By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
“They killed Malcolm, Martin, Guevara, Lennon, Marley, Pac, Biggie, Tookie, Jam Master Jay, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, and even God’s son too/So fuck the Bible, I get my basic instruction from Sun Tzu.”
Onstage at the infamous Club Congress in Tucson last April, a DJ who goes by the nom de guerre Konradio is glowering out of a black ski mask as a video projected stage right displays Valley artist Adam Wheeler's montage of terrorism, war, violence, and American politicians making absurd declarations like "mission accomplished."
Shortly, once the video has concluded with its spelled-out written factoids reminding the Southwestern American hip-hop kids, who've come out to see indie/underground phenom Immortal Technique play, how much money has been spent on the war in Iraq and the effect that amount could have if directed toward solving world hunger, a 5-foot-10 half-Pakistani, half-white young man takes the stage in a beat-felt march. The rapper, who calls Phoenix home and will repeat this performance here in the Valley and in Flagstaff in the next couple of days, calls himself Grime an acronym for "Got Revolution In My Eyes."
With a closely buzzed haircut and meticulously trimmed beard intentionally longer than his militant headscaping, along with his Middle Eastern Arabian complexion, Grime strikes the innocent observer as a preprogrammed knee-jerk threat. To be blunt, thanks to the tension brought on by the war on terrorism and its attendant media attention, Grime looks like a terrorist. He'll tell you that he's really more of a guerrilla.
Grime asks the packed house who in the crowd attended the pro-immigrant marches a couple of weeks previous to the show, on April 10, his 23rd birthday. "Be there next time," he admonishes, before launching into an a cappella series of declarative rhymes. He enunciates his lines, speaking of slaves slammed into the decks of trading ships and natives massacred for Christian glory, before spitting his line about getting his instruction from Sun Tzu, the author of the ancient treatise on military strategy The Art of War.
When Konradio drops a militant beat, Grime points in a triad configuration, first to the crowd, then shaking his fist against his heart, then toward the sky. "This is a declaration of war," he proclaims, before stomping around the stage sporting his self-made white tee shirt that reads "STOLEN LAND" over a line drawing of North America. The crowd bounces and pumps fists in the air, clearly responding to Grime's anti-establishment poetics.
For the last song of his set, Grime asks the sound guy to kill the house lights, and asks the audience to throw up their lighters, cell phones, pagers . . . shit, flashlights if they've got 'em. "I want y'all to be my illumination," the Arizona State University political science major tells the crowd. They oblige, and while he launches into his most syllable-intensive, emotional song, "On the White House Lawn," at least one fan in the audience lights a piece of paper on fire and holds it up until his fingers can't hold it any longer.
Meet Tariq Rahman, the revolution-preaching, violence-advocating MC the most incendiary personality Phoenix hip-hop has ever seen.
It's only been a couple of weeks since the Britain-based plot by young Muslims and Muslim converts to explode America-bound jets was foiled, but Grime isn't among those rejoicing at this victory in the War on Terror. Not that he wants to see civilians killed, or terrorist plans succeed, but he's suspicious of the timing, given George W. Bush and Tony Blair's plummeting poll numbers.
"Stopping crimes before they're committed is a dangerous game," he says. "Lots of groups talk about overthrowing the government, they have these open discussions. If we allow this to happen to the Arab community, does it reach to the activist community for advocating revolution and social upheaval? It scares me. It's not as if the government hasn't seen dissent as a threat before and taken severe actions to prevent it."
Grime's revolutionary philosophy is of the far-left variety, though he doesn't subscribe to a particular ideology. He says he's an advocate for the working class, the ghetto folks, and the poor (even though he was raised by academics and lives comfortably in a clean east Tempe apartment), and he believes the revolution will come at their hands, when their oppression and frustration go past the tipping point. "In this country, we have a difficult time understanding the frame of mind of what our society calls a terrorist," he says. "It's similar to somebody living in a slum the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the cells are bred, they're pushed against the wall. These actions become the only way for them to be heard."
