Some might think it weird for an emcee to name himself after one of the most notorious and destructive corporations in recent American history. But then, very little about Chicago-based rapper Phillip Morris fits into an easy category. Morris’s rhymes manage to be acerbic and witty, personal and political, serious and silly all at the same turn.
His new mixtape, The Truth Campaign–recorded with French producer The Truth Teller, is yet another step outside the box for him. Over intricate, room-filling beats Morris manages to create hip-hop that is catchy and accessible without dumbing himself down or shying away from controversy. Here, he talks to Alexander Billet about the new album and his thoughts on hip-hop’s connection to social struggle.
Alexander Billet: You’ve been described as a political rapper, an underground rapper, a rebel rapper, a nerd rapper. How do you describe yourself?
Phillip Morris: I guess I would describe myself as a nerd–I don’t know about “nerd rapper.” But I definitely feel like a nerd, I enjoy being a nerd. I just try to keep the music original, heartfelt. I think I’m getting better at expressing myself and my ideas. I guess I make nerdy music that challenges people from time to time and keeps them entertained.
AB: Your beliefs as an activist definitely play a role in your lyrics, but that’s not the whole story, right?
PM: Well, yeah, that’s definitely not the whole story. I do try to interject my viewpoints and my own personal politics, but I definitely don’t want my music being engulfed completely in that. I try to make sure to keep it in a really lighthearted approach to whatever the subject-matter is.
AB: You have a following among different crowds–hip-hop heads, activists, etc. Do you find a different reaction coming from different kinds of crowds?
PM: Yeah I think so. I mean a show’s a show, even if it is a more politically charged show. But there will be a lot of difference. I try to do a lot of studying the crowd when I’m performing and going from song to song; gauging what I need to be doing to connect with them while still doing what I want to do. I definitely find different parts of me will be coming out more so if a different song is being felt by a different crowd.
AB: The reason I ask is that another thing that’s immediately apparent is how electric and energetic your live shows are. And I notice that the new album really seems to have that kind of boisterous energy. Was that conscious on your part?
PM: With The Truth Campaign it was definitely a switch-up for me beat-wise. I don’t normally rhyme over beats of that type; it was a bit of a stretch for me. But I really wanted to try to do something over beats that were out of the ordinary for me but still widely felt by folks listening to hip-hop in this day and age. I wanted to do something where I could connect my way of doing things with some really relevant, energetic music.
AB: What was it like working with The Truth Teller?
PM: That was an interesting experience, because he was in France and we did everything via email. He’s based in southern France. We never met or talked face to face or over the phone or anything. It’s been constant cyber-communication, which has been challenging; things get lost in translation sometimes. But for the most part we did a pretty stellar job. I’ve never done a project before–other than my first album where I did all the beats myself–where only one person has done the beats. So that was cool but challenging at the same time. Sometimes you just want something that has a different vibe to it. But even while I was making this album I was working on other songs for other projects. So, you know, I’d go make two songs for this album, then go make another one, then come back to this album. That way I didn’t get tired–because I do get tired of my own music rather quickly. You know, before anyone else has heard it, I’ve listened to it like 500 times!
AB: Are there any events or topics that have affected the lyrical content on The Truth Campaign?
PM: I don’t know if there are any particular events… I’ve been unemployed for the past year and half. So that’s been interesting. I’ve had a bit more time to make music, but a lot less money obviously. You know, I can sit down and work on a song for eight hours if I need to! So that’s been one of the main things I’ve been going through. There’s also been a lot of things with the city–getting my car towed and booted and ticketed and then stolen then towed. So I’ve had a lot of struggle with the city and all that bureaucracy.
AB: Did you get your car back?
PM: Oh yeah! It was stolen from the suburbs and abandoned in the city. The city recovered it, but they only recovered it because they were giving it tickets. And they towed it and impounded it, and so I had to go through that ordeal.
AB: About two years ago we were treated to all this rhetoric about electing the first “hip-hop president.” But now the past two years really have shown a very different reality. Do you think that’s changed the game for political hip-hop?
