Kevin Beacham on Get Out to Vote and when politics meet hip-hop
This Sunday is the Keith Ellison-sponsored Get Out to Vote concert at First Avenue. The incumbent Representative of Minnesota's Fifth-Congressional District has put together quite the bill, including performances from Brother Ali, Slug, Dessa as well as a DJ set from noted hip-hop historian and Redefinition Radio host Kevin Beacham. We spoke to Beacham about his thoughts on when politics and hip-hop collide, as well as what he has planned for this weekend.
What was the first rap song with a political message you remember hearing?
I think there's a fine line in what's "political." People say "political hip-hop," but I think there's a lot more hip-hop that's about community and conditions, which has political effects. I know this one wasn't the first, but the one that caught my attention was Melle Mel's "Beat Street" theme song. In the last verse he talks about "lost in space... the president just forgot about Earth," he compares Reagan to Hitler and Mussolini. That was the first time I really noticed it. He even says in there "don't be a slave to your computer."
Which artists have resonated with you in the sub-genre of "politically themed" hip-hop?
The ones who did it right, I loved. Public Enemy, KRS-ONE, the Coup later on. I love their lyrics. My thing is, the popularity of those groups spawned a whole lot of other groups who had the idea of being "conscious" or "political" as it was becoming a trend, who weren't skillful in their approach. Even early on, there were politically themed rap songs, but there were more novelty songs from people who weren't even rappers. They were guys in their 30s making a rap record because rap was hip. In the '90s that resurged, people in the '90s who weren't particularly rappers were using rap to give political messages. It has its purpose, but for me, I'm a lyric person, so if the writing wasn't skillful I'd say "give me a speech, not a rap."
But, there were a lot of groups like Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, Brand Nubian, who were skillful in speaking politically who were great that I was a huge fan of. But, for the actual politics they were speaking about, I didn't research beyond that. They were so good at rapping, I was like "that was dope."
So, at the time, a right-wing Poor Righteous Teachers would have been as dope as a left-wing Poor Righteous Teachers?
Yeah, Poor Righteous Teachers had a message in their music, but they could rhyme about anything else and it would be dope. No matter what the topic was, it was gonna be great.
What makes for the type of political rap song that you would want to hear?
I like Boots Riley of the Coup because he speaks on issues, but he also speaks on his ideas of solutions. I want someone that can do it well, challenge it, and say what you could do different. Political songs have to have both, you can't just be critical.
How did you get involved in the concert this weekend?
We get into a lot of political discussions at the Rhymesayers office, and these things are important to us. Over the years, we've tried to be involved in the community in general and in what's good for the community. I don't know how it came up directly, but we've worked with Ellison in the past and it came [together] naturally. I definitely wanted to be involved in it and asked what could I do, and they said "be a DJ." It was a last minute addition, but I definitely wanted to be involved.
Is your approach for choosing which songs to play for an event like this very different?
The approach? No. The song selection? Yes. I'm a mad scientist, and when I play, I always think about my crowd as much as possible. For something like this, I know who my crowd is, so I plan to coordinate, that's something I always do. I'm very theme-based in general. It's funny, it's harder than I thought it was going to be. I thought I would have way too much, but it's actually a little more limiting than I thought it was going to be.
Kevin Beacham spins at the Get Out the Vote concert with Brother Ali, Slug, Dessa, Sims I Self Devine, Los Nativos, Mally, Face the Vote, Green Team, and Plain Ole Bill, hosted by Keith Ellison for Congress.
18+, $5, 6 p.m.
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