Throughout 2023, KEXP is celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop. Each week we'll celebrate a different year in hip-hop, this week we're focusing on 1994 with an essay from Larry Mizell Jr. on Organized Konfusion's "Stress." Read/listen to the piece below and subscribe to the 50 Years of Hip-Hop podcast.
My brain, can't even rest
It's hard to maintain the pressure on my chest
Excess frustration strikes!”
One of the (if not the) most underrated outfits of the 1990’s, Organized Konfusion are one of the preeminent cult favorite crews amongst the backpack-era elite, renowned properly as futuristic forerunners of style and flow.
Straight outta Southside Queens, Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch started out as the Simply II Positive MC’s, promising understudies of the genius producer/engineer Paul C, a revered innovator on the boards that helped push the sophistication of hip-hop records. Despite some label attention for their initial demos, the group remained unsigned; Paul C’s murder in 1989 would seem to derail their trajectory, until the Disney-owned Hollywood Basic label scooped them up, releasing their stellar self-produced 1991 debut album. Though the album was praised in the pages of The Source (and the song “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” was quietly regarded amongst heads as mind-blowing), their label’s promotion was minimal, and OK failed to make noise or garner much sales.
By the time of their sophomore effort three years later, it felt like Prince and Pharoahe not only had something to prove, but that their very lives were on the line. The pair rapped like they were trying to dictate scripture from beyond while awaiting their last breaths in the gas chamber; the gases released this time around were far more caustic.
“I insert my lifeline into the track, the energy
In me is a poison with no un-revealed remedy
I'm spreading, like leprosy, throughout the record label
'Cause mines put me and Monch's career in jeopardy
Can you come see me in the ghetto where it's dark
Bullets are real lost peeps lurks in the heart
Lord knows it hurts, we kick the herbs to the curb
Execute first things first, and put blunted minds to work
My herd's tight and my fans supports
So I'm aight for the time being seeing peace
But taking no shorts…”
The title track to their 1994 opus Stress: the Extinction Agenda trains their focus on a killer of Black folks that isn’t gun violence or the police—rather, the one felt in the heart and veins, manifested in Black people as shortened lifespans and hypertension, at levels significantly higher than in any other group. Stress. The legacy of previous generations—something like 15 of them—impossibly traumatized at the hands of white supremacy, socio-economic terrorism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
I’m not even talking about the structural, institutional racism that are the bones of our society, what Biggie called the Everyday Struggle. Nor the environmental poisons that descendants of enslaved people disproportionately live amongst, or how the effects of enduring everyday racism promote inflammation, one of the main drivers of disease. Not even the obscene maternal mortality rates of Black women.
I’m talking about those wounds of yesterday that literally live in our individual bodies and minds today. I’m talking about what Dr. Joy DeGruy termed Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. I’m talking about how studies have shown how trauma can change DNA, and how that trauma-borne mutation can be passed down. Stress.
All of which feels appropriate to Organized Konfusion’s ahead-of-their-time status, since the very title of their 1994 album almost seems to thematically anticipate these more recent epigenetic findings, as it borrowed the name of one of my all-time favorite comic book crossover events, 1990’s X-Tinction Agenda. In it, the X-Men (and their related mutant teams) found themselves at war with the fictional apartheid nation of Genosha, whose society had been built on the back of mutant slavery. Mutants were regularly kidnapped, mind-wiped, robbed of their identity and employed as drones to serve the status quo. (Has Storm ever encountered side effects of the Genegineer’s programming she endured way back when?) It was a proper apartheid-era update of the X-Men’s original 1960’s origins as a metaphor for oppressed minorities, as well as a perfect inspiration for the frustration and anxiety at the heart of Organized’s sophomore album.
On its title track, the pressure is relentless—the paranoid beat from producer Buckwild samples a sinister bassline from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and screws down a scorching trumpet and sax cacophony from Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Fingus No. 2”. The effect is akin to having a heart attack aboard a submarine taking depth charges. In the track’s mostly monochromatic video, the pair are seen trudging through knee-deep snow, Prince shirtless, like hiphop supersoldiers on the Eastern Front. Pharoahe declares that you henceforth refer to him as “the apocalyptic one”, chastises radio-rap lemmings and brags of enjoying the taste of radioactive waste. The Marvel-inspired mixed-media of the album cover couldn't be more apt.
Yes, there can be no discussion of The Extinction Agenda without talking about its iconic cover, with a hulking Pharoahe and a hammer-gripping Prince Po depicted as superheroes wielding the power cosmic. A cosmos of stars (and a constellation of faces) glow within their bodies, energy crackling around their hands, Jack Kirby cast in Krylon. The pair stand atop an abstract island of cut-out mishmash evoking a heaving morass of stress and despair; behind them, their Southside hood is a cauldron of bubbling molten magma. In a visual era dominated by grim photorealistic iconography, this unforgettable image stands out as singular. It is the work of the prodigiously talented artist Matt Reid, better known as Matt Doo, a beloved Queens original whose cult-favorite work graced the covers of a number of albums, singles and magazines. It was around Christmas of 1998, four years after creating the perfect visual component to OK’s bleak lyrical adventurism, that Matt Doo was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 28 years old.
