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INTERVIEW: Lee Reed / Warsawpack

October, 2003 — permalink

[conucted in Winter 2002, originally published in Winter 2003.]

Hamilton, Ontario’s Warsawpack, one of Canada’s best-loved conscious hip-hop acts, fused funk, punk, old-school and Karl Marx into one big melting pot of music. Now sadly defunct, Warsawpack had a reputation for tremendous live shows with 50% less lecturing, and their act brought a new perspective to any crowd they faced. Let this interview, done in the winter of 2002 with Lee Raback, lyricist and MC, serve as an epitaph...

EID: You celebrated the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th by releasing Gross Domestic Product on G7.G7 Welcoming Committee Records is a now-defunct record label started by a couple of folks from the hardcore band Propagandhi. Do you think 9/11 will eventually become an annual day of resistance? What do you think of that possibility?

WARSAWPACK: Sounds good to me... better a day of resistance than a day of flag-waving anniversary benefits and commemorative New York Fire Department dinner plates. This first year anniversary seemed like it was being used to rattle sabers for the next theatre of war (Iraq – I suppose). But that will all change... I think as the Bush DoctrineThe Bush Doctrine, in the simplest terms was the U.S. foreign policy position that the United States should act pre-emptively to deal with threats to its national security, rather than waiting to be attacked before retaliating. makes itself more apparent people will begin to resist... or I should say I hope they begin to resist.

EID: Do you remember where you were when the towers were attacked?

WARSAWPACK: Yes – I had just arrived to work, and I figured there was some big sporting event on or something... everyone was gathered around the TV. Looked like a tense World Cup match. Then I heard. I couldn’t really believe it. I got sucked into the on-going news broadcast – and just stood around dazed, shaking my head all day like everyone else was.

EID: Speaking of 9/11, the bottom tray of your album holds a flow-chart that maps the post 9/11 U.S. reaction. Are you ever worried about a backlash, or do you have to just stick to your guns and hope listeners get it?

WARSAWPACK: I think we deal with a little of the ol’ backlash from time to time. We’re definitely not for everyone. I see people leave our shows all the time with that disgruntled sneer of the truly offended... that quick snatch of the jacket, an icy stare at the stage and a proud stride out the door. Happens all the time. Nothing too crazy so far though... but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes as we start to get some more exposure...

The biggest backlash I face these days is at family functions – weddings – and holiday dinners and what not. People know how I am – get 5 beer in them and they all want a piece of the commie who refuses to eat turkey ye know? ... I can be such an easy punching bag for conservatives on a beer buzz. I think they feel safe – knowing that I would never truly ‘get into it’ with them in front of grandmothers and aunts and stuff. I must say though - I’m getting pretty good at the PG version of my politics... drunk uncles beware.

EID: I’ve followed much of the canadian political music scene for a while, and I find that one of it’s shortfalls is that it is incestuous in the way that concerts are filled with the so-called “converted”. How do you try to attract people who have not been exposed to certain ideas to your shows?

WARSAWPACK: I think we just have a reputation as a good live band. We put a lot of energy into our live show, and I think people sense that. Even if they can’t agree with the politics they still want to jump around and get down. And I think that can help to bridge the gap.

EID: What can the unconverted expect from warsawpack live?

WARSAWPACK: I think they can count on a wiggly posterior... a little bobbing of the head... and perhaps some alteration of their world-view.

EID: If Warsawpack was a country, it would be_________________

WARSAWPACK: I’d like to say Sweden - they’re like Canada when it was still cool. But really, we’d probably be one of those impoverished colonial remnants – labeled a rogue and waiting to endure freedom, or infinite justice or whatever the Americans are calling their murderous foreign policy at the time.

EID: Who do you cite as musical influences?

WARSAWPACK: Each of us would tell you something different... we span many years in the band – 20 to 32 - so there’s a lot of different influences going around. I myself come from a primarily hip-hop background. I mean, I listened to all kinds of music growing up, but hip-hop affected me in a way that no other music could. It’s such a direct form of communication. It doesn’t disguise or obscure the message... no hiding it in poetic imagery or what have you. It just comes out and says it. I’ve always loved that about it. I would have to say the big ones for me were Chuck D., KRS-ONE, tribe, de la soul, that late eighties/early nineties golden era of hip-hop. When your credibility wasn’t dependant on the budget of your video... the good ol’ days.

EID: Does the whole band share similar views?

WARSAWPACK: For the most part, I would say yeah we do... we’re all pretty left of centre. There are differences of course... but I think its just varying degrees of the same kind of thinking. I’m a paranoid fruitcake,Though there are certaini nuances that have borne themselves out over time, Lee’s ideology has remained remarkably stable from his work in Warsawpack to the present day. and Adam is a well-groomed chemistry student ... but we both see the world on a path to self-destruction. Where I see conspiracies and networks of fat businessmen, Adam sees emissions and chemical reactions and whatever else science people see when they look at things... but in the end we are both breathing the same fouled air, and in agreement that things have got to change if we’re to survive...

EID: Do you often find yourself arguing more over politics than songs (a la rage against the machine)?

