From their start in 2005 onwards, MC Drowning Dog and DJ Malatesta have been committed to carrying on the tradition of class conscious hip-hop as a way of sharing stories of anarchist struggle and the fight for a better world, giving the perspective and drawing attention to the voices of people never heard.
Their new Blood Money EP is coming soon in 2021, and we’ve used the opportunity to talk with DDM about working class hip-hop and rap on a very symbolic date, the International Workers’ Day. Since 1889, Mayday commemorates the martyrdom of the Haymarket anarchists of Chicago, and is widely recognized as a day of international struggle for dignity, human and labor rights.
What’s up, what’s up? Great speaking to you! Can you tell us a bit about your lives growing up and how you got into anarchist politics and making music with a message?
Drowning Dog: Born in the East, raised in the South. Came of age in San Francisco. Started fucking about with music with a bass guitar and an ’80s keyboard that a local friendly methhead gave me, got a Korg sequencer and started recording something like poetry or spoken word… it was around 1999.
As a young DD, I was pulled into anarchist politics by volunteering at AK Press / PM Press I would ship books at the warehouse—when not working waiting/bar jobs—writers like bell hooks, Assata Shakur, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre. So I started reading them, and they talked to me in a sense. Of course not everybody reads books, or listens to punk, or debates at the university. So I just wanted to make these ideas more accessible. Started talking my shit, creating what I wanted to hear, and we would always have books at our distro table.
Malatesta: Hey… Grew up in a working class family in Glasgow, moved to San Francisco with $150, just to see what would happen… It worked out… I was introduced to anarchist ideas by Ramsey and AK Press. I volunteered at the Epicenter (punk record store, venue, distro) in San Francisco. From there I really wanted to hear anarchist class politics in hip-hop/rap. In those times, there was some left/communist themed hip-hop but not really any anarchist artists or anarchist distro collectives (except punk and literature ones), so I started making beats with a cheap drum machine and a sampler. Some guy I met in the tenderloin gave me a symphony module… also leading up to this point, I was a DJ for some years in San Francisco cutting up Chomsky, Mumia and all the new 12-inches of the day… I was a record store junkie.
You are among the pioneers of the Militant Rap scene in Europe. Can you give us an overview of the origins, cornerstone artists and the current development of the scene?
Malatesta: We are out of the loop at the moment cause of the Covid situation, but can give you a run down of a quick selection of the past?
As I’ve said before, the early leftist rappers in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the US in the ’90s and early 2000s were a huge inspiration to us. Although, our politics are clearly anarchist. You know, in a sense, creating self-governance in a do it together way while being part of a wider structure and networks. We wanted to encourage and emphasize on that element.
Our biggest example at that time was Collectif Mary Read from Saint-Étienne in France. They were closer to our politics and understood more than most the idea of pushing and helping each other in very pragmatic ways. Like establishing a distro network, organising tours in a DIY punk way, etc.
When DDM moved to Italy, we organised Rap Militante Internazionale events in Milan. The main organisers were both of us with the help of Leleprox (historic figure in Italian militant rap) and Acero Moretti.
The artists we invited to play these shows were Première Ligne, La Gale, C.U.B.A. Cabbal, Refpolk, Armada Bizerta, Kronstadt, Signor K, Arma Di Scelta, Serpe In Seno, Q.E.L.D., Istigazione a Delinquere, Mentenguerra and more.
Since then we also got involved in Barrio Revolta, an international live event collective based in Berlin. Currently we are just trying to survive but there’s not been any development since then as far as an international network of crews are ready to put in the work at least as far as I know. We are mainly focused on writing, recording and booking shows right now.
Drowning Dog: We added to the conversation in militant rap, radical rap or conscious rap. Wherever we have had live shows we made our music dedicated to the political struggle, put out music of other people on EK Records, booked shows and arranged for others in an attempt to create a network of radical independent musicians that would distro each others releases. The punks gave us time and we learned a lot from the DIY / DIT spirit.
Do you see the Militant Rap scene (and political music in general) as having a role in building a wider antiauthoritarian movement? In countries like Greece, there are whole festivals with only antifascist hip-hop artists, which is amazing!
Malatesta: Yes, but in the context of other jobs, industries also doing this. For example, whatever line of work you are involved you could try and collectivise. For us, it’s running a label and helping out artists, events and music collabs for others. But it could easily be a bakery, a farm or a construction collective. Yes, it’s amazing what happens in Greece. We have also had involvement some years ago and played at all the squats with our man Literal X (RIP).
