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California Dreaming 

Ozomatli and a gathering of West Coast underground hip-hop luminaries fight the power

Thursday, Feb 26 2004
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Photo by Christian Lantry

L.A.’s Ozomatli are a band that is fundamentally futuristic, a quality they arrive at by artful mining and molding of the past. Their sound is an amalgam of almost everything you’ve ever heard — hip-hop, rock, cumbia, salsa, Afro-Latin grooves, funk, rock en español. Unlike so many pop stars whose work ethic manifests itself in aerobicized asses and militaristically choreographed stage shows, Ozo are a throwback to bands whose hours of disciplined rehearsal and honing of craft result in deceptively carefree performances; their intensity and energy levels border on the shamanistic. To underscore: They are fundamentally futuristic, meaning they are quintessentially Californian. The Beach Boys, with their odes to blonds and beaches, and with their slowly descending steps into darkness, may have encapsulated both tourist fantasies of California and the official American Dream (and nightmare) four decades ago, but Ozo, with their cross-colors membership (Asian, black, Latin and white), worker’s-party politics and decidedly Left Coast vibe, are steeped in the world that is to come — if we’re lucky.

The standout track on their limited-edition EP Coming Up — an appetizer for the forthcoming Street Signs CD, due in late spring/early summer — is “Let Me Dream,” a wistful, even somewhat playful, tune of both political resistance and cotton-cloud escapism. (It’s also the rare English-language song in their repertoire.) At its core, and as spelled out in its lovely chorus, “Dream” speaks the desire to change the world by the radical act of dreaming — of ways to change self, ways to fight the power, of that hazy internal vacation spot where daydreamers go when they simply need to zone out. (“I just wanna change this world/but I ain’t got no time to breathe/I just wanna change this world by changing what’s inside me.”) It’s a tonic for right now, when turning on the news is to voluntarily succumb to homegrown, glaringly calculated psychological terrorism, when helplessness and despair battle with multipronged fury for dominance in your soul. The EP came out in late September of last year, and “Let Me Dream” belongs in the disgustingly small (but growing, thank you, Willie Nelson) canon of post-9/11 protest songs.

The rest of the EP is fine as well — energetically driven by horns throughout; steeped in leftist politics but sans tofu posturing; extending a dash of credibility to the much (and somewhat justifiably) maligned Kumbia Kings on a muscular collaboration with that band; weaving a sexy, sinewy Middle Eastern flavor through “Ya Viene el Sol,” and capping it all with a live performance of “Cumbia de los Muertos” from their 1998 debut album. But until Street Signs drops (and longtime fans will be thrilled to know that it will feature the much-clamored-for return of Chali 2na on one track, “Who’s To Blame?”), the repeat button is pushed for “Let Me Dream,” because on this song Ozo remind us that dreaming isn’t simply about pulling the covers over your head and burrowing into a pillow. It owns up to the very real need to sometimes do that, but it’s primarily about possibility, about digging deep to the essence of yourself and imagining the future you want made manifest, the world you’re willing to fight for.

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A perfect, if grittier, companion piece to the Coming Up EP is the underground hip-hop all-star compilation What About Us? A musical cast composed largely of West Coast artists (the Bronx’s Dro Golden and Rhode Island’s Non Prophets being the exceptions), including Blackalicious, Rico Pabon & DJ Riddim, Ledisi, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Zion I, Abstract Tribe Unique and others, do their part to expand that aforementioned narrow canon of 9/11 songs by weighing in on the myriad costs of the current war to American inner cities, to the perpetually poor and disenfranchised in this country, and to our civil rights and liberties. But these are not your father’s backpack rappers. From styles of production to spoken inflections, the artists on What largely eschew the self-consciously highbrow word concoctions and poetry-free didacticism so often associated with “conscious rap.” They’re not interested in singing to the righteous choir.

Putting biting spins on everything from dancehall (Rico Pabon and DJ Riddim’s “Yo Naci” is what you’d get if Sean Paul had political teeth, meaning even chicken heads and cut-rate ballers can shake their asses to it) to the R&B-inflected hip-hop groove, the collection bristles with tales that both subtly and explicitly connect the dots between bodies falling in the hood (due to drugs, guns, despair) and bombs dropped on Iraq. “We can bomb the world to pieces,” sings Michael Franti, “but we can’t bomb it into peace.” Death — spiritual, emotional, physical — haunts the disc because it haunts American life. But resistance is offered in interview clips and speeches from hip-hop DJ/activist Davey D. and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (the only member of Congress to vote against the war in Iraq), who both reference COINTELPRO and the U.S. history of duplicity in dealing both with citizens and foreign entities, while vowing to keep up the fight.

The best track on the compilation is the Piper’s arid, darkly humorous “U.S. History,” in which the rapper speaks in the voice of the United States itself, stepping to the mike to recite its autobiography. Detailing a history of bloodshed and violence, the “U.S.” swaggers and taunts with patented gangsta bravado. The hook lays it all out:

Everywhere I go, everywhere I be
People recognize, everybody see
You can be a friend, you can be a foe
But if you play wit my paper, then
playa you gotta go
My country ’tis of thee, heavy artillery
Don’t fuck wit me . . .

What gives “U.S. History” its punch isn’t its breakdown of power, psychology and brute force as they all intersect and play out in the upper echelons of American politics, but an accidental lesson it teaches: that hip-hop never has, and likely never will, produced a true thug or gangsta. Black and brown boys stamped with too many viewings of Scarface, acting out self-hatred by gunning down others who look and live like them, pimping their communities for a dollar — all of that is sad, infuriating and depressing. But it ain’t thuggin’. The true gangstas roll through the halls of corporate America; the true thugs own the media and pull the strings of government. The scowling boys who ingest prefab thug fantasies through music lyrics, videos and television and then act them out are just shadows thrown against a wall.

OZOMATLI | Coming Up (Concord)

VARIOUS ARTISTS | What About Us? (Hard Knock)

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