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It's a quiet evening at the Majestic Theater in Detroit. A handful of twentysomethings lounge at tables, full of beer and idle chatter, but Khalid el-Hakim, VP of Iron Fist Records, prefers to sit alone. He takes slow, calculated sips from an ice-cold glass of water as if he's been waiting all day to do it.
There's a week's worth of frustration and sleepless nights in his eyes. He had planned to launch a promotional push for Iron Fist's Take the Land CD. Instead, he's been answering hundreds of phone calls from journalists and fans about the death of longtime friend and business partner Deshaun "Proof" Holton. Proof was recently shot and killed at a Detroit after-hours club after he shot a man, who later died.
"Everything has hit me extremely hard," el-Hakim says between sips. "I was one of the first people at the hospital. We were getting ready to do some positive things, Take the Land being one of them."
When pressed about his partner's role in the fatal gunfight at Detroit's C.C.C., el-Hakim declined to comment.
Take the Land is the brainchild of el-Hakim and Robert Shumake, CEO of Southfield-based real estate firm Inheritance Investment Group. Shumake is a self-made success story, having built his company from the ground up after a youth spent fatherless and nearly homeless on Detroit's east side.
"Robert and I are old college friends from Ferris," el-Hakim says, "and he approached me about making a CD that would connect black youth with real estate."
Land ownership has been a common mantra in the black community since the post-slavery era. It was central to the ideologies of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, and other activists have continued to stress real estate as a vital source of empowerment for black Americans. It's no different in Detroit. "You always hear about the city having one of the highest poverty rates," el-Hakim says. "So it's crucial that we focus on land ownership and entrepreneurship."
With Shumake financing Take the Land, el-Hakim coordinating it, and Iron Fist releasing it, the comp is a rarity: a homegrown "conscious" disc where the beats and rhymes are as hot as the message.
The Iron Fist VP knew that a hard-hitting CD on a should-be topical subject would be hard to pull off without a hook, something to sell it beyond good intentions and the promise of great beats. So he turned to his Rolodex. Though he's strictly a behind-the-scenes guy who rarely abandons his low-key persona, el-Hakim's Detroit hip-hop cred runs deep. He's managed groups like 5ELA, the Last Poets and 3rd Eye Open, and was the architect behind the Revival, the Motor City Hip-Hop Review and the Peace Jam. Hence the CD's local and national star-power.
"I knew everyone would have a different take on the central subject," el-Hakim says. "I just wanted to give Detroit artists a chance to shine while including national artists known for their activism."
The result is a comp that's sincere, but with varied directions and motivations for each artist involved.
The set kicks off hard, with the heavy, piano-laced "Oil and Gold" from Versiz. "Don't believe the lies you're told," he spits in the track's hook, "Land is worth more than oil and gold." Atlanta's Aybss takes it back to the 40-acres-and-a-mule promise in "Get Your Land Back," and Flint's Chicano princess Lisa Lakes flips verses in both Spanish and English for the Latin-flavored "La Tierra." M1 is blunt in "Property Monopoly": "We making chips and we forget/We pay the landlord but we don't own jack shit" and Detroit native jessica Care moore favors land over bling in "Magnolia."
In the center of it all is Proof with "10 Acres," where the fallen emcee spits conscious lyrics over a club-style beat, an 808 pulsing eagerly on the rhythm. Searching for Jerry Garcia, his 2005 solo album, was lauded for its stylistic diversity. But "10 Acres" reveals Proof's sometimes-hidden socially conscious side.
With such a strong theme, Take the Land flirts with monotony. But there's dedication; the sheer repetition of the disc's central message makes it hit home. No, it isn't going to make you run out and buy up real estate; rather, it effectively probes deeper questions about the relationship between land, culture, history and our purpose in it.
A CD release party for Take the Land had been scheduled for Saturday, April 29, during Freedom Weekend at Cobo Hall, but was canceled in the wake of Proof's death. Iron Fist is processing Proof's loss while keeping its projects on track.
Khalid el-Hakim drains his glass of water, stares straight ahead, and says, he and Proof "made a commitment to this record label. He gave us a great track and was excited about the project."
He admits that life without Proof is going to be a challenge. "We had many conversations about the future and growing old, laughing over how hip hop helped us build wealth that would be passed down to our children's children. Iron Fist was his vision and his legacy, and his work ethic was impeccable. Right now, Iron Fist as a team has to pick up the pieces and move forward."
And to that end, Take the Land will appear in stores this week, release party or not, with a message the community needs.
Kahn Davison is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.