Photo by John PikcelleSmoke weed, or rhyme? That was the choice Mic Hempstead and his hip-hop crew Freedom Smugglers faced as they watched video of warplanes bombing Baghdad on the first night of Gulf War II.
Their decisions were usually easier, but not that night. This politically minded troupe from Santa Ana and Costa Mesa had protested rumors of the war a few weeks earlier, but now that it was happening they figured they had to take some kind of stand.
First, the dreadlocked Hempstead (born Miguel Evans) and fellow MC A-Rush (born Arash Imani) started freestyling raps on the avarice of war—synonyms for oil came up a lot. Then the rest of the crew—around 10 people—caught their angry, righteous vibe.
MC Merdok (born Avetis Militonyan) spouted his feelings about the broadcast they were watching: "Don't believe the lies that flooded through the network/Messages mixed enough to make your head jerk." Later, Hempstead and Arush busted raps in Spanish and French, respectively. Take that, Ann Coulter!
With the deft production work of the Smugglers' DJ/producer ESL! (born Edgar Garcia), they recorded their rhymes, and with a tweaking of a solemn-sounding tape loop of flute and percussion their stinging condemnation of the war, "Black Gold," was created that same night.
But they didn't rush out into the streets and bark it on corners. Instead, they waited until they could unleash the full sonic power of everything else that was on their minds.
Now they're ready. After more than a decade of doing political hip-hop in OC, they've produced a white-hot petition of grievances against American politics, Freedom Heist, released on their indie label, Noisy Neighbors. It's packed with tuneage like "Drown in the Dirt," a protest of environmental degradation set to a sample of classical Mexican guitar. There's "Truth Has Come (T.H.C.)," which uses a mysterious harp loop to talk about the genocide of Native Americans. A bouncy jazz bass line mixes their distaste for the current White House occupant with a plea for marijuana legalization in "Mr. Prezident."
Rapping about politics and hip-hop itself has set them apart, and not just because most commercial hip-hop heads are more into gangsta or bling-bling rhymes. It's also because OC's hip-hop community has historically been tiny and disrespected, according to veteran local promoter and DJ Cocoe.
"People used to say, 'Y'all from Orange County, you don't know shit,'" says Cocoe, born Konstadinos Tsimahidis. "We had to work harder here. Mic Hempstead and the Freedom Smugglers did their part to hold it down."
They were one of the mainstays at Cocoe's Abstract Workshop club, one of the few havens for underground OC hip-hop in the late '90s. Before that, the only people they had to play with were like-minded music types—punk bands with a penchant for protest.
Gigging with the punks at places like the old Koo's Caf gave them ideas, one of the most important being "Promote your own shows and people will come." They started building a little hip-hop community, got a little notice, and even opened for De La Soul at the Galaxy Theater in 1996.
But they stayed true to their style, rapping about injustice, of which they've seen plenty. Half the Smugglers, such as MC Stew (born Eric Malcumb) and Rah-bu (born Ronnie Chapman), are black; the other half are immigrants from Armenia and Iran. Some, like Hempstead, came to America illegally.
"We were running through the hills by San Diego," remembers Hempstead, who left his home in the southern Mexican state of Coahilla at age seven and is now a U.S. citizen. "[Border patrol] helicopters were looking for us, flashing their lights. Guides were telling us what to do, when to duck, when to run. It was really scary. You don't know if you're going to make it. You don't know where you're going. All you know is that your family is going to a better place. That's why you're going through it."
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Their parents eventually became American success stories, finding blue-collar jobs and saving up to buy middle-class homes in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. The Smugglers all met each other at different stops along the public school system—Hempstead and ESL! in elementary school, Merdok in junior high, Arush in community college, and the rest through hip-hop shows.
After looking for companies to distribute Freedom Heist, the Smugglers will start releasing solo work from Merdok and some of the other Smugglers. Plan on it being political, too, something their aural art form demands, says Hempstead.
"Hip-hop has to be a voice for the voiceless. That's why we talk political stuff. It's something for people who are not being heard."
Freedom Smugglers perform at the Prospector, 2400 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 438-3839. Thurs., Sept. 11, 11 p.m. $5. 21+.