produce The Last Poets tribute album scheduled for next year. Obadele plays some of the tracks already recorded for the album, including one featuring vocals from neo-soul crooner Bilal. Other national recording artists also have expressed interest in the project, says Obadele. For right now, though, Obadele sounds most excited about getting Liberation's song on record.

"I don't have no doubt we can't get this on the tribute," he tells the room. "We don't have anything on there like this. We need this."

Gathering Liberation and crew into his office, he and Mark begin a conversation with them about where they want to be in the industry and how they want to make their money. "What's your vision for Liberation?" asks Mark. "Do you want to go the independent route, where you'll see more of your money, or do you want to run with a major label where they'll have more control over your product?"

Tomorrow and Blak both answer "independent" in unison. The Soul Star execs then begin explaining the murkier parts of the game: distribution deals, ASCAP, publishing, ownership and rights to the masters, touring and getting samples cleared. This has already been researched thoroughly by Liberation. In fact, Tomorrow will give similar talks to others when he begins moderating the hip-hop seminar classes for CMU. Nevertheless, they sit and absorb it all attentively and respectfully.

Obadele and his company hope to represent Liberation on the legal and business end and judging by Liberation's responses, Soul Star's help is welcome. Before that leap into the market, though, the focus is on The Last Poets tribute album. Obadele can't stop gushing about the project. "Money hasn't been an issue in getting the stars to contribute to the album," Obadele tells the group. "Most of these artists feel like they owe their whole existence to the Last Poets, so why not?

"The music y'all did, though -- that's tremendous. This could put music back where it's supposed to be. No major labels are gonna say, 'Yeah, The Last Poets? Come on, let's do it.' We gotta get our own."

After the meeting adjourns Tomorrow, Blak and Zee head into the kitchen, their faces reading disbelief and sheer amazement. Blak iterates over and over to his comrades how blessed they've been for this weekend. Zee says he's ready to "take this to the next level." Tomorrow says even if the song doesn't make the tribute album he's still thankful for the experience of being taken under wing by the Oyewoles.

"Let's get it in, fellas," Blak beckons.

They huddle into a group hug and bow their heads as if in prayer -- their arms locked in.

As this story went to press Liberation found out that their song would, in fact, make The Last Poets tribute album.

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