Edutainment: The Rise and Fall of Hip-Hop's Intelligentsia Part 2

Mark Harris

Once upon a time, rappers bragged about brains, not bling, about spinning lessons, not spinning rims. This is the story of edutainment.

Eric B. and Rakim

2. Knowledge Reigns Supreme over Nearly Everyone

In the mid-'80s, when Eric B. and Rakim rose to the forefront of the rap game, it was a sign of the Five Percenters' growing influence. Though Rakim's lyrics generally fell in line with the typical MC braggadocio, he peppered them with Islamic references and an intellectual self-awareness foreshadowing edutainment. Witness the ending lines of 1987's "Move the Crowd": "So I'm a let my knowledge be born to a perfection / All praise due to Allah, and that's a blessing. / With knowledge of self, there's nothing I can't solve / At 360 degrees, I revolve."

But the true founding fathers of edutainment were two groups who debuted in 1987: Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. Public Enemy's '87 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show jumped straight into the sociopolitical fray, with PE leader Chuck D adopting the persona of subversive rebel leader. Bolstered by the military-clad S1W ("Security of the First World") steppers, he constructed an image of an underground battalion prepared for armed conflict to achieve social and racial justice. Chuck D once called hip-hop "the black CNN", indicating his intent to use the medium to spread truth and debunk popular myths, as titles like "Don't Believe the Hype", "Fight the Power", and "Can't Truss It" suggest. "Why rip a rapper when he flows like water?" D asks in "Move", "I'd rather rush a television reporter." In "Rebirth" he argues that "if you only trust the TV and the radio these days, you can't see who's in cahoots, / 'Cause now the KKK wears three-piece suits."

PE's association with the Nation of Islam crystallized the group's role as instructors, since Black Muslims advocate an "each one teach one" philosophy for spreading their beliefs. While not as preachy as later, more overtly Muslim MCs, Chuck D didn't hesitate to declare in "Bring the Noise" that NOI leader Louis "Farrakhan's a prophet...I think you ought to listen to."

When BDP emerged, edutainment began to crystallize as a musical movement that transcended its roots in Black Muslim ideology. Although BDP's Criminal Minded was a precursor to gangsta rap, their 1988 followup, By All Means Necessary, helped lay the foundation for edutainment, establishing frontman KRS-One (an acronym for "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone") as a master communicator and radical leader in the vein of Malcolm X. (The cover art portrayed him in Malcolm X's classic militant pose, peering out of a window with gun in hand.) The album's title itself was a play on Malcolm X's famed quote from a 1964 rally: "We declare our right on this be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary."

In 1989, BDP's hit "You Must Learn" became an archetypal tune for the edutainment movement, unfurling a laundry list of black historical accomplishments:

No one told you about Benjamin Banneker,
A brilliant black man that invented the almanac.
Can't you see where KRS is coming at?
With Eli Whitney, Haile Selassie,
Grand Bill Woods made the walky-talky.
Lewis Latterman improved on Edison,
Charles Drew did a lot for medicine.
Garrett Morgan made the traffic lights,
Harriet Tubman freed the slaves at night.
Madame CJ Walker made the straightening comb,
But you won't know this if you weren't shown.


KRS-One further ingrained himself in his role as truth disseminator in 1991 by establishing the Human Education Against Lies (H.E.A.L.) Project, whose goal was laid out in "Heal Yourself": "To open the eyes of humanity before it dies." While the media sensationalizes racism, "The real fight are these major corporations / Holding back on real education / Before you're a color, first you're human."

PE and BDP thus sculpted the basic profile of the edutainer: Part teacher, part community leader, and part ringmaster, edutainers took on larger-than-life, in-your-face personas in the tradition of rock 'n' roll acts. But instead of the sex-and-drugs lifestyle, they promoted knowledge, faith, and self-determination. Instead of social outcasts, they conceived of themselves as faculty (Professor Griff), prophets (Jeru the Damaja's "You Can't Stop the Prophet"), military leaders (Sista Souljah, the neo-Black Panther Paris), holy men (YZ's "Return of the Holy One", Def Jef's portrayal of himself as a Jesus figure on the cover of his Soul Food album), royalty (Nefertiti, Queen Latifah, Prince Akeem, Queen Mother Rage, King Sun, Two Kings in a Cypher), or even gods (Isis, Divine Styler).

A flurry of edutainment acts emerged in the wake of PE and BDP. The sound became so marketable, in fact, that even traditionally non-socially-conscious artists released "knowledge-droppers" like Kool Moe Dee's ill-fated 1991 album Funke, Funke Wisdom. One need only glance at the stage names and the titles of some of the works of these edutainers to get a sense of the personas they crafted: sometimes pedantic, often outrageous and self-promoting, but always socially and racially aware, educated, and eager to let you know. For example, Professor Griff & The Last Asiatic Disciples ("Mental Genocide", "My Ideology O") and Sista Souljah ("Brainteasers and Doubtbusters") both adopted an extreme military stance indicative of their affiliation with Public Enemy, and both earning their share of national controversy -- Griff for anti-Semitic remarks and Souljah for advocating crime against white America. The Poor Righteous Teachers (Holy Intellect, "Self-Styled Wisdom", "Methods of Droppin' Mental") meanwhile took their name from Nation of Islam founder Wallace D. Fard's writings about the five percent of the population who are the "poor, righteous teachers who...are all wise and know who the living god is and teach that the living god is...the black man of Asia."

While Public Enemy and Paris held their allegiance to the Nation of Islam, the majority of edutainers were either Five Percenters or Five Percent sympathizers. To understand the lyrics of edutainment, it helps to know some of the core Five Percent beliefs, which include "Supreme Mathematics," providing a life principle for each number, one through ten, and the "Supreme Alphabet," teaching such letterology as A for Allah, E for equality, G for God, J for justice, X for unknown, and W for wisdom. In a hip-hop world that valued verbal "skills", the Five Percenters' linguistic dexterity served them well. The Poor Righteous Teachers' "The Nation's Anthem" (also recorded as "Allah and Justice" by Brand Nubian) illustrates the principles in the Supreme Mathematics (1 = knowledge, 2 = wisdom, 3 = understanding, and so forth until zero, or "cipher") thusly:

The knowledge is the foundation, the wisdom is the way.
The understanding shows you when you are on your way.
The culture is our God, the power is the truth.
Equally only shows you when you have planted your roots.
God, he came to teach us of the righteous way,
How to build and be born on this glorious day.
The knowledge of the cipher is to enlighten you,
Just to let you know that God is right amongst you.

Beyond the confines of New York, edutainment interwove with larger, national cultural trends. In the late '80s and early '90s, a surge in African-American racial pride triggered a fashion kick that fed, and in turn fed off, hip-hop music. Walk around any black block circa 1990 and you'd see Malcolm X caps, black college sweatshirts, African medallions, kente-cloth designs, and T-shirts with slogans like CAUTION: EDUCATED BLACK MAN and INTELLIGENT BLACK WOMAN'S COALITION.

 Next page | "Over the Moon with Chants of Zoom": Edutainment's Reality Problem
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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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