Paris has been making politically charged hip-hop since he came on the scene, with The Devil Made Me Do It, in 1990. The title track addressed the country's systemic racism and was immediately banned by MTV for being "too controversial."
Since that auspicious debut, his ability to combine sleek, swinging grooves and densely packed, politically charged commentary has grown more powerful. His latest effort, Safe Space Invader, is another bracing collection, taking on the topics that are impacting Black life in the America of 2020—police departments that are out of control, racism, gentrification, social and economic inequality, and white supremacy.
The first single, "Baby Man Hands," gets right to the heart of the matter, with a scathing putdown of the current occupant of the oval office that mixes caustic humor, biting realism and a hook— "Baby Man Hands"—sung by cartoon voices. The lyrics combine familiar catch phrases, such as "fine people on both sides" and "make America great," with a realistic look at the havoc the current president has created.
"There are plenty of quotes I could have used," Paris says. "When I was writing, they were just the most prominent examples. If you're a critic, he's the gift that keeps on giving. The sad part is, that while his words may be amusing for people unaffected by his inability to use correct sentence structure, his administration has put social progress and race relations back decades. He's like a 6-year-old with a lot of money. Nobody's ever told him, 'No!' He's a petulant child."
The record also includes "Nobody Move," a call for revolution that rides a thumping backbeat; "Somethin' Bout the West Coast," a look at the positive and negative sides of living a Black life in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a hint of Funkadelic in the hook; and "Press On," an uplifting tune that urges people to stay positive, despite the forces of oppression that can often seem overwhelming. The chorus takes flight with the help of Claytoven Richardson's harmony vocals and Katisse Buckingham's nimble flute.
Paris wrote, arranged, recorded and produced Safe Space Invader in his home studio, with the help of a few local artists. He started the album last summer, slowly creating all the beats and special musical effects.
"I was a studio rat for a long time. I've observed people working in studios since the late '80s. It was a trial-and-error apprenticeship. A lot of attention was paid to the music that came before me, and many early influences still impact my music. Funkadelic is a mainstay, as is Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind and Fire, and my hip-hop predecessors who actually rap. There are lots of people in hip-hop currently that don't actually rap; they chant and make noise. I don't look unfavorably on any of them, I just maintain my lane."
The record's music is always upbeat, with songs that pack decades of history and a lot of background information into lyrics that flow easily, without sounding pedantic. "If I want to get preached at, I go to a church," Paris says. "I always try to strike a conversational tone. That's what hip-hop is—a conversation between the creator and the listener."
Paris begins the dialogue with the album title, a phrase that may seem to reference the current pandemic, although it has deeper, more troubling associations. "The alt-right has been using 'safe space invader' to insinuate that people concerned with social justice are fragile for years," Paris says. "My usage co-opts the phrase to dig at their fragility. Conservatives view people who really want to see social change as pussies, but conservatives are the biggest snowflakes in the world. They always reflexively protest anything we do and often collectively stand united, even against their best interest, simply to spite us. Using that phrase was a way for me to reappropriate it and use it to my advantage.
"The songs are a continuation of the thoughts I expressed on my last album, Pistol Politics. It was released in 2015, during an era where a lot of people were complacent, especially in the hip-hop community, because Obama was in office. This was despite the fact that he also furthered the ideals of imperialism. But right now, there's a clearly defined boogie man in the White House that adversely affects everybody that isn't rich, white and male. My message is easier to convey in 2020, but it's never changed."