"I think more important than me being political is asking why everybody else is so apolitical."
So spoke Felipe Andres Coronel, better known by his stage name Immortal Technique, in an interview before his performance tonight at Terrace Club. It's a question that's at the heart of his politically charged music, which encompasses issues like racism, poverty and social class structures - and, like every other rapper on the planet, how great he is on the mic. In the case of Coronel, though, the chest-thumping boasts aren't just hot air. The Latino emcee's forceful raps have gained him a fervent following among hip-hop aficionados, making him perhaps the most well-known figure on the underground rap circuit.
No matter what your political leanings are, it's hard to ignore the passionate, pulsating eloquence of Coronel's raps. His voice has a hectic and energetic quality to it, as if he's worried that he won't have enough time to tell you everything he wants to say. It's no wonder, then, that he's found a stable home in hip-hop, a genre birthed out of the anger and despair of the disenfranchised.
"It's because of hip-hop that I was capable of asking questions [about everything that I had experienced while growing up]. And it also has a lot to do with my mother and father making me proud of who I was as a person."
Coronel was born in a military hospital in Peru, and he immigrated to Harlem with his parents when he was 2 years old. He has called the neighborhood his home ever since. The difficult experiences he dealt with as a child, both in Harlem and in Peru, still inform his music today.
"We're all talking about where we're from," he said. "Even the most gangsta rapper talks about their hood. When I was ... growing up in Harlem, there was all of that [violence and poverty], and I was talking about that, and it made me question why things were that way. That's something I try to answer in my music."
Coronel's music is unabashedly and aggressively political, often dealing with themes that many mainstream rappers won't take on - one of his most inflammatory songs is provocatively titled "Bush Knocked Down the Towers." Despite his infamous reputation, however, Coronel doesn't see himself as particularly political - just more political than other people.
"The American people are pushed - by entertainment, sports and everything else - to be apolitical and not take charge of their own government. If everybody didn't have [mass media] to distract them, you would see politics popping up in everyday life. They'd be more concerned with water, taxes and things like school curriculums and the way American history is taught."
For his part, Coronel feels driven to break through the superfluous and emphasize the more troubling aspects of everyday life.
"If anything, I'm an individual who happens to be able to maneuver through those distractions and still maintain a relative understanding of how they function," he said. "And I'm amused by [those distractions] as much as any other American. But at the same time, there are things that are more important than those distractions, and part of that is the reason I make my music as powerful as it is."
Coming from most other rappers, such a didactic approach to music would become irritating: After all, who wants to be lectured by a former felon? For Coronel, though, it seems almost natural. In part, this is because Coronel's energy and drive is irrepressible. The rapper's love for his art form bursts from the speakers whenever his songs are playing. Above all else, that's what Coronel believes himself to be: an artist. Coronel is fanatical in his search for the perfect hook and the perfect beat, and he won't stop until he finds them.
"When I first began, I was a battle rapper," he said. "Back then, I wrote songs that weren't perfectly structured. I wrote my songs in prison ... I focused a lot on lyrics and not a lot on hooks. I changed that as I began to learn more about how to properly write music, and I'm getting better at it all the time."
While Coronel's raps are often considered highly controversial, important issues lie beneath his inflammatory rhetoric. For instance, he frequently raps about the plight of African-Americans and Latinos in the United States, saying that many have had excessively "emotional response[s]" to the political victories of people like President Barack Obama.
"One or two successful individuals don't necessarily change things," he said. "We've had Black and Latino mayors and governors before, and they haven't changed too much."
Still, Coronel hasn't given up hope for the possibility of a better future. Indeed, it is his belief that one or two people can produce change in the world that compels him to perform at places like Princeton - not a typical concert venue for rabble-rousing underground rappers.
"I've been to Princeton before to visit my good friend, [African American studies professor] Cornel West [GS '80]," he said. "To think about how many people that go [to Princeton] will really shape the future of the United States - that's the one thing that sticks in my head when I go to [perform at a] college."
Indeed, in addition to the show itself, Coronel is looking forward to what he hopes will be stimulating conversations with Princeton students after the show - and he encouraged those who are interested to ask him demanding and provocative questions.
"Gangsta rappers may talk about growing up in the hood without an education or without parents, but they want their kids to go to places like Princeton," he said. "If you come to me respectfully with honest questions and disagreements, then I'd want to have that conversation with you. I think we'd both learn from it."
Immortal Technique's three best songs:
A rap song about drugs? "How original," I hear you moan. Well, think again: "Dancing with the Devil" is a more somber experience than typical raps about Riding Dirty and carrying Yayo all up in your nasal. If you like your hip hop grim and unremitting, this is for you. A nine-minute epic chronicling a kid's downward spiral from his first puff to his untimely death, "Dance with the Devil" offers a higher caliber of analysis than most news stations. Tech's rhymes are layered and tightly wound, sprinkled with biblical references, and their emotional resonance is magnified by the melancholy classical sample that grows more powerful with each repetition. Not for the faint of heart - the narrative twist at the five-minute mark will leave your jaw on the floor like no rap song you've ever heard before.
- Myra Gupta
The whimsical whistling that backs "Peruvian Cocaine" belies the harrowing stories of "the characters involved in this tragic comedy," from the coca fields in Peru to the highest American governmental offices. You'll be surprised and a little disturbed to find yourself nodding your head along to a scathing indictment of corrupt government officials who dabble in the drug trade. The song is peppered with familiar drug slang and the sounds of gunshots, but this is not the usual glorification of rap songs. It's a pointedly critical track, with a sick beat to boot and clever rhymes that follow suit.
- Myra Gupta
While Tech sells himself as a "political rapper," he's not above reminding listeners how great he is at rhyming once in a while. "Creation and Destruction" is a chest-thumping battle rap par excellence, filled with compelling metaphors ("I'm the reason that the earth shakes / Burying your fam like Central American earthquakes") and wonderfully weird wordplay ("At long last reincarnated / undebatably reinstated to leave you decapitated"). Even in his most apolitical songs, Tech comes up with provocative concepts: "Creation and Destruction" is a tongue-in-cheek subversion of the book of Genesis, with the rapper himself as the creator of the universe. Best line? It's tough with a rapper as infinitely quotable as Tech, but I'll have to go with: "When God said ‘Let there be light,' I turned it the fuck off." Priceless.
-- Adam Tanaka
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2010/04/08/25755/