As a teacher, I have this weakness, which is that I seem to be unable to not answer a question, no matter how completely off-topic it is. This can lead to some interesting conversations. Mostly I get around it by talking sixteen to the dozen, which takes care of my British, American and Scandinavian students, who mostly have a fairly strong cultural predisposition not to interrupt. But when you get interrupters — I had some students from a Middle Eastern country this summer, and they didn’t give a shit if I was talking — you can have some good digressions. They wanted to know about everything from the royal baby to the international situation to how long I’d been married to the Illuminati. I thought — hang on, the Illuminati?
Now, I am no expert on the Illuminati. I know them as the sort-of subject of some novels and also as one of those mystico-political outfits you got around the time of the Enlightenment. I’m not going to go looking them up, but that’s the gist of my understanding. But of course, we’re not talking about the historical Illuminati, we’re talking about the conspiracy theory Illuminati. And more to the point, we’re talking about the pop-culture Illuminati.
At the risk of being an old man, when I was a kid talking about the Illuminati was a sign that you were either a sort of countercultural type or a loonie. It wasn’t a sign that you were in the know, because most of us didn’t know shit about anything. But it indicated a certain … mindset, I guess? And of course the people who grew up in that age are now making music and the music is popular, and the kids they love the Illuminati. I was asked if Jay-Z was in the Illuminati, a situation I consider unlikely, but a quick Google search informs me that I appear to be alone in my opinion.
Anyway, that isn’t what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the much narrower topic of pseudoarchaeology in hip-hop. Yeah!
Now there’s a couple of different strains of pseudoarchaeology in the world of hip-hop. One of the most common has its roots in the various African-American nationalist movements, and is basically about constructing some kind of coherent history for black Americans. This can range from pretty much proper history to conspiracy theory stuff about mad scientists and all sorts. Here’s a middle-of-the-road example, Canibus’s Nature of the Threat:
Now, that’s within an existing pseudoarchaeological tradition, and one that ties into all sorts of social movements that I don’t want to get into here — but it’s not too uncommon for groups who feel marginalised.
But the issue was actually brought to mind by a Jedi Mind Tricks (featuring Killah Priest) track, Saviorself. Worth noting: Jedi Mind Tricks producer Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind (and isn’t that a great name?) produced one of Canibus’s albums, so there’s a link there — but the Jedi Mind Tricks track has a lot more loopy ancient history stuff in general.
Now, in case you’re reading this at work or something, here’s a section of the lyrics
I built with Alexander the Great
He told the Persians they should stay gone
Then he told me ’bout the oracle of Amon
He gave me no clue where it is
Men fear time, yet time fears the Pyramids
He gave me more jewels
He told me that Amenhotep was immortal
I can’t overstand hieroglyph
So I called Killah Priest and he taught me how to follow it
I walked through the Valley of the Kings
With a white robe, white rose and Muwali rings(?)
And your whole team Judas
My road (possibly robe?) thin, gold skin like Zeus’s
I speak the dialogue of the dead
I practice the same war tactics in King Arthur’s head
So let the swordsmen kill the beast
It’s the Legacy of Blood with Vinnie Paz and Killah Priest
And that’s only a part of it — in as many lines, Paz (Vinnie Paz, the rapper from Jedi Mind Tricks) calls in elements of three different periods of Egyptian history, King Arthur, and even a nod to Rastafarianism (“overstand” is a Rastafarian thing, at least originally).
Now, obviously this doesn’t form any kind of coherent pseudoarchaeology, and it’s a mistake to view it that way. It’s just meant to impress you with how broad Paz’s knowledge is — and not only does he reference the classics, but the whole track is peppered with various esoteric allusions. Overall, you are supposed to conclude that Vinnie Paz is a guy in the know. Now, Paz’s record label, Babygrande, has recently gone on a bit of a spree taking down tracks from its artists on YouTube, so sadly I don’t have any comments to use as examples, but they definitely supported that idea — fans viewed Paz as telling the real truth, telling the things they don’t want you to hear.
Let’s take a look at another example. While the previous example was pretty tame, this one is filled with violent imagery, foul language and just generally the kinds of stuff that you’d back away from someone saying if you met them in person. As an aside, please don’t take my linking these songs as an endorsement of JMT’s oeuvre — David Thorpe once said something to the effect that Jedi Mind Tricks raps about mental problems, ancient history and beating up gay people, and all their fans just try to ignore the third part. It’s actually really sad, because some of their stuff is very good, but what can you do?
This is a Jedi Mind Tricks / Ill Bill track called “Heavy Metal Kings”. Now, again, here’s a section from Paz’s second verse:
You don’t know about the Gospel of Judas
About the information found in the Galapagos ruins
’bout how the warriors would sharpen their blades
How if they wanted to, the government could cure you of AIDS
Now this is an even bigger mishmash then the first one, leaping between “secret history” and modern day conspiracy theory with that thing about the warriors just sort of stuck in for the rhyme. The “Galapagos ruins” bit is particularly hot. If you Google the phrase, what comes up is perplexed hip-hop and conspiracy fans asking what the hell Paz is talking about. It sounds like something he just put in because it sounds all esoteric and secret. It has all kinds of weird implications. And it’s not just the ruins — I mean, if the ruins existed themselves, that would be a big deal, but it’s the information in them that’s the real secret. It’s a double whammy. It’s just such a well-written line; the perfect conspiracy allusion.
And this stuff is just the tip of the iceberg. Old friend Aleks Pluskowski wrote an interesting paper on archaeology and heavy metal, but as far as I know the hip-hop stuff hasn’t been looked at in any real depth, at least not within the field. Obviously it ties in to all sorts of other stuff, but I think it could be well worth a look. By someone other than me, ideally.
In conclusion, I have no point other than that when we bang on pseudoarchaeologies for being inconsistent, we’re kind of making the assumption that they were ever meant to be. Of all the JMT fans agreeing with each other about how Vinnie Paz knows his shit on the internet, probably 1% care about the details. The rest are just using this specific conspiracy text as an expression of the general principle that the accepted version of history is a load of bullshit.
Which, you know …