Though Grime may be more sympathetic to the plights of suicide bombers than almost any other American, he's not an "Islamo-fascist," as the Bush administration now refers to its enemies. In fact, he isn't a Muslim at all; he describes himself as agnostic. He counts himself among the Revolutionary But Gangsta, or RBG, movement. Revolutionary But Gangsta was the name of a 2004 album by politically charged hip-hop outfit Dead Prez, on which they rap about ending poverty and oppression. RBG describes a person who, despite being engaged in criminal activity, remains committed to a greater political cause Grime's cause being the uprising of the oppressed lower classes.
"RBG to me represents the type of ideology that's necessary to involve the people that need to be involved for the struggle that needs to be fought," Grime says. "Most people who are gangstas aren't evil people; they don't enjoy doing what they do. Most people that live the gangsta lifestyle do so because they've been pushed up against the wall. They have no other means to survive, to feed their families, to get by in a society that's removed all opportunities in their lives to be successful.
"These are the people who need change the most, who'll put their lives on the line for it. I love the people at the demonstrations, rallies, marches, and shows, but only the people who've been forced to where their life depends upon change will do what's necessary to achieve it. The key to me is to make these issues relevant to the people they affect. The best way, in my opinion, is through the hip-hop movement. People in slums, they've already been trained in guerrilla tactics. A guerrilla is someone whose means are unconventional, who blends in with society, who will do whatever's necessary."
If Grime's vision of how the revolution will go down scares you, be assured it's meant to. But for now, at least the only weapon Grime's employing is a microphone. And he has a more immediate goal than revolution. Grime wants nothing less than to be at the top of the underground hip-hop game.
"Grime! Put a fist in the air/No more peace signs the revolution is here/And the sound of the streets get 'em off of they seats/Like a hundred silverback gorillas stomping their feet/Fuck the industry, I'm underground like Osama/Plotting to bring the drama I'll bury ya roster . . ." "The Revolution Is Here"
Grime admits an affection for mainstream hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and The Game, as well as underground mainstays like Nas, Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, and Immortal Technique. "It's important to reach those people stuck in that Top 40 hip-hop spot," he says. "Go ahead, keep listening to it, it's just fun I listen for the beats, it's raw. It'll make you wanna knock a motherfucker out. It'll make you want to shoot a cop, get riled up I got no problem with that."
After George W. Bush's presidential victory in 2004, Grime threw himself into making politically dogmatic rhymes, first in Tucson and shortly after in Tempe, where he transferred his academic aspirations. It didn't take much to make a name for himself.
"I kept hearing all these [Tucson] locals tell me, 'Get Grime on a show,'" says local hip-hop promoter Ty Carter, of TMC Presents. "He hit me with a demo when I was down there, and on the way back I popped it in. It rarely happens, but I was blown away. I called him on the second song and said, 'I want to do your shit.' It's authentic, solid . . . his samples, his beats; it doesn't sound like anything anyone in AZ is doing."
The CD that Grime hit Carter off with is called Let Freedom Ring With a Buckshot. It's 10 songs of righteous fury, militant yet surprisingly educated poetics preaching revolution outside of the electoral process. It's self-produced, and Grime has used the album as an extension of himself rather than a product to be capitalized on.
At all of his shows, Grime mentions that the CD is available for five bucks, but also stipulates that if you only have two bucks, or don't have any money, come by the merch booth and talk to him and he'll make sure you go home with the music. All of the songs are also available to download for free at www.grimeworld.com or at www.myspace.com/grimemusic.
And as contradictory as it may seem, Grime's also become the biggest hustler in the rap game out of the 'Nix. Before a recent show opening for Boot Camp Klick at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles, he spent a month of weekends driving to L.A. to give away CDs on Melrose Avenue, flier at hip-hop shows out there, and ensure that he pulled a large enough audience for the promoter to ask him back again. This despite the fact that he was playing the show for free, with no expenses reimbursed, and only his merchandise sales to compensate him.
Grime doesn't want to be a local artist refuses to be. You may have caught him at the Blunt Club or the New Times Music Showcase in the past year (both of which he played with the live band Antedote backing him), but his goals are loftier, and that's not just dissing on our heavily populated but culturally bland burg. His considerable hustling skills have brought him to the point where he won't even play small shows in other towns, and at this point he doesn't really need to.
