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Edutainment: The Rise and Fall of Hip-Hop's Intelligentsia Part 1

Mark Harris

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

Gil Scott-Heron

1. "The Revolution Will Be Live": Edutainment's Roots

Despite the recent emergence of literate, topic-driven rappers like Kanye West, Talib Kweli, and the Roots, hip-hop remains a genre that subsists largely on messages of hyper-machismo, lechery, violence, and crass materialism. But for a brief, shining period in time -- from about 1988 to 1992 -- rappers bragged not about how much "bling" they had or how many people they shot, but about how intelligent they were.

In a time when rap music now hawks car insurance and peanut butter, when hip-hop has ceased to shock or challenge, ceased to raise issues, this short burst of expression stands out as a haven of intelligent discourse. It was a period when hip-hop flouted social convention by proclaiming that brains indeed were as marketable as money, power, and beauty. For a while it was actually cool to "drop knowledge", and dozens of acts had images that revolved around the concept. These self-styled teachers, with names like Wise Intelligent and Intelligent Hoodlum, adopted holier-than-thou, Afrocentric personas in stark contrast to the "gangstas" with which hip-hop is now widely associated. Rappers took the self-promoting lyrics that had previously trumpeted MCs' verbal and physical skills and adapted them into boasts about their mental capacity. Today, it would be surreal if 50 Cent or Nelly did anything more cerebral than find a rhyme for "titty".

Music historians' labels for this late '80s trend have been either too narrow ("political rap," "Islamic rap") or too wide ("message rap") to adequately represent the movement. A more appropriate term can be culled from the title of a 1990 Boogie Down Productions album: "edutainment", which conveys the crucial concept of the rapper as teacher. Edutainment artists were self-styled purveyors of knowledge. They weren't solely the political agitators implied in the classic opening lines of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" ("I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it / It said they were suckers"), neither were they exclusively religious, as in the Poor Righteous Teachers' "Butt Naked Booty Bless" ("I bring the lessons from Allah as speech to teach"). And unlike then-burgeoning gangsta rap, their "message raps" weren't confined to pessimistic reflections of social disorder.

Rather, edutainment incorporated all three themes -- political, religious, and social -- in an effort to uplift the black race. The artists may not have agreed on the precise message or methods for conveying it -- some more militant acts, like Paris, even borrowed from gangsta rap's violent imagery to get their point across -- but these "edutainers" were, above all else, forward-thinking leaders who believed in social change through enlightenment.

Nearly two decades before the edutainment boom, the movement's forerunners took shape in early '70s musical bards Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. Reciting poetry in a rhythmic "rap" over jazz and funk grooves, they were the progenitors of not only rap music generally but edutainment in particular. Their social commentary and calls to action challenged listeners, as the Last Poets' 1970 diatribe "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution" shows:

Niggers shoot pool, niggers shoot craps.
Niggers cut around the corner and shoot down the street.
Niggers shoot sharp glances at white women.
Niggers shoot dope into their arm.
Niggers shoot guns and rifles on New Year's Eve.
A new year that is coming in.
The white police will do more shooting at them.
Where are niggers when the revolution needs some shots?
Yeah, you know. Niggers are somewhere shootin' the shit.
Niggers are scared of revolution.

In a similarly incendiary vein, Scott-Heron's iconic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was both a rallying cry and a scathing attack on American consumerism:

The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom,
A tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will not put you in the driver's seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
Will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no rerun, brothers.
The revolution will be live.

