In his 1994 single “Juicy,” the Notorious B.I.G. turned the 1993 World Trade Center bombings into a punch line (“Time to get paid / Blow up like the World Trade”), and after 9/11 you could feel a lot of MCs fighting the temptation to do something similar. Maybe because that tragedy was so much larger, most had the good taste to steer clear. Even eight years later, the extended 9/11 metaphor Jay-Z attempts on The Blueprint 3—proposing an analogy between the crack game and the WTC attacks on the third verse of “Thank You”—feels pretty tacky. So it seems like a safe bet that the Clear Channels and MTVs of the world aren’t ready for the trio of Chicago rappers who call themselves Bin Laden Blowin’ Up.
Jasson Perez, Richard “Epic” Wallace, and Michael “Illekt” Milam often shorten the group’s name to BBU, which can also stand for “Black, Brown, and Ugly”—Wallace is African-American, Milam is Puerto Rican, and Perez is both. But either way it’s obvious they’ve got politics on their minds.
The name “was supposed to be like Public Enemy or the Dead Kennedys,” says Perez. “It was supposed to be in-your-face.” The music, on the other hand, is full of bangin’ club-friendly hooks that help the message go down easy. “I was surprised, maybe foolishly, that we’d get confused for party-rap shit,” Perez explains, “because we really tried to make sure our name was not glossy.”
BBU make some of the best dance-floor hip-hop in Chicago, though, thumping with the restless energy of juke and Baltimore club, so they’d better get used to having their tracks mistaken for party-rap shit. Not everybody is going to pay attention to their lyrics or pick up on the touch of punk prickliness in their delivery. If you’ve only heard one BBU song, it’s likely the lethally infectious juke-hop anthem “Chi Don’t Dance,” recorded last year and a steady-growing phenomenon since the spring. And it’s a case in point: over a hazy, weirdly melancholy minor-key synth figure and a stripped-down beat that’s almost double the tempo of a laid-back G-funk cut, a chanted mob vocal worthy of a So So Def Bass All-Stars comp tells us that “Chi don’t dance no more / All we do is juke,” and between choruses the three MCs trade double-time raps a la “Bombs Over Baghdad.” It’s such a simple, addictive track (and spends so much time talking about dancing) that you might be surprised by the content of those rapid-fire rhymes: “BET taught me to hate me,” “Red black green / Let’s get free,” “No bitches, no hos / We ride with queens.”
BBU came together two and a half years ago in a relatively politicized corner of the city’s underground hip-hop scene, a loose circuit of DIY spaces where rappers and spoken-word artists tend to spit their diatribes about social injustice to other rappers and spoken-word artists. Both individually and as BBU they were regulars at Quennect 4, an activism-minded arts space near North and California, and until recently—maybe nine or ten months ago—they stuck mostly to DIY shows for ideological reasons. Now they’re trying to bring the conscious message of Bin Laden Blowin’ Up out into the larger world. They’ve put out all their songs for free through MySpace and other online outlets, and that’s also how they plan to release their first mix tape, which they hope to have finished in November.
“These dudes,” Milam says of his partners, “they love to go to a straight-up hip-hop show and see, like, Atmosphere and get down to that, but then they’re like, ‘Damn, man. I still have all this energy,’ and they’ll run off to a Flosstradamus show and dance and have fun. It was like, ‘How can we bring those two worlds together and not be lame about it?'”
“We want music that we can send to our cousin or whoever’s locked up,” Perez explains, “and they can relate to it and get down to it and have it not sound like a Mos Def thing.”
I figure that’s as close as he’s going to get to saying BBU want to reach fans who don’t hang out with white kids—the three of them are hardly hostile to the north-side scene, but they don’t want to end up roped into it either.
For BBU, though, what’s more urgent than avoiding the hipster-hop pigeonhole is bucking the stereotypes attached to conscious rap. “We want to push hip-hop forward,” Perez says. “We all felt like that Beatminerz shit, that 88-Keys shit, was dope, we fucking love it, but that shit got caught in a box, and that box was a coffee shop, nag champa, and whatever the fuck it was.”
“A lot of cats can MC or whatever,” says Wallace, “but can you turn out a beat that’s at 180 BPM and spit some conscious shit?”
On “We Came to Dance,” BBU prove they can do just that. The song actually runs at something closer to 185 beats per minute—a flurry of looped hand claps, woozy synths, and rapid-fire bass a la B-more house—but the lyrics read like something straight out of the nag champa ghetto, mentioning raised fists, Fela Kuti, and Nina Simone and breaking the beat down for a shout of “power to the people in the motherland.”
BBU doesn’t so much write issue songs as try to map a common ground where people can come together. The two most obvious inspirations, both mentioned in their lyrics, are OutKast and Dead Prez, who’ve managed to push politics—sometimes of a rather militant strain—onto the charts. “There wouldn’t be a BBU without Dead Prez,” says Perez. Wallace calls sharing the Logan Square Auditorium’s stage with them at an April benefit organized by the Gaza Aid Project “life-changing.” But in “We Came to Dance” Perez also drops a reference to the Bad Brains’ Rock for Light, and it’s more than a throwaway. Milam played in punk bands and put on basement shows in high school. “I was going to Clemente,” he says. “In the daytime I was smoking blunts with the bangers, and at night I’d be right down the block from the Fireside at a leftist book store.”
Getting a club full of partyers to chant “power to the people in the motherland” is an impressive accomplishment in and of itself, but unlike a lot of allegedly activist musicians, BBU walk the walk. Perez is a community representative for the Service Employees International Union Local 73, fighting the privatization of public services in the schools and parks—or, as he puts it, making sure Daley doesn’t “fuck over” city employees, “which he does on a regular basis.” Wallace works for a halfway house in Berwyn called the Universal House of Refuge Center, advocating for “post-incarcerated individuals,” which often means helping them find jobs or navigate bureaucracies. “They’re legitimate people who paid their price to society,” he says, “and still get the shit end of the stick.” He developed a west-side HIV and STD outreach program that he hopes to get the city involved in—it offers referrals and substance-abuse counseling and regularly sets up a street-corner grill in high-risk neighborhoods, offering free food and Best Buy gift cards to anyone willing to get tested. And he missed a post-Lollapalooza BBU performance this year because he had a commitment in West Africa, helping raise an orphanage in Benin and traveling in Togo and Ghana. And Milam, whose day job is at Niketown, has spent time building community gardens and working on community art projects for Architreasures and Bickerdike.
“We feel like a lot of people making conscious music weren’t actually out there, you know, knocking on doors,” says Perez. “They’d be like, ‘Fuck this, fuck that,’ but you don’t see them handing out condoms in the club or getting you to register to vote.”