Paris Is Burning: Bay Area Emcee's Unfiltered Black Rage Is Forever Necessary
By Stereo Williams
"Early hip-hop was influential to me and affected me in a way that made me want to participate in the game and make a difference. I always wanted to do music that had something to say, and early hip-hop nurtured that, so I recognize the impact music has on us.”
Paris said those words back in 2003, when George W. Bush was still in the White House, the “War On Terror” was flashing across American TV screens everyday and 9/11 was still fresh in our collective consciousness. At the time, he was at the center of controversy for his album Sonic Jihad, a blazing attack on the Bush administration that echoed the belief that the September 11 attacks were an inside job. For anyone who’d been paying attention, Paris courting controversy was nothing new. By 2003, he was almost 15 years into a career of pushing buttons and provoking the status quo.
Born Oscar Jackson, Jr., he’d initially planned to work as a stockbroker after studying managerial economics at UC Davis. While still in school, he’d gotten the bug to make music, and started recording demos. He landed a deal with Tommy Boy Records, and dropped his classic debut album The Devil Made Me Do It in 1990. From the very beginning, it was clear that Paris had a laser-like focus on race and social issues, and it was clear that he didn’t care about making white people uncomfortable. At a time when topical rap lyrics were highly visible from artists like Public Enemy and Ice Cube, Paris was deemed “The Black Panther of Hip-Hop” in reference to the famed Party For Self Defense and the rapper’s penchant for evoking the Panthers in his music and videos.
The early 90s wave of political Hip-Hop in the mainstream would be interrupted by the harangues of watchdog groups and Capitol Hill.
This was especially true after the controversy surrounding Ice-T's heavy metal band Body Count releasing their 1992 song "Cop Killa." Time Warner would eventually drop Body Count; and with more scrutiny on hip-hop artists lyrics, Paris was refused distribution. His battle with the label over his album Sleeping With The Enemy eventually sparked his exit from Tommy Boy; he would land on Priority Records and launch his own label Scarface Records and spotlighting other Bay Area artists like The Conscious Daughters. He would eventually forge ahead as an independent, with Guerilla Funk Recordings, sustaining a career that would span decades.
“Major labels want to keep everything dumb,” Paris said in 2016 . “They want to keep everything artificially dumb, artificially young and easy to pair with Toyota or Burger King or whatever.”
His frustration with the industry pushed him out of it for a time. His relationship with Priority soured quickly, and Paris resumed his career as a stockbroker in the late 1990s. But it was to fuel his creative endeavors, as he returned to music in the early 2000s with a vengeance. For many, his 2003 album Sonic Jihad was a jarring re-emergence, with many distributors refusing to stock it in stores.
"Since I already know that out of the gate Sonic Jihad is not going to be in Wal-Mart and Target and all that, it's important for me to find a way in which I can do it on my own and bypass the traditional methods," Paris said in a 2003 interview with The New York Times. "And the Internet is really the last great unclaimed territory where I don't have to worry about payola or commercial endorsements or diluting the music. I don't have to have one foot in the commercial water and one foot out. I can just kick you where it counts with it, like I know you need to be kicked."
When the artwork for Sonic Jihad became public (it depicted a Boeing jet flying towards the White House), . At the time, Paris criticized mainstream Hip-Hop for not speaking truth to power.
“I run my own production, label and website independently from the majors,” he told Designer. “But for the people that get the benefit of major exposure as a result of being affiliated with a major label, none of them are political. Most hip-hop artists quite honestly are apolitical. They don't know and they don't care to know. They're removed from the political process and they're removed from commentary on certain issues. They have a sort of dogmatic tunnel vision when it comes to things they don't know.”
Of course, the world feels more politically-charged today than it did in the early 2000s, which is a telling commentary considering all that was going on, even then. But social media, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Trump presidency and a host of national and international incidents have galvanized so many to take to the streets. It was in that very modern cultural climate that Paris released his album Safe Space Invader in late 2020, attacking racism, cannibus mainstreaming, cancel culture and gentrification.
“There's more to us than pimpin’, more to us than bangin’ and dope - but you wouldn't know that watching BET. Or listenin’ to the radio."
'I bang on the SYSTEM and take aim at those who oppress us, instead of aiming at us. I know our enemies’ agenda and who they are - and my enemy does NOT look like me.
We’re all in this together. It's just that most of us aren't up on the way things really are. We’re not up on why conditions exist the way they do in our communities - we just deal with it. I wanna make music that makes us focus on real issues that affect us, instead of music that diverts our attention from real issues that need to be dealt with.”
Paris said those words more than 15 years ago. They'll always be relevant as long as Hip-Hop culture, and Black culture, are hyper-commodified by industries that only intend to exploit and get rich from it. There are topical artists who are consistently challenging the trends of the moment, and there's room for all kinds of voices in Hip-Hop. But Paris is always necessary, first as a young firebrand, now as an elder statesman, because his vision is always urgent and necessary. For more than 30 years, Paris has burned, he's burned for his people, he's burned for freedom, he's burned for the right to express himself as he chooses.
Hip-Hop is stronger because Paris has never let his fire go out.