Stream: Pyro “Propaganda” prod. DJ Khalil
Stream: Pyro “Status Quotient” prod. DJ Khalil
I learned about this VLS from an obscure AOL message forum devoted to underground hip hop shortly after it was released. I could not find the record in any of the local shops, so I purchased mp3s of the vocal versions of both of the single’s sides from an online company that burned and delivered custom CDs. Pyro’s “Propaganda and “Status Quotient” are angry, highly political affairs that stood apart from the rest of the disc, which was mostly comprised of placid, generally positive songs by artists like L*Roneous, Abstract Tribe Unique, and Animal Pharm. To my ears, Pyro’s rhymes were incendiary, almost outrageous; this is an artist who unhesitatingly engages in damning cultural commentary. His observations are not novel or even unorthodox —“Propaganda” insists that rappers are puppeteered by greedy execs, while “Status Quotient” argues that anti-social rap lyrics legitimate anti-social behaviors in the minds of impressionable youths— but I was shocked to hear rage expressed on wax by anyone in 1998.
Pyro, a former member of a rap group called The Kraken, was a graduate student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University when he recorded “Propaganda” b/w “Status Quotient.”1 This is worth mentioning because both songs sound like they were written by a scholar who converted heady, opinionated, religiously inflected prose essays into fiery rap verses. That might seem like a sarcastic jab at the late 90s indie rap philosophy of aesthetics that forgives unpolished vocalists so long as their lyrics are adequately literate, but in this case it is a sincere compliment. Unlike the many tepid or sloppy rappers of the era, Pyro recites his rhymes with an intimidating amount of conviction. His delivery is impassioned, and his flow is riddled with imperfections that actually work in his favor by humanizing his sermon.
When Pyro’s overwritten lines spill into adjacent bars and his rhymes land in spots that are neither satisfyingly in or out of pocket, he sounds convincingly like a modern prophet in mid-speech. He just happens to be spreading a righteously indignant gospel with DJ Khalil’s appropriately understated yet mesmerizing production as accompaniment. His rhetorical flourishes are best appreciated once the listener accepts that “Propaganda” and “Status Quotient” more closely resemble church sermons, campaign speeches, spoken word protest poems, hell almost any type of oral presentation, than traditional rap songs. On this single he manages to sound both rehearsed and natural, studied and visceral. Chuck D attempted a similar style on his 1995 solo LP The Autobiography of Mistachuck and the experiment failed miserably, leading me to believe that such a balance is not easily struck.
Pyro takes full advantage of the moment and preaches precisely what everyone in the choir and congregation wants to hear. On “Propaganda” he vivisects Nas’s adolescent utopianism; accuses rappers of acting like minstrels/slaves; suggests that rappers take “fiscal responsibility” for promoting destructive lifestyles; and theorizes that the phrase “keeping it real” is symptomatic of a pathological dishonesty he terms cristalis paralysis. On “Status Quotient,” he serves us the grim facts as he see them, quipping “now we running around like we don’t know why our shit’s in the skids/ your baby’s having a baby, or your baby’s having a kid/ It’s always a mess that somebody else did” and “95% of ya’ll are so mentally shook/ knowledge isn’t gained unless it’s written in hip syntax/ condensed into catchy sing-a-long hooks.” Well, damn.
To those of us who clung to the belief that socially conscious songs (narrowly defined) were being intentionally deprived of airplay by the same unseen forces behind mass incarceration and failing schools, such words were a relief. Sometimes the validation of your worst fears is oddly comforting. In hindsight I can listen to these songs and marvel at the paradoxical similarities between Pyro’s invective and the fire and brimstone rantings of Prodigy from Mobb Deep, whose vocals are prominently sampled in the hook for “Propaganda.” I am similarly intrigued by how ballsy it must have been for a barely heard rapper like Pyro to rhyme with so much heart, knowing full well that his songs would fade from memory long before a sizable audience could hear them. Most of all, I am impressed that for a brief moment, the right set of conditions existed for such a weird, unpolished, deeply angry record to travel across the country and be heard, if only by a few thousand people at most. Are we missing such moments nowadays? — Thun