Editor’s Note: This essay was posted last week but deleted from the site when the server crashed. Enjoy.
Stream: Dark Sun Riders “Time To Build” (Ultra Marsalis Remix)
It is 1996 and Brother J feels blessed to be recording music professionally. The biz never made him wealthy but it has provided him with food, clothing, and shelter, and he has seen more of the world than he ever expected as a youth growing up in northern Brooklyn. He has gained a decent bit of notoriety for himself as the voice behind the outspoken Afrocentric/5%er/Neo-Egypto-Nubian/black nationalist group X-Clan, not just as an entertainer but also as a grass roots activist. On a smaller but not insignificant level he has lived the kind of turbulent public life that used to make immortal heroes out of street kids like Malcolm X.
For now he dwells in a valley. X-Clan and Blackwatch are more or less disbanded; his former DJ Sugar Shaft recently died from AIDS complications; the conscious style of rap is practically extinct. Still, Brother J cannot leave well enough alone. It isn’t simply that he fiends for the spotlight and the drama that comes with it. He was happy enough to be spitting verbs of power back in the days when an interview on Ralph McDaniels’ Video Music Box was considered a high honor. He is more a family man now, and he has happily moved on from the nights of debauchery that once seemed to conflict with his righteous if garish public persona. But he cannot shake the notion that there is more work to be done.
X-Clan’s trademark unapologetic beatjacking was a technique that might be considered ahead of its time if we all agree to accept the idea that their albums were precursors to post-2000 homemade (read: computer) mixtapes, with black nationalism substituting crack selling as the dominant theme.1
Even at the height of X-Clan’s popularity, however, their music was viewed as just one element in a massive spectacle; their booming voices, beads, ankhs, walking sticks, robes, nose-rings, and big black boots made for stunning visuals. While X-Clan’s beatjacking converted their freaky sideshow into a coherent format, peers like Brand Nubian were praised more frequently as musical innovators.
Brother J is not sensitive to criticism, but he is responsive to his own desire to destroy and rebuild from scratch. He does not crave critical adulation so much as he wishes to communicate directly with those who are most in need of enlightenment. His basic message —that black life has worth and that poverty and ignorance will be overcome by education and united political action— has not changed, but he is eager to switch up his approach. He does not want to dispense with the mystic occultist aesthetic entirely, as it is an ineffable part of his artistic self, but his cultural criticism has to resonate, has to bump. He has to demonstrate why is flim-flam is the flim-flam that needs to be heard.
The adoption of a whole new production aesthetic is key to revamping his spectacle. And it is still a spectacle, make no mistake. A subversion of minstrelsy whereby the follies of white supremacy and black-on-black violence are exposed and ridiculed, you might say. The sound that the Dark Sun Riders concoct is sample based but inclusive of keyboards and other live instruments; moody and funky but also metallic and damned near cybernetic; sinister and bassy but not chaotic or dissonant. Brother J correctly predicts that the individual of the next millennium will have to fend not only for his physical survival in his immediate surrounding, but for the survival of his righteous mind in maelstrom of undifferentiated data.
Thus, it is time build. And what is being built? A new funk and a language to shape that funk into a statement about the past, present, and future of the black collective, and of poor and oppressed people in general. Also, a mythology and a pantheon that instructs us in how to survive being simultaneous dislocated from one’s past and confined within one’s socio-economic strata. How else does one learn how to reconcile his god-given freedom with the burden of adult responsibility? “Time To Build” means building a philosophy for living, true, but it also means building oneself up to to be the people’s hero, in Brother J’s case a race-man who will not be content with toppling the reigning dynasty unless a plan of fairer governance is offered.
“Time To Build” demands that America start over without erasing its uglier memories. The remix samples heavily from a composition that is sumptuous and edenic. The idea is that we cannot and should not desire to return to a state of blissful ignorance once blessed with agonizing historical consciousness. The injection of knowledge and experience into America’s childish idealization of its past will be truly liberating. For every rhyme to matter and every beat to inspire, the artist and the listener alike have to situate themselves squarely in the most dark, cramped, funky spaces — the street corners, juke joints, tenements, and slave quarters that birthed nearly all American music forms— and learn how to love those little slices of hell while simultaneously fighting to burst free of them. Bro J is one of few qualified volunteer tour guides.
Don’t call it a comeback. — Thun
- I owe this wonderful observation to a commenter on my review of the Dark Sun Riders album Seeds Of Evolution from some years back. [↩]