Agitate the Hood

Formed in the Uptown section of New York City by Bronx-born Public Enemy Bomb Squad alumni, DJ Johnny Juice and Not4Prophet, the Puerto-Rico born, Harlem and South Bronx-raised former front man of Ricanstruction and founder of the art and activism collective called AgitHop Army, X-Vandals makes music that is part rap, part punk, and all political. But don’t call it Hip Hop. Vandalism or agitation is the preferred tag for these former graffiti writers and genre-defying musical militants on a two-man mission to bring back the beat and beat back the system while they’re at it. I spoke with Not4Prophet, the emcee of X-Vandals on the advent of their sophomore release, GhettoBlaster and while their “hood” was being “occupied.”

SUAREZ: What is X-vandals?

N4P: X-Vandals is street survivors turned subversive ghetto dwellers turned guerrillas, musicians gone Mac- hetero.

Do you consider yourselves to be a political group?

N4P: Well, we consider ourselves to be artists/musicians/people who talk about our reality, the lives we’ve lived, ways we’ve grown up and things we’ve learned along the way, and things we feel our communities should do. But we know that all things are political, our very lives are resistance, so, yeah, we are a political group in that sense. We don’t preach or talk shit in any obvious beat-folks-over-the-head kinda way, but, we also realize that if we lived within and under and endured this capitalist colonial, exploitive, racist, unjust shitstem and said nada, we would still be saying something, if only about acquiescing to the shitstem—which is what most people do these days. So we choose to spit, scream, and shout all the way from the streets to the sewers to the cell block and back.

Do you see music as being revolutionary?

No doubt, music, art, in general, is revolutionary. But that’s not the same as saying that music is the revolution. I see music as both a reflection of the times and also as a tool, a hammer with which to shape it. But the people make the revolution. But if the people are not making the revolution, the music will reflect that too.

In terms of art, would you say that music is the most effective of the mediums to reach the masses with a particular political message?

I think so. Besides graffiti, which is overtly political because it’s still illegal, outlaw art, music is probably as in ‘ya’ face as it gets when it comes to talkin’ loud and saying something. In a strange way, music’s curse is also its reward. Music is the medium that has been almost totally consumed by the corporations and spit back out as a pop culture commodity to be sold back to us. But because it is the art that is part of the pop—as in popular—culture more than any other, it is the one that can best reach the streets. Of course, its co-optation by the corps is precisely what keeps it from speaking truth to power. But there is great potential.

Was your first record, the War of Art, a self release?

Yes and no. It was on a real, totally independent label, but we were conspirators with the folks who started the label. When we created that first record we realized that the messages we were putting out were not really what anyone was doing or saying in music today, so we knew that it would be necessary to put the War of Art out ourselves or through a label that supported our music and message. Because of this, we created our own anti-corporate entity.

You’ve been working as an independent artist for your entire career, haven’t you?

Yes, most of what I have ever put out artistically has been do it yourself, with a few things on small indie labels. I think it’s important to at least try to say and show, by example, that we can exist and survive outside of the machine. But I do understand why many artists choose to go with major, corporate labels. It’s not easy being independent, unsigned, and underground and keep a music career afloat because corporations have such a stranglehold on the music. So many artists go to majors to, at least, get some promotion to amass a decent sized audience. Even “failures” who get dropped by major labels and then go the indie route end up having a bigger audience because, for a minute, they had the big money backing of the corporations helping to promote them to the masses.

Where do you see the music industry headed today?

I think that with the Internet, downloading, Youtube, Facebook, and all that stuff, a bit of a blow is being dealt to the majors. Whether that will be enough to really make a serious impact is questionable. Artists can use all those tools to create their own work for cheap and get it out for practically free without any dealings with any corporations and their plantations, for the most part. But in order for any real change to happen, everyone who claims they want to see the corporations fall will have to start supporting anti-corporate artists in a real way. The corporations are currently trying to figure out ways to get around the potential liberation of art through the Internet, so most artists who have to make a living to exist (and don’t wanna have to get a day job at McDonalds) are still signing on the dotted line with the majors. That will not change until the peeps on the streets decide that they are going to support independent, anti-corporate artists and stop buying anything that is put out by corporations. Will that happen any time soon? Good question. But each day is a little more chipping away.

What are some of the political movements that inspire or motivate you?

