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Immortal Technique Remains Hip-Hop's Loudest Militant Rapper. But for How Long?

Immortal Technique in Kabul, Afghanistan
Immortal Technique in Kabul, Afghanistan
Cary Stuart

Few militant, socially conscious rappers embody their message as well as Immortal Technique. After the release of 2008's The 3rd World, the Harlem-based MC born Felipe Coronel took the proceeds from it and traveled to occupied Afghanistan to help Omeid International fund and build an orphanage. Then, in 2011, he released the mixtape The Martyr, and he is now readying his much anticipated third album, The Middle Passage. Though he rarely gives interviews for fear of being misquoted, he agreed to talk to us if we'd print it as a Q&A. So in advance of his show at the Observatory, here are the words of Immortal Technique, who spoke to us on the phone from London.

OC Weekly (Gabriel San Roman): What brought you to London, and what do you think about U.K. leftist rapper Lowkey's decision to retire from the game? Could you imagine yourself ever retiring from rap?

Immortal Technique: Although the primary reason for my coming here was to reconnect with old friends and such, I always take an opportunity to get work done, so I'm here working on music, writing some things for a book I have and taking a few business meetings. As for Lowkey, he took a hiatus from the game to focus on studies and to do an in-depth cultural study of several things. I have often thought about that, finishing my education. I only got two years of college in before I was incarcerated, and even though I went part-time when I got out, I never finished. I can't tell you how far away from what I thought I would be doing this is. Perhaps one day, I will go back and finish; hopefully, I'll find a school that wants me there. [Laughs.]

You mentioned a book. Is that something you're releasing in the near future? I have always written short stories, essays and pieces of a novel here and there. I have rarely ever shared any of these with people. They are part of my life and the lives I have seen around me. I'm not ready to make a formal announcement yet, but yes, there is a book in the works, and when we have a title and release date, I'll be sure to let you know, my brother. Just know this: I have several works in the process, so it's really just a question of which comes out first.

The last major tour you did was "War & Peace" with Brother Ali. What was the experience like pairing up with Brother Ali for those set of shows? Ali and I spoke for some length about this. I did my first major tour opening up for him a long time ago, and we wanted to recreate that crazy energy which I think we did. We addressed a variety of social issues on the tour. I got to connect with his supporters and he with mine. It was a win/win situation. What's really insane is that just about everything went wrong on that tour, minus the shows. We were absolutely blindsided with problems and obstacles left and right. The shows though, most sold out or were at 90% capacity and it was great energy. I think we might do a few more shows together. Ali is family to me.

What can you tell us about the focus of the forthcoming album The Middle Passage? It's a lyrically heavy album, but also a very brutal look at reality. It is the official follow-up to [his second album, 2003's] Revolutionary Vol. 2, and yet it continues where The Martyr left off. It just might be my last album, though. I don't expect they'll let me live much longer after that. However, I plan on making my escape from that destiny. I am not afraid of what people will think or say. I am confident in my ability to argue and debate my ideas and the subject matter of my music. That is what will resonate the most; not just complaints, but ideas for solutions and, of course, the stories that you people love so much.  

This deep into the Obama administration, do you see any progress in terms of hip-hop as a means of critiquing power when the President is black?

I think we can all agree that while Obama had some minor successes, he's basically a lame duck president. I don't foresee him pushing through any immigration reform, so the promise he made to Latino/Indigenous people has now become the carrot on a stick and I have been talking with many prominent activists and even Democrats about a 3rd party resurgence to make these issues center stage. In terms of the president being part black and that having a deep effect on his ability to escape the same criticism that others in his position would garner. For example, if Obama did the same exact things that he's done in his presidency, the same exact things and he was a white republican the country would be up in arms. He was not a great unifier, but he was a very successful pacifier. I say this with all due respect to his family and his intelligence which is obviously a refined set of ideas that crumbled and fell apart when put into practice. Sad truth is that he is 10 times smarter than 99% of his ideological opponents in the political arena.

However, when confronting people who bring him to task about his involvement with the black community and the issues of Urban America, he always has his little proxies come out and personally attack people. They tend to steer clear of me and I know why. When you roll in mud, you get dirty. The hog gets dirty but the hog loves it. It's a lose/lose to debate with me and other activists on these subjects. I think he's done some positive things for America. His presidency exposed the extreme bigotry and coded language of right-wing racists, but Obamacare was a confounded mess, Iraq and Afghanistan are still in shambles, Guantanamo is still open, [and he] deported more people in his first term than Bush did in his second. I could go on, but the most telling one that he once told people that he was the president of all America, not just black America. I wonder if his speech writer could have ever gotten away with anyone else delivering that line. Could you imagine Reagan saying that, or Bush saying that? Maybe their actions implied such according to many, but seriously, you have to admit he gets away with what others couldn't, which is why it always gave me the impression that he was selected, instead of simply being elected.

Politically driven festival LA Rising is coming back in 2014. You were a part of the first one. What are your thoughts on the fest, and are you performing this year? I loved LA Rising. I learned this business from old-school rock & roll guys, and so it's just always come naturally to do those shows where they really mix it up. Truthfully, I've always liked the set-up for European festivals better than American ones. They have so much of a diversity in sound for their events. I haven't heard from them yet, but maybe this article will get their attention. I guess we will have to gauge the power of your publication in that manner. If they call me now, you'll get to take some of the credit for that, and I wouldn't be mad at that. [Laughs.]

The release of The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique on DVD came in 2012. As a politically minded person, do you watch a lot of documentaries? How was the role of being the subject of one? And how has the (r)evolution of Immortal Technique continued as a person and MC since that time? I was involved in every aspect of that movie so I saw a lot of things that were happening from behind the scenes as opposed to just being the subject of a documentary. I have continued to develop, to understand more about the ever changing political spectrum. I learned more about gender politics. I became less selfish, I have been in talks about expanding my work with omeid.org. I started writing this book, preparing a scholarship program. I moved to a new place, still in Harlem but I also got myself focused on getting myself back into the best shape possible.

My girl first told me about the Observatory show saying 'Happy Valentine's Day!' What are your thoughts on significant others going out to see an Immortal Technique concert to celebrate instead of chocolate or dinner reservations? I've always had a lot of love for people at my shows who are in love or who meet each other because of me. Unlike some rappers who I've seen try and separate the dude from his girl to try and fuck her, I try not be a douchebag. I've seen people pull that trick off successfully and I've seen it crash & burn and lead to drama. That just always seemed like the wrong thing to do, just abusing your own fan base. There is something to be said about putting positive energy out there, so while some of these ladies might be gorgeous, that's just being greedy. And believe me I've met some really lovely ladies who came with their man, so I just smile and make a joke. I tell them to invite me to the wedding and that I hope she has a twin sister. I don't need to be a selfish child about things, the world is full of beautiful people.

You know all of those fans tell me they are going to invite me when I say that, but to this date, I have never gotten a wedding invite. I think it's because people think I'm joking, but I would totally come through to their wedding if I had the time. You're gonna have to pay me to perform, but if you just wanted me to chill, why the fuck not? Free food, cake, drunk happy people. The music I make be violent at times, political in its attack, but the themes of sacrifice, love and accepting people for who they are run deep. I hope more people fall in love and meet because of the art I make. I would consider that a great honor.

Immortal Technique performs with Chino XL, DJ Static, CF and Poison Pen at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sat., 7 p.m. $25. All ages.

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