Born in Lima, Peru, raised on the streets of Harlem during the rise of hip-hop and now…playing in Southampton? Last week, Felipe Andres Cornel aka Immortal Technique, one of the most successful independent hip-hop artists in the world, played to a packed out crowd at The Cellar. Refusing to ever sign to a label, Technique made his name as a battle rapper and used his winnings to fund his early projects. He is now responsible for his own beats, marketing and distribution. “If you act like a puppet,” he says, “don’t be surprised when someone puts their hand up your ass.” Known for his attacks on the US government, news corporations and the mainstream music industry, the self-proclaimed revolutionary has also funded the construction of an orphanage in Afghanistan and was recently at the forefront of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. Immortal Technique is not your average rapper.
I was exposed to his music at the age of 15, when I thought I knew about rap because I liked 50 Cent and D12. Someone played me ‘Dance with the Devil’, Technique’s underground classic about a young man who rapes his own mother in the pursuit of “the Scarface fantasy stuck in his brain.” The bitches, blunts and Benz’s lifestyle I had previously lapped up suddenly looked shallow.
But there is more to his music than its shock factor; behind the New York Yankees fitted cap and the Harlem slang is a man with a message. Even his memorabilia makes you think; the t-shirt which he wears in most of his interviews shows an AK47 and reads ‘Immortal Technique, est. 1492’, the year Columbus discovered the Americas.
I interviewed him before his set in a quiet back room, and after I had spluttered that he was a hero of mine, we had an intriguing conversation. “It used to be like ‘yo, I’m a rapper, I’m on stage so I’m better than you, I’m gonna f*ck your girl’, but then my people were like ‘no, you’re just a skinny little n*gga with a microphone.’ I always wanted to stay humble and remember my roots… I still remember the first paycheck I got for $25, it’s pinned up on my wall to remind me where I came from’. When I asked him if that was payment from his first show he smiled- ‘no, I got it when I got out of prison’. He was very animated when he spoke, sitting forward and gesticulating, and it was clear seeing him talk about his past that my romanticised 15-year-old image of the gangster lifestyle was far removed from the life that he was describing – ‘I had nothing, man’.
Despite the fact that it was his idea to meet and talk with a few lucky fans before the show, I had walked in half-expecting Technique to be surrounded by groupies and security, but nothing about his tone or what he had said seemed to fit with the stereotype of the modern rapper.
The sentiment of his performance later on echoed the impression he gave off in the interview. He interacted a lot with the crowd, doing impressions of record executives and making fun of us. People were shouting things like ‘f*ck the system’ and ‘fight until the end’ but the mood of the night wasn’t hostile –‘I like these little intimate shows, everybody feels like family’. The warm up MCs, Swave Sevah and Poison Pen, were self-deprecatory and funny. Whilst their subject matter was the ‘enemies die slow’ kind of stuff, they adapted their set for the English audience; changing ‘the Harlem way’ to ‘the Hampton way’ and mocking each other – ‘this is the most energetic fat n*gga I know’.
The Cellar was a good venue for the show; with the low stage and capacity crowd there was a real buzz about the place by the time Technique appeared in his camouflage trousers and signature Yankees cap. He started by declaring that ‘hip hop has no race, no nationality, no religion, no gender…we are one, regardless of our birthplace’ and this was a recurring theme throughout the performance. He explained the messages behind several of his songs and in doing so frequently criticised more mainstream rappers for lacking the humility to engage with their fans – ‘I’m not just gonna do the show and f*ck off’. The penultimate song, ‘Dance with the Devil’, was performed with such emotion that the crowd almost slowed to a halt, haunted by the brutality of the story. After nearly 2 hours, as sweaty as the audience, Technique ended by saying, ‘we are one human race, anyone that tells you we’re not has an agenda’.
Whether or not you like his music, Technique’s message cannot be seen as manufactured. In 2006, he led a campaign against the closure of a small farm in a Mexican part of Los Angeles because he questioned the morality of the buyers, he donates the proceeds from his mixtapes to charity and after every show he stays behind to sign fans’ memorabilia. After Monday’s performance he signed CDs and scraps of paper for what felt like half of Southampton.
The size of Immortal Technique’s loyal network of supporters is testament to his music as well as his ethos; it is rare to see a contemporary artist so engaged with his fan base. His radical subject matter may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least it’s not a façade. Those lucky enough to see him perform know that when he says ‘I am not the revolution, you are not the revolution, we are the revolution!’ he means it. And I certainly believed him when he told me – ‘I’ve lived through a lot of what I write’.