COMPLEX MUSIC Interview: Dice Raw Talks About His New Album “Jimmy’s Back,” The Prison-Industrial Complex, and “The New Jim Crow”

Dice Raw is mostly known for the work he’s done with The Roots over the years. The Philadelphian rapper/producer has made an appearance on every album the band has put out since 1995’s, Do You Want More?!!!??! While Dice’s track record with The Roots speaks for itself, he has also been working on music as a solo artist. With a social-activist bent.

Inspired by the activist movement against mass incarceration, Dice’s latest album, Jimmy’s Back, is an attempt to shine a light on the injustices of America’s prison-industrial complex. To accompany the album, he released a documentary of the same name, featuring interviews with several Philadelphia rappers who have gone through the prison system.

We got on the phone with Dice to talk about hip-hop’s role in issues of social justice, the legacy of currently-incarcerated Philadelphia rapper Beanie Sigel, and why he still likes listening to gangster rappers like Meek Mill.

Interview With Dharmic X (@DharmicX)

You’ve put out both a documentary and an album within the last month. What inspired those projects?
The album is called Jimmy’s Back. It was inspired by Dr. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, as well as the outrageous statistics of the prison industrial complex. The rapes that are going on in the prison system are increasing, the age of the inmates are getting younger, and crime is on the decline yet black arrests are on the incline.

And not just black arrests—poor whites, Latinos, and Latina women arrests are growing at an alarming rate. It’s a problem that hits really close to me, it hits close to home because I know so many people that gave their life to the streets and are incarcerated for a long time. It’s something that spoke to my heart.

I also think that hip-hop’s narrative is the biggest problem. In the last 20 years of black music, anyone that’s coming with a different narrative than a gangster narrative has been drowned out almost. Except for the resurgence of Pharrell, with the nerd aspect, or the emo rapper—which is new, and I’m very happy to see it in hip-hop because it offers a different light—but still, some of these emo people are gangsters as well. Some of smarter, sensitive rappers, still refer back to the gangster narrative at some point.

There are a lot of different artists that are coming out now and I think that someone like 50 Cent is just gangster rap. I think Chance The Rapper offers a different narrative. I think Drake offers a different narrative, but sometimes I think Drake still reverts back to the gangster sometimes. He still makes references to the streets. And as much as I love Nas…

It’s fascinating when you talk about these narratives which have increased in the last few years because of the Internet, but also that these different narratives still rely on the street aspect.
Yeah or they support it. Which to me is insane. I think the first step to helping stop mass incarceration is raising awareness about it. Some of these rappers need to own up to these narratives and say, “You know what. I do know gangsters. Some of my friends are gangsters. Some of my friends have been involved in street life but not because they wanted to. It was something that they had to do because they felt as if they had no options.” And that’s not even true because there are more options today.

We have to speak out about these things to tell these kids what’s going on instead of just beating them over the head with the same ideas that are really not going to get them anywhere, but they’re subscribing to it because they feel drawn toward it.

There’s the theory that major labels promote these gangster rap narratives.
I don’t believe that. I know a lot of industry people don’t really care about these stories though. If there was a certain resurgence of certain things inside of hip hop—like horror rap—they would try to sell that. If hipster rap got really popular, they would try to sell that. If there was a thing like cigarette rap, they would try to sell that. People like that like the music, but they don’t put their own personal taste in front of their business decisions.

If people gravitate towards the gangster narrative, how do we change the mentality? How does the narrative change? 
We don’t necessarily have to change it, we just need to even the playing field. I I don’t think there’s nothing wrong with gangster rap. I ride around, I listen to Rick Ross, I like to Meek Mill, I love this stuff. I find it entertaining. That said, Meek Mill is Meek Mill. We don’t need 20 people trying to be him. We already got that. I think people just need to be freer to express themselves as individuals. That would help hip-hop, it could help the music game, and it could help people seriously.

Your hometown of Philadelphia is a big part of both the documentary and the album. How important is Philly to the narrative?
Philadelphia’s a criminal city. There’s a lot of crime and there’s a crime culture, to a certain degree. A lot of the young people subscribed to hustling and selling drugs and carrying pistols are subscribed at an early age because it’s so prevalent in the neighborhood. People are still so option-less and so frustrated that this is what they turn to automatically.

When you look at Philly and Philly hip-hop, one of the biggest artists is Beanie Sigel. How do you feel his story has contributed to the city? Is he a product of what the city has in terms of crime?
Well I definitely think Beanie Sigel is very influential, on more levels than people might even give him credit for. I mean, he changed the whole lyric game, the way people arranged their words. People are still doing what Beanie Sigel contributed to hip-hop. It’s almost like the whole city became Beanie Sigel to a certain degree.

One of the things the documentary talks about is the mentality of institutionalization. It’s very difficult to adjust to home life after returning from prison. What do you think needs to be done in order to alleviate those types of issues?
Institutionalism is institutionalism and a human being is going to be a human being. If you put them in a situation they’re not used to being in for a long time, it’s going to affect them. It’s interesting you brought that point up because the way some of these guys are, they’re so institutionalized that they don’t even know it to a certain degree. They’re almost institutionalized before they even go to jail.

One of the guys said something interesting to me. He told me that one of the brothers had changed and is different now because he did 10 years in jail. He said 10 years in jail did something to the other guy, and he said, “Well I did 10 years and it ain’t do nothing to me.” And it’s like, yes it did, bro. You don’t know it did and you don’t feel like it did because you’re not acknowledging it, but it did something to you. It does something to everyone and the fact that you can see it in another person but not yourself is really scary and really eye opening.

If there’s one thing people take away from the album, what would it be?
I want them to take away true emotions. I just want people to appreciate the musicality of it, appreciate the message and I want them to try do something and be active. I think mass incarceration is a problem and I want them to go out and do something about it. That’s what I did.

The one thing I do good is I rap. So the best way I could contribute to try to help fight this war against mass incarceration. Michelle Alexander is a smart, intelligent woman, I had the chance to speak to her on a few different occasions and I’m basically just a soldier of her army and the army against mass incarceration, so I did what I could do. Dr. Alexander loves the album.

I went and spoke to the ACLU with Piper [Kerman] from Orange Is The New Black the other day in Washington, with the movers and shakers of mass incarcerations—people who are really on the front line, really trying to end this war. I want people to get educated and if they didn’t know anything about the prison industrial complex, to educate themselves on it and join.