To a guy like DJ/producer T.J. Terry, hip and hophave been fighting words. When he was young, the kids in his classes constantly baited him for being a white dude obsessed with music made by minorities. He fought back with his fists, a strategy that works well if your goal is to miss school. He was expelled from just about every high school in Anaheim.
Now, a decade later, Terry—you can call him by his DJ handle, Deadbeat—produces music for his hip-hop crew, Science Project. He lives with punk rockers in a Long Beach house, and, years after high school ended, he's defending hip-hop all over again.
"People think MTV videos are hip-hop. They laugh at the money and the 'hos in the videos. My housemates identify with the punk scene. They say it's more real than all the yo-yo-yo-wassup they see in hip-hop," says Deadbeat, who looks something like a Chicano beatnik, with his thin beard and shoulder-length locks.
But Deadbeat's got a better defense now: music that's faster than his fists. In Science Project, with MCs Relentless (born Ralph Perez) and Express (Anthony Thomas), Deadbeat sculpts a tough hip-hop that calls out everything from violence-loving, bling-bling-wearing MCs to sly politicians who play hide-and-seek with the truth.
Like most musicians, the Science Project crew fantasize about making a music that can't easily be labeled. Relentless says such rock influences as Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine help take their music beyond categories. But Science Project is part of a movement nearly as old as hip-hop itself. It's about returning the music to its roots of rocking parties and speaking truth. That's part of what makes their music refreshing, says Maggie Gutierrez, a DJ who produces Anything Fresh night Tuesdays at Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar. "They relate to the crowd more," she says. "They don't need to dress crazy or act crazy, and that's rare to find."
A recent Anything Fresh show found Science Project looking like anything but a collection of scowling political firebrands—they were having too much fun for that. Relentless, a six-four, 350-pound giant with a wooly Afro, busted freestyle rhymes at center stage. To his left was the lean MC Express, matching and one-upping his rhymes in a sometimes urgent, sometimes graceful patter. Deadbeat, meanwhile, controlled the mix board and turntables, and added raps with a high, nasal voice reminiscent of Zack de la Rocha.
Their political reputation precedes them. They're one of 10 bands invited to perform this month at the California NAACP Hip-Hop Weekend, a summit exploring connections between hip-hop and social action. Listening to Science Project's music is also a clue they're concerned with something tougher than a midnight snack at J-Lo's house.
"When I think of my beats, I think of wet concrete," Deadbeat says. "It's slippery, hard hip-hop."
And it's a tough, spare mix, occasionally accented by Middle Eastern sounds and spidery basslines. On top of this, Deadbeat, Relentless and Express bust snarling rhymes. Take their song "Hate," a protest against post-Sept. 11 anti-Muslim hysteria: "If the Constitution is a contract/The government just breached," Deadbeat raps. Relentless joins in to lay out the rest of their case: "Hate fueled fire/Inspired by the liar/Death brought tragedy/Life blanketed by fallacy."
But a lot of their anger is reserved for the effect modern, commercialized hip-hop has on kids. On their track "Faade," Relentless raps, "There's a young 12-year-old white child in the suburbs dying right now because Jay-Z told him to get some bling." But Relentless insists he's no prude, and knows from his experiences working at a group home for foster kids in Newport Beach.
"It made me more aware of our society and how we treat our kids," he says. "No one listens to 14- or 15-year-olds. No one validates their feelings." So they escape through hip-hop. "Our entertainment system tells them to be overtly sexual at a young age, and that's totally insane. They're watching videos where women are being objectified on screen. That's where they learn women are to be used for sex, just to get bitches."
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So would someone like Senator Joe Lieberman approve of Science Project's music while at the same time curtailing the marketing of violent hip-hop to minors (or perhaps you've forgotten Holy Joe's Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001)? Relentless hopes not. "I'm not for censoring. There's freedom of speech, but be aware of what you're putting out there—how it will affect someone in the future, how it will affect a young kid."
Science Project hope to see some success before Lieberman tanks in the 2004 presidential election. They've toured with underground hip-hop acts like Busdriver, and they're independently releasing a 12-inch single called "Bad Brains" while searching for a record deal. As challenging as their music is, Deadbeat confesses to occasionally worrying that their uncompromising stance could hurt them.
"We've had record industry people say that if we were more fun, they'd make us huge," Deadbeat says. "But we're not going to jump on any bandwagon. I hope we're around long enough to say that we never compromised."
Science Project perform with AWOL One, Kosmic Four and DJ Strong at The Pier (formerly Live bait), 6251 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 596-7522. SAT., 11 p.m. $10-$15. 18+.