Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
2 Black 2 Strong is a 22-year old rapper from Harlem who, along with his “posse” MMG (Mad Motherfucking Gangsters), recorded a controversial single, “Burn Baby Burn,” that addresses the issue of flag burning. Beginning with the line, “Fuck the red, white and blue,” including cameos by Chuck D. of Public Enemy and Joey Johnson, the founder of the Emergency Committee to Stop the Flag Amendment, the song makes no bones about what this particular piece of cloth symbolizes to the political rapper, including escalating racism and repression. The EP, produced by Lister Hewan-Lowe of Clappers Records, and distributed by Relativity/InEffect, ran into problems before it was even released when one pressing plant, Sonopress, refused it on the grounds that it contained “offensive language.” Though the record eventually made it to retailers, it has yet to appear in Musicland/Sam Goody stores and, needless to say, you won’t find it in heavy rotation on MTV.
I met 2 Black 2 Strong and his right hand man, Warchild, at Dante’s in the West Village, where they experienced their first cappuccino to no obvious ill effects.
Lynn Geller How did you get into rap?
2 Black As a kid, if you like something, you want to pattern yourself after it. You see this singer, you want to sing, you see a rapper, you want to rap. I got inspired by most of the old time rappers—Grandmaster Flash, Kool Moe Dee, people like that. But what really got me was Public Enemy. They had a real social-conscious message to their rapping. Flash and them had messages, but they were street politics. Public Enemy came out with the government, black and white politics and everything. You know what I’m saying? That was good because I didn’t know about people like Malcolm X.
LG Really? They don’t teach you that in school?
2B They teach you a little bit about Martin Luther King, but Malcolm X they don’t teach.
LG So they teach you about nonviolence, but they don’t teach you about the confrontational leaders?
2B The Black Panthers and stuff like that, no, they don’t teach you any of that.
LG And what about your parents, were they politically aware?
2B Nope. What taught us was listening to rap artists like Public Enemy. That’s what made me want to pattern my raps after strong political, socially conscious lyrics. Because my parents never taught me, school never taught me, my grandparents never taught me, I never learned it on the streets. So the rap was what made us curious. “Yo, let’s go pick up some books.”
LG What was your high school like?
2B Well, my high school was cool and everything. They used to call me the “intelligent hoodlum” because I graduated, but I would only go to class once or twice a week. I always went when there was a test. And I would get like an 80 or 90 on the test, and they didn’t understand how I could do that when I was hardly going to class. I was in the hallway most of the time or in the yard playing basketball or something. So that showed me that the education system’s got to be fucked up if I could only go to school once or twice a week and still graduate.
LG And they didn’t punish you for that?
2B The teachers didn’t really care.
LG I didn’t grow up here. In New York, how do they decide what school you go to?
2B I went to Julia Richmond which was a zone school. That’s how they do it. I lived uptown in Harlem.
LG Warchild, you grew up near 2 Black, did you go to the same school?
Warchild No. I grew up in the Bronx, and you know; the Bronx and Harlem mix. My zone school was William Howard Taft. That’s one of the worst schools in the city.
LG What was that like?
WC It was like the ghetto, it was like the jungle.
2B School is an extension of the ghetto.
WC Exactly, like you said.
2B All the poor kids that live around your neighborhood all go to the same schools.
WC And so you had to make it or break it. If you wasn’t tough it was like …
LG So it’s like being in jail. That’s what it’s like out at Rikers Island.
2B As they say, if you’re soft, you’re lost.
WC If you showed them that you were hard, you got over.
LG And how do you show somebody you’re hard?
WC Force, of course.
LG But you’re not exactly a big guy.
WC In the ghetto, it doesn’t matter because you have to be able to fight big guys and small guys.
2B And then there’s the weapons factor. Some of those guys’ll wind up carrying something. Like in jail, smaller guys got all the knives and razors, and the big guys are the ones who are walking around with all the muscles. And they’re also the ones who have the biggest scars. It ain’t really about size, it’s about how much heart you got, you know.
LG OK, so it’s about standing up to people and being willing to take a stand.
2B Yeah. Exactly.
LG Something I’m really curious about, when someone grows up in the ghetto and has very limited choices, what makes that person decide not to take the easy profit route of becoming a drug dealer?
