Cover photo by Tony Hoang
“This microphone kills fascists”. That’s how Lee Reed blasts off on his song This Microphone from his 2015 album The Butcher, The Banker, The Bitumen Tanker. It’s been three years since the Hamilton, Ontario native, hip hop veteran released a full length and the resistance has been waiting.
For 23 years Lee Reed has been making militant boom bap radically raising his fist on tape and video and shouting messages of anti-capitalism, anti-police and equality. After touring with Sage Francis of Strange Famous Records he signed with the label for his newest release called Before & Aftermath.
Still militant, still relevant, Lee rips the society apart exploring its faults and looks for ways to puzzle it back together again.
“military grade shit/cops play war with certain populations/state sponsored it, racism faceted/blood and honour and ku klux closeted” Lee raps on ACAB which, unfortunately, is bound to never hit mainstream radio stations.
I contacted Lee via email and asked him about his new album, what set it apart from some of his more independent productions, his activism and organising and his dream roster of politician bandmates for a fiery bus crashing super group.
First of all, for those not familiar with your work, who is Lee Reed?
I’m an MC from Hamilton Ontario Canada, that makes far-left radical HipHop. I’m an outspoken supporter of organizers and organizations fighting for social and environmental justice. And I’m 23 years in the HipHop game in 2019.
How did you get into making music?
I started messing around with music and song writing in my teens. I played guitar and I did rock and blues type jams with pals. We would do covers and write some original material. Nothing serious though really.
And then, I started writing rhymes and rap in my 20’s. Inspired by other cats around me doing it. I’d always listened to and loved HipHop but, didn’t really try writing and performing it myself until I was a bit older.
Has your music always been political?
Yeah. Even when I was I was just getting started, I was always trying to ‘say something’ with music. I was young and didn’t have the greatest grasp on politics and articulating big ideas but, there was a serious anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist streak in my writing and thinking, right from the jump. Music with an expressly revolutionary message or that celebrated working class struggles and power. had always inspired and drawn me in. Public Enemy, BDP, KRS, later on into Rage Against the Machine, The Coup, Dead Prez. Or punk bands like the Dead Kennedy’s, Minor Threat, And was always was drawn to the underlying politics of HipHop and Punk in that era. Even bands that weren’t expressly radical, had decent politics woven through their songwriting. Or would have some ‘message based’ songs on their records. That really inspired me, and definitely shaped me as a songwriter.
You just released a new album, Before and Aftermath (Strange Famous 2018), but you’ve been making music for quite a while. Did you experience something new during the creative and production process of the new album?
Well, truthfully, this was the first time since my old band Warsawpack (1999-2004, G7 Welcome Committee Records) where I knew, going in, that a label would be carrying the work. I had been talking with Sage Francis about releasing it on Strange Famous Digital (SFDigi), and I knew if I crafted a great record that they would run with it. So, that kinda forced me to take the project a lot more seriously. To get a lot more perfectionist about it. I spent way more time scrutinizing the process. I cut more songs, changed more songs, and did a lot more fussing about this record than anything I’ve ever worked on.
Do you consider yourself a musician only or an activist or both? Do you find it hard to draw the line between the two or should there not be any line there in the first place?
Well, there’s a couple of layers to that. First, if you mean is my music itself, on its own, a form of activism? I would say maybe, but in a very sideways and hard to quantify way. The song itself can act in the way a pamphlet or zine might, spreading radical info and awareness about something. There is that. But, I think, for me, the true crossover of music into real activism/organizing comes when artists give and use their music for the material benefit of a struggle. Use their performances and recordings to bolster the work of frontline resistance and sites of struggle. Like, running fundraisers for organizations. Selling recordings where the proceeds go to radical organizations and campaigns. Donating music or songwriting for a campaign site or video. Using music as a spectacle for blockades and occupations. Using music and concerts to help refuel and invigorate organizers in the trenches. That sort of thing. I think when you can use your music to support struggle, in meaningful and material ways – you are properly using your art AS activism. And I’ve always worked hard to do that.
When it comes to your lyrics, do you ever find it hard to balance between the right, smooth flow and the precise political point you want to get across?
Definitely. And that’s something I fuss over continuously. The message is important but, you gotta sound smooth saying it. Or folk aren’t going to listen.
What is wrong with this world and how can artists be a part of the change?
