The Hempire Strikes Back!

Posted October 22, 2009 in Feature Story

Launched by South Gate hip-hop crew Cypress Hill in 1998, SmokeOut is billed as the world’s premier cannabis music festival. Originally an annual event, this colossal kush-y coming-together spaced-out after its 2003 edition at San Bernardino’s NOS Events Center, but now returns at San Manuel Amphitheater this Friday and Saturday.


Smokeout’s diverse line-up of over 30 acts spread across 3 stages includes hard rock headliners Slipknot and Deftones (plus Cypress Hill, natch); much-anticipated reunions from the Geto Boys, Goodie Mob and Sublime; veteran punkers Bad Brains and Pennywise; veteran hip-hop heroes Afrika Bambaataa and Mix Master Mike; and fiery Harlem rapper Immortal Technique. Spliff-synonymous comedy duo Cheech & Chong are typecast as hosts.



Though he says he’s “not a huge weed smoker,” Immortal Technique’s three albums to date discuss drug issues in elegant, educated detail. His brilliantly brutal diatribes—which also cover social injustice, racism, poverty, politics and religion—are more concerned with hard drugs’ impact on Third World cultures and inner city communities (notably on “Peruvian Cocaine,” from his 2003 sophomore release, Revolutionary Volume 2) than pot per se, yet many of his observations might also apply to marijuana.


“What I want to do at SmokeOut is talk about the necessity to legalize marijuana, and I think that’s kind of my platform for the day,” says the surprisingly soft-spoken Technique. “We need to note that in the first years of development of this country, if you owned land, you legally had to grow hemp. The first American flag was made of hemp; our clothes were made of hemp. We found a co-existence with that without demonizing an entire plant—in the same way that people will demonize the coca leaf as if it’s cocaine itself. Cocaine and drugs of that nature have nothing to do with indigenous Andean culture.”


Though he comes on like a New Age hippie—proponent of healthy living and predictor of environmental disaster—pioneering South Bronx hip-hop DJ and social activist Afrika Bambaataa is apparently no pot-head.


“I’m not into really no type of drugs if it ain’t holistic or natural,” he explains in his deep mumble. “If it’s used for the benefit of people who need it or medical type of situations; if they need it for that and it’s going to help, then that’s all good. But as to people who misuse what is their ‘god body,’ they own temple—their first church or mosque or temple—just to feel good and harm their body, then I’m not with that . . . There needs to me more research—people who take drugs, I don’t care what sort of drugs they take, they should always research what it is they put in their temple.”



But all this doesn’t mean Bambaataa, who’s the closing DJ in SmokeOut’s VIP (“Very Important Pot Smoker”) area on Saturday night, isn’t frustrated by the continuing criminalization of weed.


“It’s a waste of police energy when they could be doing other stuff or really going after the real culprits that’s bringing in dope and heroin, cocaine, crack and all that . . . It’s like when we had the raves and they tried to blame all ravers for starting ecstasy. The ravers didn’t start ecstasy—somebody in a scientific lab started ecstasy and put it into the rave community.”


As ever, Immortal Technique senses a conspiracy.


“I think [the criminalization of pot] is used specifically against my people; I think that it’s used as a way of criminalizing a generation—a generation that may not necessarily agree with the direction that this country is going . . . If we even consider the fact that alcohol is responsible for how many deaths in this country?  And yet we still are criminalizing marijuana; sending people to prison over it . . . You know, people who smoke weed don’t go rob a bank afterwards: they go home; they go to sleep; they go eat some food. They’re not driving fast on the highway—if anything, they’re probably driving too slow!”



Ironically, were pot to be legalized in America, and thus lose much of its mystique, events like SmokeOut—which includes a cannabis expo, legal advice workshops and a “420 Movie Night”—might well cease to exist. If cannabis was freely available to young people, this could, ahem, blunt their fascination with herb and let them swiftly get its over-use out of their system.  Weed simply wouldn’t be wink-wink “naughty” anymore, and kids might not need (or want) to flock to cannabis fests in order to publicly express their love for the leaf.


“I think about stuff like that when I go to Holland [where marijuana use is officially tolerated],” says Technique, who performs on SmokeOut’s Indonesia Stage on Saturday evening (and is hinting at having some “special guests” join him on stage). “The only people that are really in those smoke shops are tourists, because they come from countries where they’re not allowed to do that.”


Though he’s not primarily known as a pro-ganja guru, that’s mostly because Immortal’s so busy rousingly ranting about other, perhaps more pressing issues (and taking tangible steps to tackle them—he just returned from a dangerous trip to Afghanistan where he’s built an orphanage with the charity Omeid International).


“I think that there are a lot of other things that are higher on the list of drastically endangering not just my people, but all people in the world,” he explains. “But it’s not a question of it being low on the list of priorities . . . I just haven’t really had a chance to champion [de-criminalizing pot]. Listen, we need to do a concert in which no one gets killed. That’s what needs to be driven home to people: Y’know, let’s do a show where nobody gets hurt; nobody gets killed; nobody gets cut-up; nobody gets assaulted . . . where we show people that this music is not necessarily a catalyst for violence in America; that violence existed long before hip-hop even came into the frame.”




Bambaataa, who broke out with 1982 pop hit “Planet Rock” and is recognized as a godfather of positive hip-hop culture, is relishing SmokeOut as a chance to just bring multiple musical genres together in an escapist, fun-first atmosphere.


“Hoping that people get up and shake something; enjoy themselves; forget about they troubles for those few hours . . . That’s why I used to love the raves—I always enjoyed when they play different music and hoping that all people could get down . . . I really don’t know exactly all that’s on [the SmokeOut bill], but anybody that’s funky, I’m really good for that.”


Immortal Technique and Afrika Bambaataa’s sometimes contrasting takes on SmokeOut’s significance nicely encapsulate the event’s twin charms: you can approach it as either a serious pro-pot rally, or simply a wild weekend (with or without weed) of world-class music. Or maybe just take a toke on both.


Cypress Hill SmokeOut featuring Afrika Bambaataa, Immortal Technique, the Deftones, Slipknot and others at the San Manuel Amphitheater, 2575 Glen Helen Pkwy., San Bernardino, (909) 880-6500;, Fri-Sat, Oct. 23-24, doors open noon both days. Tickets $29.50-$75.





Top of the Crops

Great and not-so-great moments in the marijuana movement


1000 BCE

Marijuana is first used as an intoxicant in India and soon becomes a part of the Hindu culture. Yeah, they’ve been knowing about that “Bom Shiva!” 



Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. I guess the nation was really founded on cannabis . . . Sweet deal! 



The Rastafarian movement dubs ganja the “Wisdom Weed” and utilizes it as a form of sacrament. One love, baby.  



The feds outlaw cannabis, leaving everyone asking, “Whose got the herb?” 



Frito-Lay introduces Doritos, bringing a bit of crunch to the afternoon munchies.   



Woodstock Music and Arts Festival: Three days of peace, love and tunes has 70,000 flower children rolling God knows how many doobies.



The Cannabis Cup is founded to crown the king of the crop in Amsterdam.



Cyprus Hill releases their debut album with a little somethin‘ for the blunted. 



Friday is released and ushers in two things to the world: the comedic talents of Chris Tucker and the words “puff, puff, give.”



Cyprus Hill SmokeOut debuts. All is right with the world.



Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle hits theatres and ushers in a new Cheech & Chong for Generation Y. Up in smoke? You bet.



The world’s largest joint is sparked at the Seattle Hempfest. How big is it? We don’t remember. 



SmokeOut re-launched.


—John Waterman



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