2B What makes them not become drug dealers? Picture yourself living in the ghetto, your building ain’t got no heat, you’re starving, you hardly have any food. You know most of these people that are living in the ghetto, their mothers and fathers are not together.
LG It’s usually just a mother, right? (Yeah).
2B If your mother’s not strong and if your mother doesn’t care, you’re fucked up. You’re basically on your own. There’re brothers out there whose mothers are on drugs, whose mothers are alcoholics or whose mothers are just strolling on a stroll. So it’s like, a child is put in a corner, like KRS-One sang in “Material Love” …
LG I love that song.
2B It explains a lot. The kid in the song doesn’t want to go to school with the same pants everyday ‘cause he’s going to get laughed at. So that’s making going to school torturous. So he’s like, “Fuck school.” At the same time …
WC He’s got to get money.
LG But I understand the impulse to go for material things.
2B I know what your question is—what would stop him from going that way? When a drug dealer offers you 500 dollars a week to stand on the corner and sell drugs, it doesn’t seem as bad as compared to what’s going on now. You’re not thinking about what could happen. All you know is you’re getting 500, and you’re getting fresh, you’re probably getting girls. So it’s really strong not to take that route. It’s really all about your will. And like KRS-One said, and I’d have to agree with him, people only do that for their love of material things. I mean, physically, you could wear the same pair of pants and it won’t be anything. It’s the love of material things that’s going to fuck you up. If you don’t have parents that are looking out for you, and the drug dealers offer you a way out, the only way I can see that you wouldn’t do it is you just got a strong will. Yo, you just don’t want to fuck around with it.
WC Now compare 150 dollars a week at McDonald’s to five hundred dollars…
LG I used to work at this homeless hotel up on 28th Street with two girls who were 12 and 13 years old. Their heroine on the block was a prostitute, because she bought her kids the most presents for Christmas.
WC Yeah, ’cause she was probably so cool and streetwise.
LG I know. So I’m racking by brains; I’m thinking, what can I tell these young girls that would make them realize that they could be something else? Because I can’t adopt them and I can’t give them my own life experience. How do you inspire people? That’s what I’m really trying to figure out.
2B Well, another way out of the ghetto is music—rap music. For a young black man, there’re only three ways immediately out of the ghetto: that’s music, drugs, or sports. You can go to school. I’m not telling anybody to drop out of school, but you gotta have the patience for school which all people don’t have. Now, rap music has given the brother another way out. And that’s what we chose. Whatever you do, just make sure you do it the right way. If you sell drugs, if that’s what you gotta do: do it, get your money and then get out of the game. Use the money that you got to make something out of it. The problem is most drug dealers, they get the money and they spend it as fast as they get it. They buy a new car every week, tricking off some girl, buying big, gold chains. And they aren’t giving anything back to the community.
LG Did you see “King of New York,” about a drug dealer who wanted to give something back to the community?
WC It was good. I liked it. I’ve only seen half of it, though. I saw it on the VCR.
LG Oh, really, is it out on tape already?
2B In the ghetto, you get a lot of bootlegs: rap tapes, music tapes, new movies on video. Basically, anything expensive you can get in the underground.
WC Who’s going to pay seven dollars for a movie? We can go down the street and get the same tape for 15 dollars and watch it as much as we want.
LG So when did you two hook up? You didn’t go to high school together, but you grew up in the same neighborhood?
2B We grew up in the same neighborhood, and I got the deal with the record. I put my boys down, you know. It’s always more powerful to be a group than a single person.
LG Right. I saw you at that Tower Records outdoor concert where you performed and burned the flag. I was standing right behind the sound board, and I saw the cop come over and threaten to pull the plug. What was it like onstage?
2B We knew that something was wrong when the power didn’t come on. They cut the mics off on us. And we were looking around and we didn’t see the Tower people doing anything. So we were just like, yeah, let’s just kick it a capella. So we started kicking it a capella to get the message across to the people, and it worked. People in the audience started burning the flag and everything. So we were like, “Yo, they tried to stop us, they tried to censor us and they still couldn’t stop us … even without the music.” We’re up there and our job is to get the message across.
LG In the beginning, weren’t they just having technical difficulties?
2B Yeah, they were having technical difficulties.