Mostly, I am motivated by my own people in the barrios and ghettos of the U.S. who resist the shitstem in a million different ways every single day of their often-too-short lives. It ain’t easy surviving “America.” But also I am inspired by movements like those in Oaxetca and Chiapas. Quite a few countries in Latin America are moving toward the left, and that’s not a bad thing, but there is always that question of whether the “government” guiding us towards what will “save us” is what we oughtta be helping to prop up. I prefer anything that sprouts naturally, organically, from beneath the surface, from under the underdogs very bare feet or boots. That rose from out of the concrete that Tupac talked about that blossoms and grows in spite of all obstacles. With X-Vandals we wanted to talk about the people who are the real revolutionaries. If there are any real revolutionaries left, you will find them in our songs.

The revolution within the revolution.

Yes, exactly. Real people, not “leaders” or liars, not politicians or preachers, not bosses or bureaucrats, but the true insurrectionist of the streets and rebels in the inner city. The gangster turned revolutionist, mom gone militant, shorty soldiers and slum survivors, street disciples without gods or masters. Someone once said to me that we are already in the midst of revolution, but we are neither sufficiently armed or organized.

After listening to and reading the lyrics to the songs on your first record, The War of Art, I was inspired to look more into the Puerto Rican independence struggle. Pretty interesting stuff. Didn’t realize that for a time Puerto Ricans were pretty much the United States’ main “domestic terrorists.”

Yeah, that may be a dubious distinction, but I will take it. Puerto Ricans have been involved in an anti-colonial liberation struggle of resistance against the U.S. for over 100 years now. At times, guns and bombs have been used by Puerto Ricans because guns and bombs (and all the might of the U.S. government) have been used against Puerto Ricans. But whether it was the Puerto Rican nationalists or the Macheteros, we have always been fighting to get free.

I also liked the way The War of Art linked the Puerto Rican resistance struggle with the history of Hip Hop.

The Puerto Rican resistance struggle, the Black power struggle, and the history of Hip Hop are all the same thing. The roots of the tree. If there were no Puerto Rican and Black struggle in America, there would be no Hip Hop. Hip Hop is international today, but once upon a time it was just brothers and sisters in a particular ghetto shituation reacting to the reality of their surroundings.

What do you think of Hip Hop and where it is today?

It depends on whether you are talking about Hip Hop or about rap music. Rap is a genre of music, and Hip Hop is a culture and as my DJ Juice likes to say, a dao. And, although rap is a component of Hip Hop, Hip Hop culture also includes other elements and is, in fact, a way of life and a way of looking at and doing things. Just like punk, it was created as a reaction to where things were at a certain time for a certain people, and it became a sub-culture and a counter-culture. And just like punk, it was co-opted. But there are still plenty of people who live Hip Hop outside the shitstem, just like there are many people who live punk outside of the machine. I think that it’s interesting though, that in spite of the co-optation of rap music, there is still an uproar over certain words that are used or certain images that are being projected within the so- called genre.

Why do you think that is?

It is still music being created by Black people from the ghettos of America, and Black people from the ghetto will always be a potential threat.” The white supremacist shitstem has always taken black creations and white- washed and watered them down to make into a commodity. Doesn’t matter what it is; blues, rock and roll, jazz, anything that Black folks create, the white man will clean it up and sell it. In the case of rap though, they didn’t so much clean it up as remove its possible “danger” and potential political threat to the status quo. Although it was still Black and “ghetto” it no longer had anything to say that could maybe bring down the walls of Babylon. That’s where rap music is today, but now rap music is becoming a threat to the “sensibilities” of mild mannered middle class Americans, rearing its “ugly” ghetto head in other ways world-wide, so it’s no longer enough to simply remove its politics. Now you also have to silence it completely or get rid of it altogether.

So Does Hip Hop wanna “Occupy The Hood”?

I can’t speak for Hip Hop. But I do know that the hoods been “occupied for a long time, first by the colonizers and so called “conquerors” and then more recently by the police who are the front line troops against the hood, and on and on from there. So maybe we should be talking about organizing the hood and, yeah, agitating the hood for good, instead? Yeah, we should “agitate the hood.” Shake things up, live and die in a constant state of agitation.

What do you think are the issues that Hip Hop and music and the hood in general should be concerned with and what do you think is lacking in most music today?

I think that there is just so much going on in this world that should, and, for the most part, isn’t being focused on with most music (and art) today. How can you have wars going on all over the planet, children starving, an AIDS epidemic still raging in places like Africa and Puerto Rico (and the black and brown community in the U.S., too), attacks on immigrants, painting an entire people as terrorist, abusing Black folks in America, suffering, injustice, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, and alla dem other isms and schisms, and still only write about fat asses, “cadilicks,” and whether or not ya chain hangs low? Is that a real chain around ya neck or a subliminal one around your ankles? How low can you go and how low can a punk get before you finally get around to talking ‘bout the real world around you? The rhyme is a terrible thing to waste.


Jilian Suarez is a writer, activist, and college student.