Conscious Brainwashing: A conversation with ‘Grand Agent’ about the roots and power of Hip Hop

Grand Agent takes a break from album production in Philadelphia, PA. 
Photo credit: Tezarah Wilkins, Staff Photographer for Love Now Media

By Carlo Campbell

If you are anything like me, you have grown up as a fan of, or at least in proximity to the massive impact of hip hop music. Once viewed as fringe musical expression and a much maligned novelty, it has moved into pole position as a global juggernaut and the soundtrack to countless brands of product placements and events.

In its early days, much like now, Hip-hop caught a bad rap because of its candor and coarse expression. Artists like KRS-One, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, Ice T, Tupac, and Snoop Dogg were blamed for society’s maladies and have since gone from reviled to venerated authorities in our cultural zeitgeist.

The power of their voices has become recognized by the commanders of corporations and the wolves of Wall Street for their ability to galvanize the youth and fill the coffers of those who sought their services in partnership with product promotion. Over time, many of these fiery and influential voices have been compromised and co-opted as a result of this recognition.

We don’t listen to our favorite artists to benefit from a bottom line. Nor do we watch our favorite shows because of a burning desire to be pelted by promotions for Hot Pockets, Liberty Insurance, or Hydroxycut. We listen, we watch, we engage, to connect with something, someone outside of ourselves, the animate but inanimate nature of these offerings puts us in communion with limited judgment and a modicum of control.

I had the pleasure to chop it up with the good brother Mazzie Casher. He is one-third of the legendary Philadelphia hip hop squad NAME, where he is known by his MC Nom de plume GRAND AGENT. The release of his upcoming album, By Design 2: I Survived the Crack Era, is fast approaching. In the midst of his preparations, he took time to discuss one of my favorite subjects with me…HIP HOP.

CARLO CAMPBELL: Sup fam. Have you ever done any hands-on stuff in the community in terms of working with the youth to help mitigate the violence or be an agent of change?

GRAND AGENT: I just try to brainwash them with my music. That’s about it.

CC: I like that, like a righteous brainwash.

GA: I just try to put the message in the music.

CC: Can we talk more about righteous brainwashing? How long have you been rhyming?

GA: The first public efforts were 94/95. It was always about the power of the platform to me. The first stuff I ever wrote and recorded in the crib was about 86, over this Steady B instrumental on my mom’s record player.

CC: What were you hearing and how does it differ from what the young bucks are listening to now, and what is the impact of that?

GA: Oh my god…what?! Well, I will tell you what I heard that altered the trajectory of my maturation. I heard KRS One talk all kinds of Pro Black, Pro Humanity, just all types of good stuff that I just was not exposed to anywhere else. From the simplest stuff, ED OG saying “be a father to your child” all that pro-Black, pro-Africa stuff, dudes rocking Medallions…Chuck D, Don’t Believe The Hype – that whole wave. Rakim, Brand Nubian, all the Gods and Earths stuff, all that ‘knowledge of self’ talk. I feel like that put me and my whole generation on a certain trajectory. 

For a lot of us, especially those of us who ain’t have fathers in the house or in the picture, it filled in a gap that the streets would have filled, they gave us checks and balances with that message. Remember big daddy Kane was like “I’m fly, I’m from the streets, but we rising above that.” That penetrated my soul. What young people hear that today…oh my god! I can’t let that [today’s mainstream hip hop] into my soul too long. It’s entertaining and they can rap and all and they got a certain accessibility, but I just don’t wanna hear that much death and destruction.

CC: What do you think about the balance that KRS One struck with the street knowledge and those more esoteric nationalistic ideals that young bucks are missing the opportunity to hear, or have they transcended that and proven that KRS’s approach was inferior?

GA: Let me say this, for whatever reason, I don’t know why, Criminal Minded didn’t feel Iike glorification even with all of the explicit terms and scenarios. He presented himself as an authority in such an informed way.

CC: If you look at the development of this nation. We are going through this criminal thing, where there is a strong likelihood people will not have to atone for their criminal actions, but there is a strong following of this man [previously in the presidential office] who has embraced the criminalistic ideal. Do you feel like there is something inherent in America, that the only way an ideology can get across is if it is cloaked in the criminal?

GA: I think that the American culture is a culture of power through violence or intimidation. I feel like this is how it started. And any ethnic group that stuck together have done it with a significant criminal contingent. The governmental apparatus of the US is a fly ass spaceship! It’s got lots of levers and lots of things to work to your advantage but you gotta put people in there who rock with you, that you rock with, and who know how to work the levers. To get in there it is a money game, an influence game, it’s a power game.  That’s real. Thanks, fam!

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