If Organized’s Stress did somewhat better than their eponymous debut, it also was swamped in a flood of critically lauded classics with big machines behind them. 1994 brought us debuts from Nas, Outkast, and Biggie, whose album Ready To Die was a big-budget, cinematic work of Bed-Stuy Scorsese, nihilistic, sarcastic, and in case the title didn't tip you off–deeply depressed. The album ended with “Suicidal Thoughts”, a song that for me, hit a little too deeply–as a listener who’d himself been dealing with some degree of suicidal ideation since, well, the late 80s. I’ve wondered a lot recently if depression runs in my family, and imagining my dad or my uncles struggling behind closed doors is a sobering, angering notion, though I’m not sure who I’m mad at.
Stress is wack. It was just a couple weeks ago that I was telling my therapist how I was feeling stressed about coming back to work after a few weeks off, after my yearly dose of holiday-related stress, guilt, and withdrawal; I didn't mention the guilt I feel even being able to take time off in the first place, though.
I told her about how the last thing I worked on for Sound & Vision was about Black death, and how even though I worked hard to get it right, there’s parts in it that made me wonder if I was playing into played-out narratives about Black life. Because i have to represent, and get it right. As a Black person who finds themselves in non-Black spaces, it doesn't always feel like you get to be an individual. You’re often conscious of somebody viewing you as an avatar for an entire people. You do it to yourself, too. Running the piece back, there’s one turn of phrase that actually makes me wonder if I failed my people. I think about white colleagues from the past and present and wonder how often they feel anything like that.
The phrase “how do you sleep at night” comes to mind, as I stay up way too late, struggling to articulate a million different things in a piece ostensibly about a 30-year-old rap song. (Black folks apparently on the whole get less sleep than anybody in the US for some reason, and it supposedly dates back to slavery.)
I told my shrink I was working on a piece about a song called “Stress”, and she groaned as I slightly spun out about how meta and literal I was being. Yeah, it’s all just a little too on the nose. Maybe I need to, you know, go for a walk, touch some grass as the kids say, and relax, before stress takes me under. It is indeed like a jungle sometimes, and sometimes your feet are the best exit strategy.
Case in point: the mid-song execution of a racist cab driver on the album version of “Stress”. It might seem an overreaction, and is, but as someone who frequently had to have his white bandmates hail cabs for him after shows, even here in progressive Seattle, not even 20 years ago—as Chris Rock once said: I understand. It’s frustrating, trivial on it’s own, but just one of those thousand thousand cuts that drain you over the course of a life that tends to be shorter and more stressed out than most.
In 1994, there was a skit on Michael Moore’s shortlived show TV Nation (written by Chappelle’s Show alum Rusty Cundieff) where Yellow cab after Yellow Cab passed right by the iconic character actor Yaphet Kotto, who stood on a NYC street corner, trying to hail them down—instead stopping about 50 feet up the block to pick up a white man (that happened to be a convicted murderer), also trying to hail the same a cab. In 1999, the beloved Danny Glover, a face you’d think was pretty well-known from starring in the blockbuster Lethal Weapon franchise among other things, had to file a discrimination claim with the NYC City Taxi and Limousine Commission. I don’t know, maybe cabbies just hated him in Predator 2.
During the production of the Stress album, OK carried records and equipment onto bus, train and taxi to get to Manhattan and back. Trying to catch a taxi was a frequent ordeal. “We had money,” Prince Po said in a 2014 interview. “But the money couldn’t buy the trust of a cab driver to take us home. So it was like, ‘We’ll pay you up front.’ But it didn’t matter. The racism was that thick in New York.”
This was, after all, the same year that President Bill Clinton signed into effect the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The Crime Bill gave us terms like “three strikes”, and would result in the choice moment of our then-First Lady warning of “super predators–no conscience, no empathy”, and how they must be “brought to heel”. That term was coined by Princeton academic John J. DiIulio Jr. in “The Coming of the Super-Predators”, a cover story in the conservative Weekly Standard. “They place zero value on the lives of their victims,” he wrote, “whom they reflexively dehumanize as just so much worthless ‘white trash’". Oh. Super-predators, then, were from the start coded as nonwhites that literally preyed on whites.
The man who drafted the Senate version of the ‘94 Crime Bill, then-Senator Joe Biden of the great state of Delaware, would a few years later say during a speech at an Attorneys General Conference speech that: “unless we do something about that cadre of young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing, a portion will become the predators 15 years from now…They are beyond the pale, many of those people. We have no choice but to take them out of society.”
I know that the guy that is today our President was, in that instance, speaking specifically about a segment of hardcore repeat offenders in the system, and not, as some bad-faith Facebook viral clips would have it, speaking broadly about African Americans in general. But when I know how many folks can’t, or won’t, tell the difference in the first place–when I think about how many people he helped incarcerate and institutionalize; when I wonder how much of all these worries belong to my own experience, and not to some bio/psychological viral load I inherited along with my big nose and curly hair, I wonder, at the end of the day: what agenda does it all serve?
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