Music | Review: Verbal Terrorists – “The War on Terra”

'The War on Terra', the second album by underground political hip-hop duo Verbal Terrrorists, "embodies the traditional spirit of hip-hop as a form of cultural and ideological resistance against hegemony" says Tom Clements.

Music & Dance, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, February 9, 2012 12:00 - 0 Comments

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Verbal Terrorists

Earlier in 2011, we got a taste of Verbal Terrorist’s forthcoming album with their emphatic anti-cuts anthem, No Ifs, No Buts. The track, in which the group speak out against the government’s system of spending cuts, is an absolute belter which received airplay on a variety of independent stations including Rob One’s 20/20 Hip-Hop and Mr 13’s show on Bang Radio. Vehement and articulate, the track is the sort of rabble-rousing hip-hop that simply needs to be blasted out of speakers at demonstrations.

The group, who operate in cognitive defiance of hip-hop’s appropriation by mainstream interests and the exertions of big business, stay true to the culture’s ideological roots, using rap as a form of alternative identity formation and as means to help change opinions. Heavily politicised, the group stand up and help give reasoned cause to the lowest echelons of society, sending out their message through a sound that is unmistakably independent.

Their latest album, The War on Terra is a musical and aesthetic patchwork – a transcultural bricolage of elements woven into an essentially hip-hop framework. Tightly fusing lyricism, beat and melody, with production ranging from African-inflected salsa to gritty urban UK dubstep, the album’s sound is unique and varied.

From the outset the listener is exposed to a very different sound to their more bass-heavy debut album, Small Axe. The first track Don’t Believe, features deft production from Joonipah who uses a haunting minor loop sample interspersed with snippets of Noam Chomsky’s treatise on ‘Manufacturing Consent’ and his pronouncements on corporate propaganda.

Such excerpts showcase the group’s intellectual compass, using reasoned analysis as opposed to simply churning out half-baked establishment-bashing clichés too often the scourge of incendiary hip-hop lyrics. As they put it “we need a network of global collusion, focussed and prudent”, and refreshingly for a hip-hop act, provide insight into how we actually might go about combating societal ills.

Through cryptic vocal elements, double-entendres, call-and-response patterns and multisyllabic rhyme schemes, the group put forward cogent arguments for their cause in the aptly named The Solution, a track in which the duo provide insights into what sort of ideas need to be pursued. These include “building lasting links between the workers and students”, and exhorting us all to forgo nihilism and to “get with the counter hegemony.”

Through their raw and insouciant lyrics, the group also deconstruct notions present in what has too often become a simplistic binary-coded struggle. Promoting unity instead of division is a key intention of the group’s, arguing for example, that fighting the EDL is the wrong way to go about tackling hatred. The group aims to represent all minority groups, both racial and class-based, living isolated in a host society, and this is particularly represented in the brilliant Build Bridges, Not Borders. Rapper Drop Dead Fred delivers an exquisite introductory verse in the track – an explicit diatribe on the majority nationalism and racism inherent in the UK’s political system.

In an impressive high-profile feature, conscious rapper Akala imparts powerfully cogent lines on race and identity, suggesting we celebrate the diversity immigrants bring to the British Isles, while Nobull continues with the theme of victimisation and scapegoating of minority peoples: “We just need a scapegoat to distract from problems, like a microcosm of the Nazi problem.

Aligning themselves in the struggle with artists that are stylistically different, but essentially share their cultural aims, the group are earnestly aiming to widen their fanbase and thereby strengthen their cause. London-based hip-hop artist Cyclonious for example, features on Roots of All Evil, a track which discusses the evils of money, touching on various topics including the environment: “mother nature gets no maternity leave.”

A highlight on the album is Viva La Terrorista, a track featuring Dialect’s Rick Fury which dips briefly into a mode of playful humour. The song also strikes up a beautiful consonance between white working-class North-East vernacular and upbeat Afro-Cuban salsa rhythms, again fusing two marginalised cultures cutting across cultural boundaries in the face of struggle. This simultaneous interplay of the global and the local is what makes the album particularly special in my opinion.

War on Terra, the album’s eponymous track, features edgy, minimalist diffuse bass production congruent to its stark political subject matter. Guest-featuring stic.man of US hip-hop duo Dead Prez, a group known for their activism and case for a better world, the track sees two groups unite to agitate the status quo of what rap music has become, i.e. a median that has been commoditised and which glorifies material gain – in other words, counter-radicalised by the white bourgeois hegemony.

The essence of VT’s music-making serves as a specific base for the creation of a cultural and political identity. With an obvious parellism between the white working class struggle in the UK and those of their Black and Hispanic hip-hop forbears in the US. Indeed, Verbal Terrorists produce their own cultural, social and political space within the “devilish hegemony”, and achieves this by recoding socio-political terms and accepted notions in a retaliatory and transgressive manner.

Indeed, Verbal Terrorists and many artists in the same category are genuinely pushing the case as a form of educational literature and a force to be reckoned with, inverting the oppression and cultural restraint imposed by the rich and powerful, and by adhering to a notion that community is not pre-given, and rather that it must be created in the face of threat and decimation.

In my view, The War on Terra epitomises the conscious rap album; in the sense that it’s a form of rap pedagogy, minus the sometime-prevalent preponderance for self-righteousness and dubious conspiracy theorising. In the age of the ephemeral impact, Verbal Terrorists will leave a lasting impression on their audiences, proving that incendiary hip-hop will continue to survive so long as it is adapted in the correct context. This latest album is an inspired piece of art which fuses both modern political ideas and traditional folkloric musical sensibilities. In a nutshell – it’s superb.

The War on Terra is available from Verbal Terrorists’ Bandcamp page

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Tom Clements

Tom Clements has a BA in German from the University of Nottingham. He is a monthly columnist for Impact Magazine and writes extensively about the underground UK hip-hop scene. He is currently based in Cambridge where he is working as a trainee reporter.

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