I think the problem is capitalism, and the way life is organized to put the needs of business over human beings. I think art can definitely help people see through that, and help articulate/envision something better. I think that approach is different for every artist. And there are an infinite number of ways that art can make meaningful change. I guess I would just say, artists need to think about their relationship to the world and how their art affects and interacts with it. Is their art just a commodity, or is there a deeper significance to it, culturally, politically or socially? What does their art ultimately stand for? Realize all art has a ‘politics’. Often that politics is ignorance, it’s a celebration of opulence or drugged up abandon or hate or something. It might not have an overt ‘message’ like we think of with protest music. But it still stands for something. It still has a message.. it’s just getting whispered.
Do you partake in activism outside the music?
Yes, as much as I can. Most years that’s just playing a supporting role for campaigns, organizers and organizations that I know. Attending rallies and actions. Helping run or promote events. Playing shows or events. Turning up and being present mostly. But some years I get deeper into the organizing work. This past year has been the busiest ever for me, in that regard. I belong to a tenant solidarity organization, here in Hamilton, and we have spent most of this past year working with a tenant committee in the city’s east end, supporting a rent strike. Its been over 8 months of regular meetings, door knocking, hearings, actions, events, fundraising, etc. Was often 4-5 nights of my week spent on it, at its peak. It’s definitely the most involved I’ve ever been in that ‘real work’. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. And I’m constantly inspired by my comrades in the struggle.
How is the protest music scene where you are from? Are people using their voices and talents in protest?
Well, if you look at Canada as a whole.. and across genres.. there is lots of great protest/radical music, or artists that are pushing the political boundaries in a good direction. We have a lot of great rap and punk that talks good politics. My comrades Test Their Logik, Kay the Aquanaut, Mother Tareka, Praxis Life (who are part of a collective I work with called RHYMETHiNK), other talented rap pals I know like Emay, Kimmortal, Cheko Salaam, Micros Armes, garbageface, Jesse Dangerously.. OG electro soul hop pals Lal.. punk acts like Propagandhi, Action Sedition, Union Thugs.
One big thing of note.. there’s been a surge in great Indigenous artists that have brought a strong voice for Indigenous issues, at a deeply divisive point in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people. Canada’s colonization is ongoing. Genocide is ongoing. The rush to develop and sell tar sand bitumen.. sinking so much of our country’s economy into that venture.. and trying to force tankers and pipelines over Indigenous lands and waterways without proper consent. has brought the colonial legacy to the forefront of a lot of Canadians’ minds. And I think artists like A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Mob Bounce, JB The First Lady, Ostwelve, Quantum Tangle (to name a few), are helping to articulate the Indigenous struggle and share its story. It’s inspiring.
How about your own influences, whether they are protest musicians or not? And are you following any socially conscious contemporary artists you want to recommend?
Well, I’m always looking for good revolutionary music. I follow all the names I’d mentioned above in Canada. But, outside of that.. some HipHop favourites of recent years would be.. Savage Fam, Ant-Loc, Bambu, Sole, Sima Lee, Mic Crenshaw, Skipp Coon. On the more mainstream side.. I’m into Vince Stapes, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick, Run the Jewels. There’s some good, inventive HipHop coming out these days.
What advice do you have for young musicians who want to use their voices in protest?
I would tell them to get involved with some real organizing. Find a group that’s doing work on an issue that concerns them or their community, and get involved in the fight back. They’ll be inspired in a way that reading and theorizing just never could. They’ll understand, and be able to articulate the fight in a way that watching, reading and thinking about it just can’t. Get down.
If you could invite 4 politicians, living or dead, to form a band with you who would you choose? Haha. I guess Trump, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford (our Province’s Premier) and Putin. We could die in a fiery tour bus crash.
What is on the horizon for you?
I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. Old timey boom bap hip hop, with a batshit radical leftist lean. I’m going to hit the road again in the spring. In Canada, and then Europe. And I’ve got some new writing on the go. Should be a pretty productive year.
Thank you for participating and for your music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
Naw, I think we covered it! …easiest way to find all my music, videos, shows and new is to hit my website.. www.leereedrevolt.com
Thank you for the thoughtful questions, and fist up!
Halldór is the managing editor of Shouts – Music from the Rooftops!, an investigative journalist, audio engineer and an animal rights activist on a nomad journey through Europe – still without a definite destination.