Chicago hip-hop crew BBU (known less colloquially as Bin Laden Blowin’ Up, or alternately Black Brown and Ugly) have gained acclaim and attention on the strength of their mixtape Fear of a Clear Channel Planet and other output, including the locally ubiquitous “Chi Don’t Dance,” a juke jam that celebrates Chicago, good and bad bits alike. Serving as community activists and party starters in the same breath, Jasson Perez, Michael “Illekt” Milam and Richard “Epic” Wallace have fused opinionated politically-leaning hip-hop with dance beats and formed something that works the brain and feet in equal doses. Heave got to talk with Illekt and Epic at the North Coast Music Festival (Perez left sick after their midday set) about the balance between the message and the jam, a run-in with a hostile MF Doom crowd and the feminist philosopher bell hooks, among other things.
Heave: You guys have kept things pretty underground despite getting a lot of buzz. How do you work that balance out?
Epic: I think we’re just really selective with the shows we pick up. I think we’ve learned from experience that not all shows are good shows. (laughs) The MF Doom show we played was a pretty horrible event, so we’ve been really selective with our shows. Also, doing as many grassroots and free shows as we possibly can.
Illekt: The thing is, we’re not trying to rush anything. We know how important it is to be a grassroots movement, and build from the bottom up. You don’t just wanna go straight to the top, because that’s how people forget about you. You just come and you’re gone. You’re there for a long time and you grow with people, they respect you more.
Epic: We’re accountable to the hood, you know? They need us there, we gotta go.
Illekt: And we work regular day jobs to make it through.
If you don’t mind my asking, what happened with the Doom show?
Illekt: It is what it is. He’s one of those cult rappers, where people are just there to see him. It’s like Wu-Tang, those groups where people just love them and it’s all about them. Mos Def played that show too, and they threw a bottle at him, they booed him. So with us, being nowhere near where Mos Def is in hip-hop and in the scene, we can only be like “Yeah, we didn’t get it that bad.”
Epic: At the end of the day, it’s like, we had to learn how to get booed off a stage. We learned how to get booed and still perform. People aren’t always gonna love you, and up until that point, everybody loved us. That was the first show where it was like “Oh, fuck! We’re not the shit!” It was a learning experience.
Illekt: And today, I’ll have people come up who were at that show and be like “Oh, you guys snapped.” So there’s a percentage of people that felt us, but of course, when people are loud enough you’re gonna hear ‘em.
You’re also known for doing a lot of work with various communities. How has the group helped or enhanced that?
Epic: The more connections BBU gets, the more access we have to the community. It’s like Robin Hood, yo. So the more people we meet out here, the more blogs we interview with, the more endorsements we get from sponsorships or whatever, when it’s time to cash in on those motherfuckers, we can bring all those assets to the community. We take it to the streets, we get a bunch of supplies, bring ‘em to the hood and drop ‘em off.
Illekt: It’s also about bringing this to people we grew up with, to give them a chance to get involved with what we’re on and stuff. Not everyone has a college education and all that shit, and we wanna bring them onto a bigger movement.
You just did a song with Das Racist. How’d that come about?
Epic: Those are our dudes.
Illekt: There was a mutual friend that we had, and we were just messing around with their songs. The Pizza Hut, Taco Bell song? We were just making up different versions. Somehow our version got to them, and they loved it.
Epic: We went out to New York for CMJ, and we were fucking around with the Pizza Hut song, and…
Illekt: (singing) I’m at your mom’s house, I’m at your girlfriend’s house. I’m at your combination mom and girlfriend’s house. (laughing)
Epic: A mutual friend told them, they peeped us, and they realized we’re on the same kind of political message. So we do a monthly party in Chicago called Party at Your Mom’s House, and we bought ‘em down for the second or third party we threw. We headlined Das Racist, and while they were there, we got with ‘em on a track.
Illekt: It was at my mom’s house, too, so we really did party at my mom’s house.
You fuse a lot of club jams with a really strong message. How do you negotiate that?
Illekt: It’s not that hard when it’s what we love. What we write is what we feel, and it’s what we go through. It’s hard rapping that fast, and being relevant still. That’s the hard part. (laughs)
Epic: Or running out of ideas. The thing is, we’re really musical kids, we love all kinds of music. You never know what we’re gonna come up with next, we might have a rock album coming out one day. (laughs) Our album kind of shows that we’re never gonna be confined to one box. We’re never gonna be like “Oh, we’ve got music figured out,” because we’re always gonna try and recreate the message in different ways, and try and sneak revolutionary quotes into some real party shit. The only way to get on in Chicago is playing fuckin’ clubs, so your shit has to bang, it has to be able to juke or whatever.
Yeah, I was kinda surprised to hear you bust out a Refused chorus [“New Noise”] during your set.
Illekt: Yeah, I love Refused. I actually bought Jasson that album, and I put it on, and he came back and was like “Yo, we gotta do this.” (laughs)
I’ve been hearing about bell hooks for a while now. When’s that finally going to drop?
Epic: October! bell hooks drops in October, and it’s done! All the tracks have to go in for mastering, and then it’s done. The videos are done. We’ve got a lot of shit that’ll come out. Though, it’s the first time we have a strategic approach, where before we’d do shit on MySpace and put out a mixtape. Now, we’ve got management, and they’re critiquing us and keeping us conscious of how to put music out on the internet in a productive way. So that’s dope.
What made you decide to title the record after her?
Epic: I was reading a book called Outlaw Culture [Resisting Representations], and in that book she was highlighting a lot of the isms that we’re trying to address on the album. Like sexism, racism, just trying to be all-inclusive, and bell hooks was kind of a model of that. She’s always been kinda pro-people, you know what I mean, and that’s what the music is, it’s very pro-people. We’re not anti-gay, we’re not anti-white, we’re not anti-anything, we’re pro-everything.
Illekt: And like Jasson says, a lot of girls are gonna love it. (laughs)