"Passion of the Poets," the new collection from Central Texas hip-hop crew Third Root, is a battle cry from the trenches of America’s social justice struggle that rises to meet the current moment.
The album launches with lyrical guns blazing. On the blistering lead track, "Born to Rhyme," rapper Marco Antonio "Mex Step" Cervantes outlines a calculated offensive of Black and brown community organizing. Then he pledges to "fight in the resistance using words as ammunition."
"This is Huey Newton at your campus rounding up the students, rallying the troops, pointing right and left/ Jam it ’til you deaf," his partner in rhyme, Charles "Easy Lee" Peters, fires back.
Peters goes on to remind the listener, "You're rapping for your homies while I'm rapping for their sons / Students of the culture know it's more than drugs and guns."
"It's unapologetic. You know, in terms of the group's mission. In terms of what we stand for," Jeff "Chicken George" Henry, the group’s DJ, said not long after the album dropped on Juneteenth.
Third Root’s purpose has always been bigger than hip-hop, and the new release is an instant classic locked and loaded with crucial knowledge and hard-won wisdom.
Oh yeah, and it bangs.
ATX groove alchemist Adrian Quesada (Black Pumas, Brownout) helmed the production. He steeped the release in the traditions of classic boom bap and Southern soul, then seasoned it with buoyant horns and fuzzed-out cumbia rhythms. This is real hip-hop. But it’s from deep in the heart of Texas, recorded on land that, lest we forget, at one point was Mexico.
"Born to Rhyme" is about "the power of words, the power of lyrics and the power of hip-hop to motivate and educate," Cervantes said.
The crew’s lyricists are not just rappers, but scholars. In their other lives as educators, Peters teaches AP language and composition at KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, and Cervantes is an associate professor of Mexican American studies and interim chair of the Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. When they get together, "we're trading articles, trading books, and really talking about what's going on in society and how to improve the situation for everybody," Cervantes said.
They study systems of oppression and how to dismantle them. The songs on the album, recorded and released on EPs over the last few years, prophesied the civil rights uprisings currently gripping America’s streets.
The group itself comes out of "discussions and talks about Black and brown solidarity, especially centering Blackness in Latino culture and politics," Cervantes said.
"Our name itself literally points to the idea that European and Indigenous roots are readily identified a lot of times in education, but then there's little talk about the African ties to Mexico, Central America, South America. That conversation is the Third Root," Peters said.
Studying the history of Son Jarocho, a folkloric Mexican music tradition with roots in Mexico's colonial past, was eye-opening for Cervantes. "I had no idea about the Black presence in Mexico, how much of an impact Black music has had on what is Latino music, mariachi music, Tejano music," he said.
When he was exposed to these ideas, Peters said he "dove head first" into the research. "Literally, we created a group centered around a lot of scholarship that Mex Step was working on," he said.
"From those conversations, we decided to really turn it into not just a side project, but a real lifelong project," Cervantes said. "And it's been a lot of learning, a lot of understanding and, I just think, also a lot of shared empowerment."
In January, with a crucial presidential election on the horizon, the group began serious discussions about reorganizing their songs around a new theme and releasing them on vinyl. They settled on "Passion of the Poets," a turn of phrase invoked by Peters on the title track to their 2012 debut album, "Stand for Something."
It was a subtle semantic shift for the group as they repackaged songs from the 2018 and 2019 "Trill Pedagogy" EP series.
"We created under the heading of educators," Peters said. "That didn't necessarily connect with the masses because not everybody is an educator. Not everybody can connect with pedagogy, but everybody connects with passion."
Originally, they were aiming for a September release date. But then, "the sister Breonna (Taylor) was murdered, Big (George) Floyd was murdered, (Ahmaud) Arbery was murdered," Peters said.
Cervantes sent a text to his crew at the beginning of June.
"What do we need to do? Let's get this out immediately," he said.
Henry handles presentation and rollout for the group. He started working around the clock to get art, liner notes and all of the visual components that go into a physical release nailed down. "Less than two weeks, we were able to pull it all together," he said.
They settled on Juneteenth — June 19, Freedom Day in Texas — as a release date, "because it doesn't make sense to put it out any other day if we were going to do it in the month of June," Henry said.
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The trio of artist-activists have been deeply involved in social justice movements for years. At this moment in time, they say the drive to dismantle white supremacy in America feels different.
