If you want to see where Dead Prez are at right this very second, look no further than the children gracing the cover of their latest mixtape offering, Pulse of the People. Nearly a decade ago, our introduction to the Brooklyn duo came with the image of a heavily armed insurrection of African villagers that adorned the cover of their debut, Let's Get Free. Dead Prez was like that uprising village: deliberately militant, on a mission far more essential than their surroundings, and ready to crush the skulls of anyone who dared stray into their path. They were the fuck-a-cop hiphop duo that offered a beacon of hope to the oppressed, while simultaneously frightening conservative white America to its quivering core.
A few wars and presidents later, things still aren't all that different for the protagonists of Dead Prez's songs. Yet Dead Prez, artistically, are in a better place. The cover of Pulse of the People features a less confrontational assembly—young African-American kids who are all smiles—and in the duo's still-combative sound there's a sliver of hope, or at least, some stability.
"There's been growth in terms of how we express ourselves," explains stic.man, who with M1 makes up Dead Prez. "We still got the same mission, still the same struggles out here, but definitely every time we come out, we want to show another layer, another side." While no one likes a happy militant, a decade-plus of swinging fists and spitting rhymes through gnashed teeth might wear you down, and there were moments where it seemed that the Dead Prez legacy wouldn't be limited to the "political" sub-genre. This included 2004's RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta, a big-label release that featured a Jay-Z cameo and a highly controversial video for lead single "Hell Yeah." Naturally, it was rarely played.
Dead Prez's revolution was not televised, and they suffered for it. Trapped in the contractual bindings of various record labels that were never comfortable with an act of such pure combative urgency—the oddly placed censorship sticker that attempted to veil the weapons on the front of Let's Get Free is proof of this—Dead Prez was dying on the vine, a ferocious hiphop giant sawed off at the knees. Like their short-lived icons, Dead Prez were making their wish to be "between N.W.A. and P.E." a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Granted, Public Enemy still exists today, but it's been a lifetime since they were relevant.)
Pulse of the People is the third in a series of mixes, a teaser for the long-delayed LP Information Age, which stic.man promises will feature a "totally different sound and totally different approach to what people have heard from Dead Prez." Blessed by the influence of co-collaborator DJ Green Lantern, Pulse challenges longtime fans with the deep grooves of "Warpath," which blasts off in a Parliament spaceship of free-for-all funk, and the soulful, breezy "Summertime" (sample lyric: "the fan don't work but the window will/boombox propped in the window sill").
This slight shift towards steadier footing hasn't changed Dead Prez's message, best summed up by an audio sample of an interview between M1 and imprisoned activist Mumia Abu-Jamal that appears on Pulse: "You got people all around the world nodding their heads to what people are saying," Abu-Jamal says. "So when you are conscious of that, then you could do more than just say, 'This is a hustle,' 'I'm trying to make my bread,' or 'That broad got a big ass.' Come on, there's more important things in the world."