There seems to be a huge left-wing hip-hop scene in Spain where the Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél was imprisoned earlier in February this year for his radical lyrical content and political activism. Do you think that hip-hop not only has the potential but actually is a way more radical threat than today’s punk & metal scene?
Malatesta: Maybe, from what I remember punks were typically working class. Not so sure lately though. I think, rap is more often than not kids from the hood but I’m not very clear on this subject. But I think, in the more interesting side of punk and metal networks, there seems to be more solidarity as in they promote each other more and work harder on their collective responsibilities. At least that’s what it seems like to me.
Nowadays, it’s also easier than ever for kids to create beats on their phones. Do you think that hip-hop is the most accessible form of music to make today as you don’t need a guitar, drums or music lessons to start making things happen?
Malatesta: Could be, for sure. But I think the urge to do it is always the key factor at play. Especially if you have no financial backing. Just look at turntables and mixers. They were not designed by Technics, etc for scratching, cutting and beat mixing but that’s how they were used ever since the early days of hip hop. Same with the drum machines at early raves… they flipped it… Tech is important but it’s what you bring up to it that really matters.
You’ve been known for incorporating a lot of electronica and spoken word into your music. Which genres, artists, authors and revolutionaries have most inspired your path into creating the sound of DDM?
Malatesta: We like artists in all “genres” of music whenever there’s an emotional connection and isn’t overtly celebrating corporate culture and the capitalist mindset. We like 90s hood rap instrumentals, trip hop, jungle, dnb, crunk, hyphy, punk/hardcore and even some mainstream US rap. I could write a list of artists but it would be really huge.
For authors and revolutionaries, probably I should say the people I was recording at the time in the US like: Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Pam Afrika, Barry Pateman, Ashanti Alston, Craig O’hara and some of the anarchist ideas coming from historical people like Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta, Stuart Christie, as well as the Spanish revolution like the Durruti’s Iron column.
Let’s take a look at your label EK Records and its releases. What does being DIY mean to you and how do you think an underground hip-hop label differs from a punk & hardcore label?
Malatesta: Do-it-Yourself or Do-it-Together even, for me is the idea that we can exist out-with the music business, through collective goals, organisation and work we can rival or better what’s available through the business world. Therefore, at some point rendering it obsolete.
As I touched on the interview before, the punks are a huge influence to us. We would never have got this far without their squats, social centres, distros and show organisers. The hip hop/rap world has really yet to embrace the idea of “us” rather than only “me”. I guess, kids will realise big tech are playing with all of us and Spotify and the likes have came for our distro tables. We all need to create another way of doing this.
Drowning Dog: EK Records has given a voice to working class artists cause we wanted to hear our own stories of working class struggle that’s never represented in the mainstream.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the DIY tour circuit, music venues and ways of political organizing around you?
Malatesta: It’s been very difficult for us. Live shows have been a big part of our lives for many years being able to play in quite a few countries. To achieve shit that’s profound it has to be in person. I don’t want all communication to happen online, this is not going to be the way to genuinely change the way things are in the world. It can be helpful maybe, but obviously not a replacement of the real life communication with each other. Everyone I know is in limbo or worse… The state and capitalist business are using the Covid pandemic to evict places cause they’re expecting less resistance from the local communities.
What are some new and upcoming artists you’ve been excited about lately?
Malatesta: I like Benefits from England quite a lot, and we’ve been collaborating lately with Soundz Of The South from Cape Town and Dubamix from Paris. There are also some new releases that just came out in the last few months by Skalpel and E-One from Première Ligne. These are really great records.
What is your vision of the general state of affairs, the underground music scenes and the world of the future?
Malatesta: Pretty bleak for life as we know it. But is that such a bad thing? I’m quite an optimist that it’s on all of us to try and create alternative structures that are more appealing to people than the weak boring shit of corporate culture. We’ve done it before we can do it again.
Thank you very much! Anything you would like to add?
Malatesta: Yes! We are working on our new album to be released this year, hopefully. It’s mixed by Tristan, the guy who just finished the Inner Terrestrials new album (the anarcho-punk/dub band from the UK), and not so long ago we were also featured in an ethnographic novel about migration called Senza Confini.
We really appreciate the support DIY Conspiracy have given us over the last years.