"I don't like playing small shows, I don't enjoy it. If I enjoyed playing small shows, I'd do it. I don't. I don't like driving eight hours somewhere and playing for 30, 40 people. The kind of music that I do, the kind of set I have, it doesn't fit the vibe. It feels awkward to me. Music is about release, about doing something I want to do. If there's a moment when I don't enjoy doing something, I usually try to avoid that as much as possible."
Grime is serious about success, but willing to lose his own money pursuing underground notoriety, because he believes his revolutionary evangelism's prospective impact has the potential to make the ends justify the means.
These days you'll likely have to catch Grime opening for a national act, as he will when Rakim and Ras Kass hit town at the Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe on Tuesday, September 5. Meanwhile, there's no rest for Grime. Like a chess player, he's thinking far beyond his next couple moves.
For the past year, Grime's been assembling a selection of beats culled from big-name underground producers like Southpaw, Maker, and Blockhead for the next LP, titled A People's History. It will be a concept album based on Howard Zinn's influential reverse-perspective record A Brief History of the United States, covering events from 1492 through the present.
"I was raised by wolves, ya church can't save me/Die in the street before I live in a cell/On the White House lawn with a pocket full of shells."
"On the White House Lawn"
Tariq Rahman, the boy who would grow up to be Grime, was born to Lee Rahman, a white woman, and Fazal Rahman, a Pakistani native, who met while studying in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, in Portland, Oregon, in 1983. Before the birth of their son, the couple was active in leftist politics and the Communist party in the late '70s and early '80s. "I was looking for an outlet, a place I could make a difference, and I found one with the party," Lee says. "During the whole Vietnam War thing, I was very disturbed by the whole thing, but I didn't really get active until I got with Tariq's dad."
Leftist political discussions were a constant in the Rahman household. "Growing up, when I was younger, I used to not pay attention to anything my dad said," Tariq says. "As a kid, it was always around he would tell me things and try to teach me things, but I was more interested in sports . . . things like that."
Lee and Fazal divorced when Tariq was 5, and Lee moved to the Valley for a job as a professor of biology at Glendale Community College shortly after (Tariq has an older half-brother, Jason, from his mother's first marriage, who still lives in Portland). With the intention to stay in his son's life and raise him, Fazal, who was raised in Pakistan, followed. "Politics was always at the dinner discussions," Tariq says. "When I got a little older in junior high school, I got into a lot of bad shit. Robbin' people, stealin', breakin' into houses . . . a lot of bullshit. Gang bullshit, fighting, lots of dumb shit. I went down the wrong path for a while."
As a student in west Phoenix, Tariq had a teacher who recommended that he take some time off from junior high and be home-schooled. "I wasn't disciplined enough," Tariq says. "I was crazy. I was the kid in junior high who was sitting in the back of the class facing the wall. I don't know how they expect you to learn facing the wall, but they do. At the same time, I was an asshole. I was always talking out, throwing pencils at people, talking shit. I was the worst kid in every one of my classes, seventh and eighth. I was a clown; I was on some gangsta shit."
"I hope there's a God and I hope he don't forgive you/I hope there's a lake of fire that you get sent to/And I hope there's a heaven that my mother can get into."
"On the White House Lawn"
Before Tariq's troublesome school antics, his father had already exposed him to a facet of the world that would later change his life. When he was in third grade, at the age of 9, Tariq was taken to meet Fazal's family and spend his summer vacation in Pakistan.
"I was worried that his father wouldn't bring him back," his mother Lee says. "But he promised me, and he's always been honorable. It scared my parents, though. But I thought it was really important for him to know the other part of his family."
Father and son traveled to Islamabad and Peshawar before landing in the northern North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, in the relatively rural, Urdu-speaking town of Kohat, where Fazal's grandmother (now Tariq's only living grandparent) and his sister Nazo, Tariq's aunt, still live. "My dad understood something that I didn't get at the time," Tariq says. "That despite the United States and however strong and mighty it is, it's a grain of sand comparatively. There's billions of other people. People become really cynical in [America], they value competitiveness, selfishness, and everybody else around them thinks the same way. That's why it's so important for people to step out and see that the whole world doesn't think that way."
