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New Artist Spotlight: Elemental Zazen

by Travis on June 27, 2008

I tend to think that the political charged hip hop of the late 80′s/early 90′s is somewhat of a lost art. No longer are exposed to the strong political and socio-tinged rants of Public Enemy, Paris, X-Clan and others. Yes, we still have the likes of the Dead Prez and Immortal Technique, but in these trying times, the more the better in my book. Both society and the world is basically going to hell in hand basket and unless people wake up and see the potential problems await us in the not so distant future, it’s going to be worse before it gets better. I’ve long been a big believer in thinking for oneself. Be active in your environment and your society. I can deal with a person’s beliefs no matter what they may be if they have done their homework and explain to me WHY you feel the way you do.

This weeks artist for our New Artist Spotlight will undoubtedly get the “political rapper” tag, which I think he wears on his sleeve with pride. Elemental Zazen has been all over the world, from third world countries to the “radical” middle eastern countries. He’s been through trials and tribulations that you and I could only dream about, in our nightmares. He’s lost his cousin to a tragic accident, had a brain tumor and lived on the streets, all with in a few years of each other. He brings his second album, “The Glass Should Be Full”, full of music that should make you think and open your eyes to issues around the world.

Elemental Zazen – “Machine” [

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Elemental Zazen – “Handcuffs” [

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WYDU: Thanks for your time Zazen, would you mind giving a proper introduction for the readers that might not be familiar with you or your work?

Elemental Zazen: My name is Jason, and on the mic I go by Elemental Zazen. For most of the past 8 years I have lived in Boston, but I am moving to Seattle this fall in order to pursue my PhD. Most people would classify my music as being political, but I see it as more of a platform for personal and social commentary.

W: From listening to your new album, “The Glass Should Be Full”, and reading your press bio, you are bringing a political charged fervor to your music. What situations and events in your life have lead you down a path that is kind of a forgotten genre in hip hop?

EZ: Growing up in the third world obviously had a profound impact on my political and socio-economic ideas. Many of the aspects of the third world that bothered me, such as economic inequity, gender inequality, etc. are also alive and well here in the US, only they aren’t as readily apparent. My view points are merely a reflection of both my experiences as an internationally raised white American, and the personal tragedies I’ve accumulated along the way. As far as political hip hop goes, I agree with you that in some ways it is a forgotten sub-genre. The roots planted by Chuck D and others are is still alive on the small stages and dusty shelves, but hopefully not for too much longer. There is too much talent invested in it for it to stay beneath the surface forever.

W: How do you look at hip hop and it’s current state in missing as a tool toward social revolution? There isn’t really any X-Clan’s, Public Enemy’s or Paris’ that are in the forefront of the music these days, how do you explain that and how do you use your music for change?

EZ: The record that really got me thinking about music was “Apocalypse ’91″ by Public Enemy. I remember being a 5th grader in Al Taif, Saudi Arabia, signing along with “By The Time I Get to Arizona”, “Lost At Birth”, and “Can’t Truss It.” Chuck D was always on some shit. The more I learned about history and political science through both school and my own readings, the more I understood how valuable a medium like music could be in terms of spreading a set of ideals. Through that understanding I gained an immeasurable amount of respect for all artists in all genres and all practices (literature, visual art, music, etc) that use their work to champion the cause of the common man. At the same time, the more a society becomes stratified between haves and have-nots, the more that view points that oppose the status quo will be marginalized, especially in the mainstream media. For example, anyone that supports any sort of systematic change is considered a “radical”- a word which carries undoubtedly negative connotations. This makes artists that seek national exposure less likely to speak out against those in the power positions, because if they do, both they and their opinions will be laughed off the mainstream stage. Even those that do attempt to make “protest” songs and release them on major labels are doing safe protest songs. For example, it is trendy to target G.W.Bush, so you see a bunch of major label artists from all musical genres doing tracks bashing Bush. I want to talk about the most important issues: the systematic problems that insure that whether Bush or Obama or Clinton or Reagan is in power, this country will still neglect the common man.

Sorry for the tangent. I’m passionate about this…can you tell?

W: All good man. What would you change in the American political and social system if you could?

EZ: We could be here for days…. Actually, there are two main changes I would like to see. One is for the system to change from a two party, winner take all platform to a representative democracy, such as what you see somewhere like England. Secondly I would like to completely alter the way white collar and drug related crimes are punished. White collar crimes should be, in extreme cases, treated as just as seriously as something like manslaughter, because there are instances where the aftereffects of them impact hundreds of people. For example, when a CEO knowingly uses inside information to make his/herself millions while simultaneously putting workers out of jobs, they should be punished far more severely than someone that stole a George Foreman grill from Wal-mart. Punishments levied for drug possession and distribution are similarly ridiculous in that they very rarely f
it the severity of the crime.

W: You’ve gone through some “trials & tribulations” to put it lightly the past few years, how did those misfortunes shape not only your music, but you are as a person living in these trying times?

EZ: When you are faced with extreme adversity, all you can do is be strong. My life has been so crazy…one moment I am on top of the world and the next I am diagnosed with a brain tumor. Amidst everything, though, I’ve remain focused on my main goal: to have a positive impact on the world through my music and academic work.

W: Let’s talk about your album, “This Glass Should Be Full,” some, what can listeners expect when they are checking out the album for the first time?

EZ: I think this album is more rewarding to those that give it multiple listens, because it is so dense. I have my lyrics posted on, so that will hopefully make it easier for people. I wanted to make an album that was both initially likable and got better with each listen, and I think I have done that. The producers I worked with blessed me with some incredible beats, and I think the album is very strong lyrically. It’s easy to pigeonhole any artist with meaningful lyrics as being a “backpacker” or “underground”, but I think quality hip hop stands by itself and can’t be placed into one category. That being said, I usually describe my music as “socio-political commentary over dirty break beats.”

W: You have some heavy hitters as far as underground producers go, with Maker, Kno and Joe Beats, how was it working with them and do you think it’s important to have those kind of names backing the album?

EZ: I am honored to work not only with those 3 producers, but with everyone that appeared on the album. Honestly, I don’t really care about the name of the producer, as long as the beats fit what I am looking for. I could have worked with other producers, some of which are more well-known than those 3, but the beats didn’t fit the album. That being said, there is a good reason why most musicians in the indie rap scene get popular- mostly because they make better music than their competitors. I seek out the best producers in the scene, and am lucky enough to get a chance to work with some of them. My next record will have some other well-known names on there, but that’s for another time.

W: What do you hope to accomplish in the future, both in music and in your personal life?

EZ: My main goals are to 1: Put out another record in fall of ’09, and 2: to finish my PhD as soon as possible so I can get to work on making the world a better place, only this time with more effectiveness.

W: Any last words?

EZ: Shout out to Gnawledge Records for putting out my album. A big thank you to Gnotes and Canyon for all of their hard work. Also, check for my label mate Afro DZ AK’s record “Elevation” which hits stores this fall.


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