dead prez is a story of both manifestation and perseverance.
There were so many times the group could’ve quit, but through the power of positive thinking, stic.man and M1 are now poised among the great revolutionary voices who’ve made their own indelible marks on Hip-Hop culture.
After a chance encounter at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1990, the duo bonded over their mutual interest in political activism, more specifically, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement.
"He was going to FAM-U at the time,” stic explains to ROCK THE BELLS. “I was just a local hoodster. I used to utilize the campus resources, and I had a lot of connections person-to-person. I was in the psychology department one day, building on the five percent supreme mathematics. M1 walked by in the hallway and recognized some of the lingo from being up north. He was like, ‘Yo, I know the math.” He came in and we started having this conversation and that was just powerful. I respected him, he respected me and we connected right there then became friends.”
Impressed by M1’s sharp wit and intelligence, stic—who was already rapping at the time—encouraged M1 to pick up the mic, and it didn’t take long for him to start penning a few bars. At one point, they went their separate ways—M1 headed to Chicago as IPDU’s local chapter president, while stic stayed behind in Florida. But as M1 was moving forward with his activism, stic found himself headed down a nefarious path, and he eventually wound up in jail. By the time stic was released, M1 had made his way back to Tallahassee and they decided Hip Hop would be their primary focus.
“We were formulating what we wanted dead prez to be,” stic says. “The Black Panthers were a big influence on us and how they organized, but we quickly saw in our neighborhoods they wasn’t on no nostalgia of the ‘60s. It was the ‘90s and Hip-Hop was the language. People weren’t reading newspapers, they were listening to the new mixtapes, so we were like, ‘OK, the voice of the movement has to be Hip-Hop now.’ We started looking at how to do that in a way that wouldn’t be corny; something the streets would really feel and would also align with the movement.”
To do that, they knew they needed to get to Loud Records in New York City, and that meant leaving the familiarity of Florida for the Big Apple.
“Our soundscape existed between really famous samples of people like The Last Poets and Gil-Scott Heron, music that comes from a people’s place,” M1 says. “The artists that were existing in that space and vibrating on our level were definitely Havoc and Prodigy of Mobb Deep. They were a little dark and came from left field with the production. They were street poets but abstract rhymesayers about how dark times could be.
“Then Wu-Tang, like RZA’s production and all their cryptic five percent, marital arts—it totally hit the mark with where stic and I were coming from. As revolutionaries, we didn’t move like musicians; we were moving more like activists because we felt like we had a mission. We didn’t think the rest of the music industry was a real viable space for us, but we felt like the guys at Loud would understand.”
On the back of one of Wu-Tang’s early records, stic and M1 saw the name Al James and cold called him. To their surprise, he answered and agreed to meet. Armed with $900 in cash and not much else, they arrived in New York City and headed straight for Victory Boulevard looking for James.
“He actually stood us up, he ghosted us,” M1 remembers. “It was cool, though. We called him on the pay phone and took the ferry to Staten Island and called him over there, but he didn’t answer anymore. Once we’d made the pilgrimage, we had to figure out what to do. We knew we didn’t have any other options at that point. I guess we could’ve given up. We did the pilgrimage with our whole crew from Tallahassee. Our collective was called Heads from the Attic. When we all went to New York, the plan was to help each other succeed in music. Life started to creep in. For some people, it was easy to get jobs or hard, but they got jobs whether it be dishwashing or some other menial type of job.
"We knew we couldn’t get a job because it would distract from the mission. We tried. We got dishwashing jobs and it would last like a day or two. It was very stressful. We were like plants withering without sun when we weren’t searching for our dream. All of our friends quit. A lot of our friends went back to Tallahassee or got jobs and fell into that grind of paying bills more than working on music. Did I think we were going to quit? Yes, of course. Hell yeah. The quit was gonna be like life got us, like we go to jail for like doing something that we thought we needed to do to survive or something of that nature. We thought the world might get us before we get our forces out. That was the fear.”
But everything changed when they met Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian. As stic explains, “We’re on our dream path with about $900 in cash amongst about nine people. So in about 30 minutes in New York, you’re bankrupt. We had some homeless days and nights on the trains. We happened to be in Brooklyn one day, surviving, and there was this big block party that happens in downtown Brooklyn called the Atlantic Antic. We walking through and we run into Lord Jamar. We thought if anybody knew where we were coming from, it would be Brand Nubian, so I approached him. He looked us up and down and was like, ‘Let me hear something.’”
stic knew it was his moment, and the pressure was on to deliver something so profound it would impress Lord Jamar—but there was one problem.
“It was some reggae shit playing!” he says with a laugh. “J was like, ‘Spit to that.’ In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘But I don’t rap to reggae.’ I looked at M, he looked at me and he was like, ‘Go for it.’ I guess it worked.”
Interestingly enough, Brand Nubian’s DJ Alamo—who dead prez had already met in Harlem—previously snubbed them.
“He fronted on us and told us our shit was too violent,” stic says. “But we was young and that’s where we was at. So Alamo said no, but we see Lord Jamar and he was like, ‘Yes.’ So the crystal ball was slightly off.”
Lord Jamar helped set up a meeting with Loud Records, but M1 admits he didn’t even know who Loud founder Steve Rifkin was back then but had heard of Matty C due to his work with The Source.
“We met Loud’s A&R’s superstar team at the time—Schott Free, Sean C and Matty C, who was behind Wu and Mobb and everybody else,” stic continues. “We had a meeting with Rifkin and showed them our little demos we’d been working on with Lord J, and Steve put his thumb up in the air.”
Finally, their dream of signing with Loud Records had some true and dead prez released their debut album, Let’s Get Free, in 2000. Twenty-two years later, “Hip Hop” is a certifiable anthem and their reputation as trailblazing truthsayers has been properly solidified, something more than evident during the 2022 BET Hip Hop Awards. As part of the 30th anniversary tribute to Loud Records, dead prez had the opportunity to perform alongside Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep’s Havoc, Fat Joe, Lil Kim, M.O.P., Lil Flip, Remy Ma, David Banner, Project Pat and Three 6 Mafia. Whether that was the spark that relit dead prez’s proverbial fuse isn’t clear, but not long after, stic revealed they’d begun working on their first album since 2012’s Information Age.
While it’s only in the early stages, they plan on releasing the album mid-2023.
“The camaraderie in the group is hot,” stic says. “I think the ‘hiatus’—which it isn’t really; we’ve each been doing crazy shit in between time individually—was needed. We needed to take a pause, rest, let it breathe, process, let other people speak, learn, live. When the energy feels right and the inspiration is not forced and there’s nothing compelling you to do it except the energy itself, that’s when you feel it.”
“I can’t give away too much, but I can say the team is back, the band is back together and the boys are back in town,” M1 says with a laugh. “We’re working with some of the people we’ve worked with over the years to cultivate the sound. We’re working with some really formidable guys. From the Loud reunion, I had the chance to speak to some of the best producers—people like Juicy J, RZA and Pete Rock, a Loud affiliate. They got really excited. Everybody wants to throw us some production.”
stic adds, “The team we’ve assembled are many of our longtime folks. We working with Sean C, we working with mentors of ours and the homies—ain’t no ‘yes folks’ around us. There’s enough people in the room saying, ‘Make sure you got some shit like this ‘cause that’s what we want!’ Don’t worry—we got you covered.”