M1 Charts His Own 'Confidential' Course

The hip-hop duo Dead Prez made a name for itself in the late 1990s with politically charged and controversial raps. Dead Prez member M1 talks to Steve Inskeep about crime, politics and his new solo album called Confidential.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some hip-hop artists rap about spending time in prison. This morning we'll meet one artist who raps about the time his mother spent in prison.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MUTULU OLUBALA, M1: My name is Mutulu Olubala. People call me M1 in the rap world, but my mama doesn't call me that.

INSKEEP: As a member of the group Dead Prez, M1 got attention because of his politics. He raps about black revolution and describes how to rip off credit card companies. In a new solo album, he raps for monogamy and against the police. He is also a vegetarian who raps about tofu. That's strange mix of cynicism and idealism seems to flow out of an experience when he was a freshman in college.

(Soundbite of music)

M1: (Rapping): It's been almost 10 years, nearly a decade they can't fade me. I made the money, the money ain't made me. Whatever ain't kill me made me stronger, man, they can't break me. It took my mama 12 years to break free…

INSKEEP: You have a line on your latest release, it took my mama 12 years to break free.

M1: Yup.

INSKEEP: Is there a story behind that line?

M1: Oh, yeah. Around the time I was 17 years old, I woke up one morning and turned over to a phone call from my father and he said that my mother had been arrested, and I'm talking about the sweetest lady you ever met in your life. So I went on to find out that she had been arrested for conspiracy on drug charges. She had been labeled the king pin. It changed my life. It gave me new direction, because let me tell you, my mom's no Scarface.

I'm talking about somebody who has worked tooth and nail all their life to try to make ends meet. So for me, it really was an indication of how wrong things are in this country.

INSKEEP: You feel that whatever she did it wasn't so heinous that it deserved a dozen years in prison. Was she a drug user, a drug addict?

M1: No, she wasn't a drug addict or a drug dealer. She was associated with drug dealers.

INSKEEP: Did you visit her in prison?

M1: At first there was a long gap. I think there was a period of shame, just based on the fact that we weren't understanding what happened. I didn't live in a drug infested house, you know what I mean. It caught us all off guard. So I don't think that she was ready to deal with just facing that look from my family. So for like the first six years, we had no contact at all. Afterwards, I visited everywhere that I could.

INSKEEP: Do you remember one time that you went to visit her and something that you talked about?

M1: We were in Alexandria, Virginia. It was maybe a month before she was supposed to come home. She was planning a furlough, I guess which is like a three-day, off-campus day, I guess—you know. And I went in and we were planning this furlough. We were planning these three days and what we would do, where we would go, what hotels we would stay, what kind of food we would eat. Mind you, I'm a vegetarian and have been for the last 15 years. But we sat in this little day room, everything is white, out in the middle of nowhere, and we ate pizza with sausage crumbles on it. I don't eat meat, but for her--

INSKEEP: It's not everyday that your mother gets furloughed from prison, so--

M1: Exactly. That's the reason I would have eaten a whole side of bacon if that was all that we had. But it was a beautiful experience, and the sun was out, and I just remember wishing so bad that she would come home, just come with me now. That was one of the last visits before she was actually released.

INSKEEP: Where is she now?

M1: She is in Raleigh. She is Raleigh, North Carolina working for a corporation called Wal-Mart in a one-hour photo shop.

(Soundbite of music)

M1: (Rapping) When we get down black and brown we never tried it. One nation under a flag that we decided because we need these warrior tribes. It should be easy if you choosing aside, because over here we're fighting for the future of the seed, and over there they're fighting for money all in greed.

INSKEEP: What does your mother think of the lyrics of your songs?

M1: I think she thinks that I'm courageous. I think that she thinks that I have made sacrifices to talk about what I talk about in the face of where hip-hop is today.

INSKEEP: Your songs are political in a way that a lot of songs are not. But at the same time, there is a lot of that classic hip-hop element of violence and gangsterism, and robbing pizza delivery people, and that sort of thing.

M1: Yeah. I think that mix of the street point of view juxtaposed with this guy who wants to change every part of his community is what happens in my music. Some of my earlier stuff is much more militant than the stuff you just heard, even the robbing of the pizza delivery boy. And that was real, by the way.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me you actually robbed a pizza delivery boy?

M1: I actually a pizza delivery boy.

INSKEEP: At gunpoint?

M1: It was with a Sega gun.

INSKEEP: A Sega gun?

M1: Yup. It wasn't even a real gun.

INSKEEP: From one of those video games?

M1: Yup, it sure was.

INSKEEP: Was there sausage on that pizza?

M1: No, sorry. We were totally vegetarians at that time, so we ordered eight cheese pizzas.

(Soundbite of music)

M1: (Rapping)[unintelligible]

INSKEEP: I understand that part of this album was inspired by your reading of FBI files of famous black Americans. How did you come to read those files?

M1: Well, there's a book, and I am remiss for not bringing knowing how NPR is. It's called Famous Black Americans: The FBI Files. That's the name of the book, about the outside-in look at the lives of people like Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey, and Paul Robeson; how their lives were manipulated by the government; how their rights were abrogated by the government. And my accusation is it continues today.

INSKEEP: Can you point us to a lyric or song that was inspired by those files?

M1: I can. The song Confidential, the title track for my album. And it says, if you on the phone, homey, you ain't alone, homey. I bet a dollar on it; please don't holler on it, because you might end up on a list, if there's even a list, still the rumors exist.

(Soundbite of music)

M1: (Rapping) Still the rumors exist. It's a big conspiracy with a twist, and they're calling you a terrorist if you put up your fist these days. So before they start locking up folks for rocking the boat, it was me knocking the vote…

INSKEEP: Well, M1, thanks very much for speaking with us. I've really enjoyed this.

M1: I had a beautiful time. I had no idea that it would go in this direction at all. And I hope my mom hears this.

INSKEEP: The latest release from M1 is called Confidential.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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