The inherent danger in rapping from the top of a soapbox is that the person doing it will invariably, in some manner or other, fall from it. Just ask Lupe Fiasco. Food and Liquor (the first one) made unending promises to heads who sought a firm moral center inside mainstream rap. But at some point Lupe the apostle morphed into Lupe the evangelist. The transmission of noble ideals were drowned in the cacophony of the rapper’s own hype which is how we ended up with the mess that is Food and Liquor II.
There’s also Brother Ali: by all accounts a deeply pious man who seems to have mastered the delicate art of preaching from a pulpit, not as a bully, but as a fallen human being trying to stay righteous in a society that refuses to repent alongside him. Ali may sound preachy the majority of the time but at least he does so with one finger turned inward. He’s accepted the latent deficiencies in human nature and is prepared to deal with them the next time he commits the same sins as his neighbor. This acknowledgement roots his rap pathos in a sort of preemptive fall from grace, a state of being that most religious people would benefit from if only they practiced more of it.
And then there’s Bambu. A Los Angeles underground MC who raps with a moral compass that has not once aligned with the establishment’s, one which, to his mind, remains ambivalent to the plight of America’s marginalized communities. What separates Bam from his more well known brethren is that his rap pulpit is not an elevated stage at all. If there’s an inferred element of authority in his socially conscious rhymes, it’s of the same variety as the Occupy movement: a belief that, while one man may be holding the mic, the true power of the action lies in the mass organization of like-minded individuals. For this rapper, if one person falls, all others fall along with him.
Bambu has the motivation (and authority) to speak on America’s state of emergency, especially as it pertains to its largest urban centers. A former LA gangland participant and survivor, his proverbial boots have been on the ground for decades, which I’m sure is why he seems more comfortable scrapping with his comrades in the streets than ascending to a commercial hip-hop ivory tower where the air is cleaner and the bullets can’t reach.
But fuck a metaphor, Bambu is a realist, so the stark provocations of “Pepper Spray” (a worthy descendant in the long line of anti-police anthems from his region) and “Massacre” (a gut-wrenching account of the 2009 Maguindanao incident in which 58 people were slaughtered in the Philippines while exercising their right to vote) don’t resonate in figurative terms, and that’s what gives One Rifle Per Family, the MC’s latest album, its sobering gravity.
Bambu’s spotless, precise flow and his penchant for vaguely Golden Era production values officially qualify him as a “throwback” MC, but there is very little in the way of Nas-like nostalgia here. The urgent conditions of the contemporary ghetto take precedence over any romanticized ‘hood legacy talk. On tracks like “Bronze Watch” and “Sermon”, Bam traces the fine line between seeking doomed revenge against your enemies and offering yourself up as a martyr for a larger cause. For this rapper, an awakening to the difference seems to have occurred (at least in part) as a result of fatherhood.
Familial themes run throughout One Rifle: the two song dedication to parenthood, “Pops” and “Moms”; the brief interlude “Self Defense” on which Bam explains the title of the record (the right to bear arms, as it turns out, is more complicated than the white liberal populace generally considers); even in the “watermarks” found on the press version of the album I reviewed — an adorable child’s voice says, “One record per family” every two minutes or so. It’s fairly obvious that “family” and “community” are synonyms for Bambu, so when shouting-out fellow Filipinos in the club (“So Many”) turns to the liberation of immigrant farm workers in California (“Orosi”), the intent is to nurture a common fundamental lineage between peoples.
One Rifle Per Family can be appropriately delicate with its handling of especially sensitive subject matter (gender issues, for example), but for the majority of the time it’s clear Bambu is seriously pissed off. The crowning achievement on the album is “Upset The Setup”, a booming, concise distillation of the MC’s worldview informed by a lifetime of deceived attempts at finding meaning inside the construct of America’s gang culture. Producer Colby Evans strips the beat down like a stolen S-Class, leaving only a thundering rhythm section and eerie operatic vocal sample intact.
Bambu, with a focused assist from Killer Mike, counts cold hard cash as the motivating factor for the organization of gang varietals of all types, including those found in South Central and those subsidized in the Middle East by US taxpayer dollars. To the dutiful jingoist, this may seem like a convenient summary for a so-called “conscious MC” appealing to the lowest common social denominator. But for someone like Bambu — reformed gang banger, Iraq war veteran — it’s the only sane method of explaining away the fucked-up sentiments of a life spent in the trenches.