LG I think they didn’t know what was coming down in the beginning.
2B They didn’t know what to expect from us. But, as it went along, they thought, “Oh shit, good thing we had technical difficulties. Now, we’ll just cut ’em all the way.”
LG I read that there was a Vietnam Vet giving you a hard time backstage.
2B What happened was we were doing something for Italian TV, with my boy, Warchild here. We were stomping on the flag and the Vietnam Vet said, “Yeah, Warchild, what do you know about war? When have you been in combat?” And my man Warchild was like, “I go to war everyday: war on drugs, war on black people—there ain’t no justice for us.” In our neighborhood, the police are always ready to do something to you, just because of the color of your skin and you live in the ghetto. They put all these crazy ideas in your head that every black person’s going to rob you, every black person’s going to try and rape you.
WC They teach you to hate, hate, hate. You know, you go down South and you hear, “Nigger this,” “nigger that.” Why do I have to be a nigger because my skin is dark?
LG Now I want to play devil’s advocate for one minute here. You say there’s police brutality, but aren’t there also a lot of innocent victims of drug abuse? Who’s going to protect people from that?
2B The blacks and the people out here selling drugs, they don’t have planes to go to Colombia and get drugs. Drugs are brought in here by government officials.
LG I agree that the government implicitly condones drugs.
2B First, they attack you with drugs, they get the drugs. And then they try to attack you to save you from drugs.
LG OK. But 2B, you have a child. You don’t want your daughter caught in a crossfire?
2B No, no, of course not.
WC Let me explain. You’re taking a chance when you’re living like us, where we’re living. Whatever is meant to happen, is meant to happen, right? In the media, they say crime in New York is rising. That’s bullshit. Nothing’s changed. It’s just that now, there are more white victims. A friend told me about a guy who got his head blown off at a check-cashing place in midtown Manhattan. Someone called the Post and said, “Yo, this guy got shot in the head. Come down here, you might have a story.” And the Postasked him whether the guy was black or white.
LG Because if he was black it wasn’t news, right?
2B Yeah. The New York Post is very racist. (Oh yeah.) And that’s why we don’t buy it.
LG It’s obvious that they hate Dinkins.
2B Oh, they really hate Dinkins. They’re trying to blame him for all the crime. He’s just a victim of what Koch already did to the city. But getting back to the thing you said about the drug dealers and the innocent victims. The innocent victims are not only the ones who get caught by the stray bullets, it’s the ghetto drug dealers also. The government plays this mind game with you. They’re bringing the drugs in. They got you poor as it is, so they bring the drugs in here, and that’s the chance they give you to get out, to get yours. It’s like money drives you crazy and money changes a lot of people. So the drug dealers, they do all this dirty shit, but they’re also victims of higher authorities in office. The Ghetto Boys, another rap band, said, “It’s the Colombians who’re pimping us.” They are. Crime would get lowered incredibly if this government stopped letting drugs in here and put more jobs out. But no. See, this government is the one that wants all this crime, you know what I’m saying?
2B Yeah. They know the black people want to kill each other over the drugs.
WC And the Puerto Ricans and the Chinese.
2B The ghetto is like a big cage full of animals and they just have the animals kill each other. And the drugs are like food. They put the food in there, and everybody’s killing each other over the food—the money. It’s a big master plot.
WC Money is the drug. People getting killed by stray bullets is definitely fucked up man, but that’s just part of the game. It’s sad to be unsympathetic, but it’s part of the game.
2B Another major problem in this country is the legal system. It works against black people. I’m from the ghetto, he’s from the ghetto; we’re dealing with a judge that’s from a middle-class family living out in the suburbs somewhere. He doesn’t deal with the shit that we deal with. He graduated from Harvard. He ain’t got the drug dealers standing on his corner. He ain’t got to worry about coming outside. My neighborhood is the neighborhood he sees on TV. He doesn’t know where I’m coming from, so how can he sit up there and judge me, this white person, sit up there and judge me—a black man from the ghetto? They look at the crime, but they don’t know where I’m coming from. I might rob somebody ’cause I was starving to death.
WC I might’ve killed a man because he was going to kill me.