In Kohat province, where Tariq was surrounded by gum trees and mango trees, and where a friend he made that summer, Pekwon, was one of the family's servants along with his blood relatives, the land seemed to sprawl to the horizon. It was a stark contrast to the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mom in the States, or his dad's studio apartment. It was mind-boggling to the young man, who witnessed both the innocent devotion of his relatives and the brutal reality of Third World civilization.
"I remember one day I was at the house making homemade ice cream, when the land keepers caught somebody trying to steal fruit from [their] backyard," Tariq says. "When the cops came, they offered to chop off the motherfucker's hand. My father stepped in and said no. He's a Marxist, different from people out there. He at least sympathizes with the people's struggle, what they need to do to feed their families. Anybody can turn into an animal. Their justice system, their political system is one of the most corrupt in the entire world."
Nonetheless, his grandmother and aunt's influence led Tariq to study Islam while he was in Pakistan. "I didn't pay attention to religion most of my life," he says. His mother was always an atheist, and his father didn't embrace any organized religion, though he retained a great deal of respect for Islam.
"Then I went to Pakistan. I met my grandmother and my relatives. They value being righteous and being good. My aunt Nazo is very devout; she made it her priority to convert me. I started reading and praying and studying, stuff like that. I'll be honest, though, I never felt the presence of God. I used to pretend I did . . . I never really did. When I was on the carpet praying in Pakistan studying and learning about Islam, I liked it and I appreciated it and I appreciated the message and substance behind it, but I never really felt anything. When I came back to the States, I went back to school and forgot about it pretty much."
"From Grime, to whom it may concern/While I'm writing this verse the world burns/They killing for pennies, shit is insane/Governments making war for political gain/What's the difference between dropping bombs from a plane/And a suicide bomber hopping onto a train?" "Everywhere Is War"
When Tariq's mother started home-schooling him, socio-culture shock set in, and music began playing a much greater role in his development. "Mom's working full-time, my dad lives on the other side of town, my stepdad works a full-time job, I'm basically in the house all by myself all day," he recalls. "That's when I found hip-hop again. When I was a kid, my mom introduced me to Public Enemy. From there, on my own, I got into Cypress Hill, KRS-One, stuff like that."
Lee, a sweet, short woman with glasses and gray hair streaked with purple, who teaches biology at a local community college, sounds amused that the introduction to Public Enemy was a catalyst for what her son has done with his life. "It's very surprising to me," she says, laughing. A friend of hers with eclectic musical tastes had given her a Public Enemy tape after she'd moved to Arizona. "I just really liked it, right away. It's the intensity, the feeling, the rhythm. I like the rap that has some content."
Tariq was young when his mom exposed him to Public Enemy, and the group's influence didn't stick with him. "For whatever reason, when I got into a lot of trouble, I got into dumb shit, dumb music," he says. "That shit changes you. Music is powerful. It impacts your life. For a lot of people, it structures your life, it influences people it changes me still. I find myself listening to different shit, I find myself acting different. Music changes moods, atmospheres, it has the power to change everything."
Tariq Rahman had rhymed since junior high school, but extracurricular thug-tivities had quelled that outlet prior to his abrupt transition to social isolation.
"For whatever reason, I found real hip-hop music again. Out of boredom not having any friends around, not having anybody to chill with, not being in high school, being alone I got into a lot of Wu-Tang, Canibus, Nas, whatever was hot at the time. It got me back into that real shit."
Tariq started writing raps again and recording songs, but his heart wasn't in it until he encountered the song that would change his life's trajectory: "Nature of the Threat," by Ras Kass.
"Let freedom ring with a buckshot, this ain't a warning/I got one in the chamber with your name on it/Let freedom ring with a buckshot, but not just yet/Not just yet/'cause your death is coming soon and I'm praying for it." "Let Freedom Ring"
"Let freedom ring with a buckshot," begins "Nature of the Threat," before launching into a chronological litany of history's crimes against native peoples by white colonialists and capitalists.
