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

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 earth…to 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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