"It definitely feels stronger," said Cervantes, noting that even with pandemic-related slowdowns in education, enrollment in African American and Mexican American studies courses at UTSA are up.
"The awareness level has increased considerably, you know, and people are mobilizing themselves to get up and make a difference," Henry said.
Cervantes believes that social media is helping to drive the change. "We're all connected. We can see other aspects of our lives that we weren't able to see (before)," he said.
"Being able to just get on your phone and see how somebody is living, watch somebody struggle, watch somebody's victories. I mean, getting to know people on different levels, I think is important."
They’re inspired by the young people they see joining the movement.
"That's the generation that we need, that we've been trying to reach," Henry said.
"That's where our whole mission as scholars meets our mission as musicians," Peters said.
"We believe that the change has to happen with young people, as their brains are developing," he continued. "Once you get to a certain point, when it comes to your politics, and your biases and your beliefs, there's only so much we're gonna do for you through the mic."
Peters believes that "if we can get to the youth with our music and with our messaging, that’s where the greatest change can occur."
Cervantes describes himself as someone who "grew up getting a lot of my insight, history and politics through hip-hop music."
"Hip-hop has always been at the forefront of pointing out these injustices, like way before social media, you know, we had NWA and Ice-T," he said.
Now, a generation of older politicians, community organizers and artists who are influenced by hip-hop culture are stepping up to the plate. Cervantes is inspired by the way Houston rappers Bun B and Trae the Truth have helped galvanize the social justice movement in Houston.
"It's a shift like no other I've seen, and that's why it's just time to, you know, put the boots on and just go to war," Cervantes said. "Let's do this, and let's make things happen."
In classic hip-hop fashion, the group includes two emcees and a DJ, but Quesada played an instrumental role in shaping Third Root’s sound. The Grammy-winning producer used to back the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA with cumbia funk outfit Grupo Fantasma and produced Brownout’s epic 2018 Public Enemy tribute, "Fear of a Brown Planet." He provides the sonic realization of their ideas about Black and brown unity with an exhilarating mesh of Golden Era hip-hop beats and border funk that feels fresh, timely and quintessentially Texan.
"Adrian has been capable of this particular sound musically for many years," but Quesada was waiting for a rap group "who had a message that matched with it," Peters said.
When the group stopped by Quesada’s South Austin studio in 2016 to record vocals for posse track "Soul Force," he was blown away.
In what Quesada calls a "sneaky move," he "flipped the remix" of the track on his own time and sent it to the group. With a career built around "intersecting those two lanes" of hip-hop and Latin sounds, "this was just the perfect group that I wanted to contribute to," he said.
"We realized that to work with somebody like Adrian — who is, I mean, genius for lack of a better term, who is also in high demand — that we would have to record music with him on his schedule," Peters said. "When we got with him to record it, our pens had to be ready, because he's a Grammy-level producer. So we have to give you Grammy-level lyrics."
While Third Root was working on the album, Quesada was recording the electrifying debut album for his own project, Black Pumas. Pumas vocalist Eric Burton guests on two tracks of "Passion of the Poets."
"We saw (Black Pumas) form as we were recording the album," Cervantes said. It was amazing "to be In the room, Eric popping in and out of the studio" and to be "part of that energy."
On the track "Fantasma Horns," built around a remix of a beat from San Antonio producer Ill Fudge, Quesada enlisted his old collaborators from Grupo Fantasma for an ebullient, old-school jam that embodies the band’s vision of Black and brown unity with upbeat vibes.
The song "speaks for itself," Peters said. "There's never been a hip-hop song recorded like that."
It’s the kind of collaboration the group members believe makes America great. It’s also a musical homage to the larger movement.
"The greatest moments are when the marginalized and the disenfranchised people stand up and push," Peters said.
"With Black and brown people in the U.S., we're talking about communities who have been terrorized in this country under the cloak of white supremacy. So how do we attack white supremacy? I think one of the ways is musical expression," Cervantes said. He believes art has the ability "to shift ideologies, as well as politics."
Peters believes that the current social justice movement will "go down as a moment when a lot of people shifted their thinking and their eyes opened." And groups like Third Root "who use different cultures to blend sounds, those are going to be the great musical moments moving forward," he said.
"If we could just be like an inspiration model for young people to just cross those lines and get down with each other in the studios, that's what we're trying to do," he said.
Third Root strives for an overall change in ideology, "towards a not just a solidarity or unity, but towards a Black and brown love," Cervantes said.
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