"[That song] completely changed the way I look at life, politics, history, myself, and everybody around me," Grime says. "It's this chronology of . . . it's based on race, but that's not what I took from it. It's based on European, Anglo-Saxon, white American oppression. What I took from it is a chronology of imperialism and colonization. I learned things from that song that I would read in books years later."
"Nature of the Threat" is a behemoth exercise in which Ras Kass, a California MC, spits a nearly eight-minute-long history lesson listing a litany of crimes and oppression perpetrated against colored peoples by white people. It begins with the origins of humanity and the migration and genetic adaptations that caused racial differentiation regionally, and continues through present-day America: "See blacks were 3/5ths of a man with tax purposes intended/You think you're Afro-American? You're a 14th Amendment and a good nigga/Jews don't salute the fuckin' swastika/But niggas pledge allegiance to the flag that accosted ya."
"That song changed my perspective," Grime says. "It showed me the power hip-hop had to convey a message, and it made it cool to me to study and get in-depth and shit. It changed my view on what hip-hop could do and what it could be used for. Before, I was having fun with it; after that, it showed me I could integrate an interest in politics and history with my interest in hip-hop. That song sparked so much shit for me, it made me want to delve deeper into history, into politics, actually start having debates and arguments with what my dad was talking about. I wanted to learn. I also wanted to use hip-hop to convey what I learned. It was a monumental time in my life."
"No bombs, no wars, justice democracy/No slums, no bums, no one in poverty/No more hypocrisy, Third World equality/Another world is possible, follow me/Everyone on Earth and I'm prepared for death, send me to the cemetery/One goal: freedom by any means necessary."
Tariq Rahman attempted to embrace Islam once again when he was a freshman in high school, and put extensive effort into being devout. Still, he didn't feel the presence of God. "I still thought it was important," he says. "I read all kinds of different books, I took classes in college world religion courses, philosophy courses. I made a strong effort to find God and I never did.
"I couldn't lie to myself. I read a lot, I read about Jews, Catholicism, Islam, agnosticism, Buddhism, Confucianism, all of it. None of it fit who I was. If there's any one religion I feel is ideal, that I understood, it's Buddhism. But I don't believe in reincarnation, dog. I'm a very logical person; I don't believe in reincarnation, I also don't believe in half-assing things, I don't believe in karma, man. There's a lot of evil motherfuckers that are doing really well right now. How could karma exist? I just consider myself agnostic."
After high school, Tariq spent a couple semesters at Glendale Community College before heading to Tucson and the University of Arizona to study political science.
"When I went to Tucson, I was looking for like-minded people," Tariq says. "I heard it was a lot more to the left than ASU [turned out to be]. When I first went to Tucson, I went to school full-time, and worked full-time. I had no time for shit. No time for girls, no time for music, no time for nothing. Plus when I moved out there, I wasn't even listening to hip-hop. I was so frustrated and tired with hip-hop, I dropped that shit. I was listening to a lot of Rage [Against the Machine], System [of a Down], '60s folk music, Woody Guthrie . . . I was tired, disgusted, and sick of hip-hop."
After six months of the full-time grind, Tariq was disgusted with that, too. "That's not the way human beings should live. I had no friends, no life out of work and school. Theoretically, I was successful; I did good at school and work, but I wasn't a happy person."
Around January of 2004, Tariq dropped his work schedule to half its usual load, so that he would have the time to be politically active before the presidential election in November. "I decided I wanted to be an activist," he says. "It was a very political environment, lots of insane shit going on. Iraq was invaded, Afghanistan was invaded, we had the Patriot Act forced through Congress. The environment was chaotic. I decided that given my interest in politics and my passion for change, I wanted to test my abilities to create something and do something and actually build something and progress with something."
He began exploring the political clubs present on campus, and eventually became affiliated with Refuse & Resist, an organization that doesn't endorse political candidates but opposes censorship, war, and police brutality.