WARSAWPACK: No... never really. I think the guys might get a little sick of the interviews... with us being a conscious outfit... all the political questioning, the where do you stand on this, what do you think of that, etc. Things they don’t really care to discuss at length with complete strangers and the general public... but when it comes to actually making the tunes – we’ve never had a disagreement over politics.

EID: What was the last news broadcast you remember seeing?

WARSAWPACK: There’s a TV at my work that sits on CNN headline news all the time. I see the craziest shit on that channel. My recent favourite is this commercial they were running for some big special they were going to air on ‘the situation with Iraq’. I swear it looked like an ad for war itself... like some kind of movie trailer... with grainy clips of dangerous looking Iraqi’s waving AK’s cut with shots of F-16’s screeching through the sky... all timed to marching triumphant drum roll music... with the words SHOWDOWN IRAQI am about 90% sure that Lee is referring to promos for the CNN Special Showdown In Iraq, sometimes shortened to Showdown Iraq. You can see what he means with the old-ass low-res video here. emerging in bold, framed in stars and stripes, at the end. Crazy shit - Josef Goebbels would be proud.

EID: What was the last movie/album you saw/heard that you really enjoyed, and why did you enjoy it?

WARSAWPACK: Mr.Lif’s new album I Phantom. So good – end to end. Lif is an MC out of Boston on the Definitive Jux label. He just continually reminds me of why I love hip-hop.

EID: Do you think it’s important for instrumentation in hip-hop to be live?

WARSAWPACK: I think it adds a fresh new dimension to hip-hop... but I don’t think its important or that it gives a band any more credibility. The producer (the beat constructor) is god in hip-hop, and making beats will always be essential to hip-hop culture. Using live instruments takes things in a different direction – but I don’t think it’s necessarily better.

EID: What kind of an element does having a live band lend to the experience of seeing warsawpack?

WARSAWPACK: I think the live instrumentation we bring makes for a pretty exciting live show. We’re a seven-piece... which really clutters a stage. There’s just so much going on... tons to take in. People dig the rhymes, but the music is the soul of it all. People don’t dance to lyrics. People don’t sway to lyrics. The music holds them captive in a way that lyrics just never could...

EID: Who would win in a no-holds-barred streetfight between Jean Chretien and George Bush?

WARSAWPACK: Bush got a black eye from a pretzel for god’s sake. I’d have to put my money on Chretien.Honestly, I should have had my card pulled for some of these HORRIBLE questions. Yeesh.

EID: If you could be one political leader, past or present, who would it be and why?

WARSAWPACK: That’s tough – I guess I’d say Ghandi – because he defied British Imperialism, AND sewed his own clothing (!) how cool is that (?)

EID: On Gross Domestic Product, you tackle everything from ADD to the automobile industry to weekend mentalities and capitalism in general. are there subjects for you that are sacred or untouchable?

WARSAWPACK: I don’t know if they are ‘sacred’ per se, but there are definitely things that we end up steering away from. I’ve written things about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that we’ve thought might be a bit touchy. Religion – another biggie I’d prefer to stay away from. I think that I may someday get the words right and feel comfortable presenting my opinion on these things but, I haven’t felt comfortable with what I’ve come up with thus far... so I leave it alone. And grandmothers. I would never belittle a gramma. Or wait - is Martha Stewart a gramma? Sorry, I take that back – some grammas have it coming.

EID: How is political consciousness important to hip-hop?

WARSAWPACK: I think political consciousness could save hip-hop. Could steal it back from the suits that have it all locked up for their pocket books. Hip-hop is so young, relatively speaking... and I like to think right now, this phase we are living in, this is the ‘confused pre-teen’ phase... that soon hip-hop will grow up and start acting like a man – instead of a teenie-bopper boy band... ye know?

But I don’t blame hip-hop culture. I think left alone, in its natural state, hip-hop reeks of politics. Can’t help but be politicized, due to race and class issues that are so inherent to the genre. Nope- it took the hard work of hundreds of rich fat white guys to bring hip-hop down to the level its at now... all hopped-up on dance beats and made commodity for the kiddies – I don’t blame hip-hop for that.

EID: How is art in general related to political consciousness?

WARSAWPACK: I think of art as a creative outlet for dissent (... for those of us that are really just gigantic wussies that couldn’t last 2 minutes in a modern day protest scenario... complete with its bats, rubber bullets, and tear gas...). Art can articulate things that people may think, but can’t word themselves, or see as a picture, or sculpture, or whatever. Artists can manifest what people feel. They deal in the human spirit. And if that spirit is threatened, art can lash out, react, or defy, just as a person might. Art is a strong component of social change – has been throughout history. Wherever people struggle – there will be art made that opposes that struggle.

EID: What is your favorite Warsawpack song at the moment and why?

WARSAWPACK: My favourite these days is a song we do called Rogue Nation. It hasn’t gone to recording yet – so you would only know it from the live show. I like it because it addresses a lot of the issues we’re faced with these days – namely one giant rogue nation calling other little impoverished nations ‘rogues’ and waging an unending war on them for unfettered access to their oil resources... I mean for freedom, an unending war for freedom.