Immortal Technique (aka Felipe Coronel) seems like a pretty nice guy. He does his own press, sells his own merch, and signs his e-mails "respect." He's raised tens of thousands of dollars for various charities, and, two years ago, went on a humanitarian trip to Afghanistan, during which he helped build a school. Before rapping a single verse at the The New Parish on Sunday night, he not only hugged his entire crew, but thanked the sound people in a heartfelt, cogent speech that was too long and too earnest to be mere lip service.
And then he launched into "Industrial Revolution," four minutes of expletive-laden vitriol in which the emcee managed to curse Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, parasitic record executives (and the sellouts indentured to them), and "counter-revolutionaries" of all kinds within the space of a couple breaths, in addition to threatening to set fire to an orphanage just to make a point, and to murder the critics/and leave your fucking body rotten for the roaches and cricket.
It was a striking juxtaposition, to be sure, but it's all part of who Immortal Technique is. Since 2001 and Revolutionary, Vol.1, the Peruvian-born, Harlem-bred underground rapper, a veteran of New York's battle scene, has racked up critical accolades and a considerable cult following based on his own intoxicating take on political hip-hop — an unapologetically high-minded and sometimes staggeringly intellectual message, sprinkled with solid-gold one-liners, rife with imagery and evocative language, and couched in enough classic, electrifying hip-hop braggadocio to still be fun. It's a combination that could go wildly wrong in someone else's hands, but it's made Tech one of the very best and most compelling emcees out there, political or not, for more than a decade running. While some so-called conscious artists use the mantle to churn out benign, self-serious slow-burners about respect and unity, he, like Dead Prez, Public Enemy, and NWA before him, took the concept and ran with it in the other direction. Political enlightenment hasn't turned Tech into an agreeable hippie, it's made him angry.
And an angry Immortal Technique is a thrill to watch, as he pinballs between subjects - racism, American imperialism, corruption, and government-engineered conspiracy - with the kind of velocity you simply can't get if you refuse to piss some people off every now and again. He's a shit-starter, straight-up, but he's got the lyrical substance, the technical style, and the sense of humor to back it up. And on Sunday at The New Parish — packed to the gills, red-lit, and thick with heat and smoke — he was magnetic.
After a capable opening set by Mexican emcee Raw-G, Tech took the stage around 11:30 p.m., wearing a bright yellow T-shirt and joined by friends and frequent collaborators Constant Flow, Da Circle, Mohammed Dangerfield, Diabolic, and the brilliant Chino XL. At many hip-hop shows, especially ones with stages as small as The New Parish's, an entourage of Tech's size can get in the way. But here the "special guests" really were a welcome addition, filling in when the headliner needed a breather and providing sonic depth when he didn't. After "Industrial Revolution" (and an interlude during which Tech, ever paranoid, suggested that undercover Homeland Security officers were watching the show), he spun into "The Third World," and then "Mistakes" and "Casualties of War," each song gaining momentum from the last, delivered with sparkling clarity and incredible force in that signature growly baritone. Between songs, he showered love on Oakland, engaged the crowd, and promised to stay as late as the venue would have him.
At one point, about two-thirds into the set and well past midnight, he indulged, for a minute, in the kind of idle banter you might find at any other hip-hop show: "Where all my weed-smokers in the house?" (Everywhere, apparently: a loping, rumbling roar from the crowd.) "How many of y'all smoke weed?" (More rumbles. Blunts being lit and passed.) But then the smile suddenly broke and he 180ed into a serious discussion about the drug war, American intervention in Afghanistan, and US hypocrisy, before breaking into "Peruvian Cocaine," a song-length lesson about the tragic reach of the drug trade, told as a narrative by a slew of different emcees passing the mic while the coke makes its way from South American coca fields to American evidence rooms, claiming victims along the way. It was a brisk change in direction, but it was fitting.