"I worked my way up with that club very quickly. I was a very active member; I felt it was important to have a presence on campus. I would be out tabling every day, handing out fliers, talking to people, selling buttons and tee shirts. I thought I was making a significant change. All the time I had devoted to work, I devoted to activism. I was watching a lot of things happen and felt powerless to change them. I wanted to give myself a bit of power, a bit of influence, so I dove into that."
Just before the election in '04, Tariq became disillusioned with Refuse & Resist.
After leaving the group, Tariq threw himself into campaigning for John Kerry. "I had a bumper sticker on my car that said 'Anybody but Bush 2004,'" he says. "It wasn't like I thought Kerry would clean up American politics, but there are some things where Democrats have proven themselves to be better. At the least, the base the Democratic Party has to pretend to be loyal to is the lower working class. At some point in their policy-making, they have to throw the motherfuckers a bone once in a while. It's better than the Republican Party throwing a bone to corporate interests or to theocrats. It does make a difference in some places." Not sleeping, and growing a beard that would befit an imam while he lived the lifestyle of an ascetic, he exhausted himself in what would be a futile effort.
The worldwide opposition to the war, the demonstrations, the activism none of it changed anything, as far as he was concerned. "Popular consensus is no longer relevant in modern politics," he says. "At least from that case study."
"I'm sick of playing games, it's weighing on my brain/Sometimes I drink myself to sleep to take away the pain/This self-conscious bullshit's making me insane/Listening to the rain on my window pane."
"The Loneliest Number"
Grime doesn't smoke and doesn't drink. He does have a life. In his apartment, on a bookshelf, a copy of the Quran sits next to The Guide to Getting It On. He has a girlfriend. But his energies are focused intently on what he believes is his fate. There is no room for distractions, though he's well aware of the challenges ahead of him. No artist can give away CDs forever, or drive six hours each way to a different city four weekends in a row to promote a show he doesn't get paid for. Occasionally, when times are tough financially, he works retail jobs to fill his coffers, but because of working his ass off during high school and his first couple years of college, and an intensive saving plan, he now can pay for his tuition and not worry about a 9-to-5 job for the next couple of years.
"I don't care. I do not care," he says. "I work hard to do what I do, and enjoy doing it. I'm willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary to get myself where I need to be. But at the same time, I can't continue like this forever. This shit has to turn around for me eventually." The financial drain is offset by his merchandise sales tee shirts with his grenade logo that read "Got Revolution In My Eyes" but he still takes a loss on his musical career for the sake of getting his music out in the public eye.
Nonetheless, as Ty Carter, the promoter, recognizes, "If everybody did that . . . shit. It's a great thing. I can't say I've ever seen it. He's on a mission."
Grime acknowledges the mission that he's on. "If you're not dedicated completely to what you do, then you're not gonna be great at it, and you're not gonna be successful at it. It goes for writing, it goes for school, it goes for relationships, marriage, everything. If you're not completely dedicated to what you do and you're not passionate about it, then you're not gonna be great at it."
You could see Grime's message hitting the Tempe crowd back in February when Grime, with the live band Antedote backing him, and local hip-hop luminaries the Drunken Immortals playing, sold out the Blunt Club a solid accomplishment for an all-local bill.
Antedote busted out a live imitation of the Mars Volta sample that Konradio usually drops on the tables, before Grime assembled a who's who of local MCs onstage D.I.'s Brad B, Pokafase, and Mesi Goodness from Antedote to perform "Holding Hands" with him. Grime and the band then launched into a one-time-only cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Pocket Full of Shells." The entire room was a bouncing, slamming cluster-fuck of bodies feeling the revolution in Grime's rhymes.
If his music career doesn't launch the way he envisions it, Grime's prepared to focus his considerable energies in another direction. "The primary objective to me is the [revolutionary] movement, not individual success, not music," he says. "I told my mom that if my music career wasn't headed somewhere or significantly further than it is now, I'd give it up and try to accomplish my [revolutionary] goals by another means. I gave myself until December of 2007. I'm pouring a lot of my life and energy, and money, into this shit. If it's not turning out to be as effective as I want it to be, I'll try to accomplish my goals by other means."