PM: Well people can’t blame Bush for their problems anymore and have started to look for something else to talk about. So some of the more politically charged stuff may have lost a bit of steam, but I still see a lot of talented artists finding a lot of things to discuss in this day and age that are very politically charged for sure.
AB: Your sense of humor is very obvious from the get-go also. I mean you’re a rapper who calls himself “Phillip Morris!” That also flies in the face of a stereotype about activists: that we’re so serious and can’t have a good time. What do you have to say to that?
PM: I guess I’d say it’s important for folks such as myself to keep it lighthearted when approaching it. It is very serious subject matter we’re talking about obviously, but we can’t just be pissed off when we talk about it. Also, it’s just an important part of being yourself and being mentally capable of handling everything. I think political musicians can have plenty of fun if they just try. It’s okay to be upset about things, you know, but it’s also all about positivity too.
AB: That brings me to one of the songs on the album: “Collateral Damage For the Corporation,” which has this really maniacal energy to it. What were you trying to get across on that track?
PM: That track is really more the result of trying to make a politically-charged dance track. A lot of the songs on this album have a clubby type of vibe. And yeah, I just kind of wanted to make a political party song that talks about some serious stuff but does it in a lighthearted way.
AB: Is there a reason you connect struggles going on in Palestine to ones going on here in Chicago?
PM: Well that’s been going on for 40 years–the illegal occupation. And people tend to forget about things like that in their day-to-day personal struggle of getting to work and being a parent or educator or things like that. It’s hard sometimes to give thought to what’s going on outside this country and around the world, but I think it’s important to acknowledge it.
AB: Do think that working people here in Chicago gain something from standing up for Palestinian rights?
PM: Yeah. I mean I try to focus on struggles here at home as well as abroad, and I think it gives people a sense of unity. When we acknowledge others’ struggles and spread the word and do what we can… I guess it’s just that solidarity is the main goal.
AB: I want to move on to the next track: “Revolution Knows No Compromise.” Its feel is totally different! You go from this rather playful track to this really unrelenting feel. Is that Malcolm X at the beginning?
AB: Okay, what was it your were trying to get across on that one?
PM: Well, I guess the reason I like the intro at the beginning is because it really does sum it up well–you know, talking about the real meaning of revolution and the struggle that goes with it. It involves a lot more than just talk; it involves a lot of action and being active. I think my main point of this song is to describe that and get that sense of urgency across. We can’t just talk about what we want, we have to actively be working toward that and even actively within ourselves be looking toward getting better. Lantern from Agents of Change has a very good line in that song, which is “blur the line between practice-preach.” And I think that’s probably one of the most on-point things that’s in that song: that it’s really about getting up off your ass and doing anything you can, you know?
AB: So would it be safe to say that you consider yourself a revolutionary?
PM: I think I consider myself somewhat revolutionary. I guess I could always be doing more; there are a lot of people that I look up to that are way more revolutionary than myself. But I do possess very revolutionary ideas and certainly in my approach to music itself. I think we need a revolutionary way of creating tunes–even if it’s not politically charged subject matter–I think it’s possible to be revolutionary by not following norms and trying to educate.
AB: Would you say there’s a crossover or an interconnection between what happens in music and what happens on the streets?
PM: I think that’s definitely true. Music is just a very good tool for touching people and really getting them to listen. You can get folks to think about things that they haven’t thought about or maybe that they have thought about in a different light. Yeah, if we can do it in a way that’s not lecturing then it almost seems like it’s easier sometimes to connect with people in a musical format. It’s not the only element you need obviously, but I do see it as an important element.
AB: What is it that you want people to gain from this new album then?
PM: I really want people to see that there’s always interesting and different new ways of expressing yourself. I try very hard to express myself as best I can on this record and to show growth and progression. I think it’s really important for people not to fall into any kind of mold or just imitate exactly what they see or hear–especially on the radio and especially in hip-hop on the radio that’s just very clear-cut formula. Pretty much the dumber your music is, the greater chance you have of gaining recognition. I want to show that there are other alternatives; you can still make a bouncy, crunk-sounding album, but have some meaningful, well thought-out lyrical content to it. So yeah, I’m just really trying to provide people with music like that.