LG On the other hand, you’re entitled to free legal counsel. My brother-in-law is a public defender in Boston. If you’re his client, he’s on your side, that’s his job. He’s chosen to have that job, and he will try to defend you to the best of his ability, and he went to Harvard. It’s not totally black and white, so to speak. But this is a crazy violent country and it’s only getting more stratified. You know, a lot of the fortunes in this country were built by criminals.
2B No shit. That’s how they got everything they have now. It’s like we do hard time on the planet earth.
LG Let’s talk about the flag-burning issue and how you got involved in that.
2B We found the flag to be a symbol of our oppressors—America being the oppressor of black people. If they get on the news saying, “let’s make a rule against burning the flag,” basically, they want to change all the rules that they’ve been going by for centuries, just to protect a piece of red, white and blue cloth.
LG Had you done records before this one?
2B No, this is my first record.
LG And how did you hook up with your producer, Lister?
2B I told this guy in my building who worked in a record store that I was looking for a deal. He said, “Well, I know this guy, he comes into my record store and he’s looking for a militant rapper: he’s gotta be real hard-core.” So he hooked us up. We clicked like that. This is a single EP type thing. It’s really just two songs, “Imperialist Inferno,” a parody of a 1970s hit, “Disco Inferno,” a club tune with lots of sampling; and “Burn Baby Burn” with remixes, instrumentals, and things like that. But the whole album, Doing Hard Time on Planet Earth, is set to come out late January or February. We have a lot of cuts from that. We have an anti-war song, “No Blood for Oil.”
LG You know, despite the Vietnam vet who had a fight with you, there are a lot of Vets who are against going to war in Kuwait.
WC Yeah, we’ve met a lot.
LG So you guys seem extremely politically astute.
WC We like to be politically astute. The shit that you see right in front of your eyes, you don’t need to read books or anything to know what’s going on. You just have to read between the lines.
LG Now, wasn’t there a problem pressing your album? Didn’t you run into some censorship?
2B Yeah, a CD manufacturer didn’t want to press it because of the lyrics. They said the lyrics were too profane.
2B That’s what they claimed but we think it was the lyrical content.
LG Besides Public Enemy, what other rap groups do you support?
2B NWA and the Ghetto Boys (recently dropped by their distributor). They’re only talking about reality. See, anybody can get up and talk about how bad they are and how many girls they get.
WC You have to take a stand.
2B How can you have a party when you’re getting your skull split all the time? I mean, let’s be real.
WC Those are the people who want to escape reality.
LG All that stuff like, “I’m the best lover in the world,” kind of rap. Is that “boasting”? Now a lot of that is from a female perspective. Women are coming up now, and some of them are political and some of them are turning it upside down on the guys.
2B There really aren’t very many female groups who are political. They’re basically. “Let’s have a good time,” like you said, they turn it around on the man.
LG Do you like YoYo? I like what she did with Ice Cube.
2B It was really entertaining.
LG I mean I like how they used “It’s a Man’s World,” and then they just dissed each other. For anyone who accuses Ice Cube of being a complete sexist: he certainly let her have her say.
2B You see, it’s all a marketing thing to sell records.
WC Like Andrew Dice Clay. People say he’s racist, but I like him. I like Guns ‘N’ Roses …
2B We don’t care what they say. If people stopped worrying about what people say, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Like 2 Live Crew, they sold a lot of records just because people worried about what they were saying and that, in turn, helped them sell more records.
LG I don’t like Andrew Dice Clay, but I don’t care if someone else does.
2B That’s the whole thing. Some people don’t like an artist and they want everyone to feel the same way.
LG But do you think when kids listen to it that they start integrating those attitudes; racism, sexism, homophobia?
2B If a kid has a real strong family structure then a record is not going to make a big difference. It’s entertainment. 2 Live Crew is humorous.
WC They’re like the Eddie Murphy of rap, Richard Pryor … How can they get mad at The Ghetto Boys for having a song about raping a corpse when they have all this shit in the movies? Like Jason going around slashing. You see it everywhere, on TV, the movies—so how can they get mad at these black artists for putting it on wax?
LG So you’re anti-censorship of any kind.
WC Of course!
2B Definitely! People should say whatever the fuck they want.
WC They want to censor “Mind of a Lunatic,” that’s like saying that they should ban Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho.
2B And all the slasher movies.
—Lynn Geller is a writer and a music supervisor on films.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.