Such talk of revolution was indicative of the Black Power politics of the '60s and early '70s, but when hip-hop took shape later on, disco ruled the airwaves. Afrika Bambaataa emerged from that morass with an ahead-of-his-time militant look and persona, but the lyrics to hits like 1982's "Planet Rock" were benign old-school blather that touched on topics no deeper than the typical disco chorus:

Are you ready? Hump, bump, bump, get bump, now let's go, house.
Twist and turn, then you let your body slide.
You got the body rock and pop, bounce, and pounce.
Everybody just rock it, don't stop it

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Old-school contemporaries Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had more to say in the earliest socially conscious rap songs, 1983's anti-cocaine rant "White Lines (Don't Do It)" and 1982's "The Message", a vivid portrait of ghetto life that took rap out of the party scene and into the streets. While Grandmaster Flash touched upon social issues in these songs, he was content to merely observe, stopping short of assuming the teacher/leader role that edutainers would later embrace. Instead, in "The Message", he expressed a near-manic exasperation that reflected urban America's despair at not knowing the answer:

A mid-range migraine, cancered membrane,
Sometimes I think I'm going insane;
I swear I might hijack a plane!
Don't push me 'cuz I'm close to the edge;
I'm trying not to lose my head.
It's like a jungle sometimes; it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under.

The cultural landscape of "The Message" was all too familiar to African-Americans in the '80s. Spurred by record unemployment rates, an economy weakened by the 1987 Stock Market crash, and the so-called trickle down Reaganomics that redistributed wealth to corporations and the upper classes in the face of minimal inner-city development, many African-Americans felt the government abandoned them during the Reagan-Bush regime.

They were right to feel neglected. The inner city was as bleak and desolate as ever, emptied by the great "white flight" to the suburbs during the previous decades. Then, the rise of crack cocaine in the '80s -- and the money that it brought in -- propelled urban black America into an environment of heightened violence, crime, and materialism. Exacerbating the situation was a flood of cheap, readily available firearms. These social and political conditions would feed the evolution of edutainment.

The Nation of Islam fed off the frustrations of black America. In particular, its offspring, the Nation of Gods and Earths, or "the Five Percent Nation", blossomed in size and influence within the hip-hop community. From its inception in 1964 Harlem by ex-NOI member Clarence 13X, the Five Percent Nation focused its recruitment effort on the neglected urban youth. The Five Percenters took their preaching to the streets, enticing recruits with nimble wordplay and a doctrine of self-empowerment. They became renowned for a vocal dexterity that would later become part and parcel of the rap game.

One of the founding tenets of the Five Percenters was the divinity of the black man. In fact, Clarence X changed his name to Allah as an indication of his godliness. With typical Five Percent wordplay, he taught that Allah was an acronym for "arm-leg-leg-arm-head", or man. The Five Percenters were that 5% of the population who achieved "knowledge of self" to realize that they indeed were gods. This grand view transformed race into a source of pride for many black Americans. And it gave purpose: to educate the 85% of the population who remained ignorant and to fight the trickery of the 10% deemed the "slave makers of the poor, who teach the poor lies to believe that the almighty true and living god is a spook and cannot be seen with the physical eye". Five Percenters had a higher calling beyond lives resigned to poverty, crime, and self-loathing. Thousands of adolescent African-Americans, many of whom were uneducated drug addicts and criminals shunned by society, responded to Allah's teachings of self-reliance and self-worth.

While the Nation of Islam adhered to the 1930s teachings of Fard (the "Lost-Found Muslim Lessons"), who claimed to be an incarnation of a great singular deity, the Five Percenters rejected both Fard's divinity and, by implication, the role of Elijah Muhammad as god's messenger. By shifting the focus away from these allegedly superior individuals and placing it instead on the divinity of all black men, the Five Percent Nation could tap into a strain of fierce individualism that intrigued black youngsters.

But what truly separated the Five Percent Nation from the NOI in the minds of its young recruits was its accessibility. While the elite of the increasingly middle-class, formally educated NOI kept Fard's teachings a secret from both outsiders and the Nation's plebeians, Allah made them readily available to the masses. Furthermore, the NOI practiced Islam's strict code of conduct overseeing dress, diet, prayer, and overall discipline, whereas Five Percenters held their beliefs to be outside the structure of formal religion. They were allowed to smoke, drink, gamble, and were under no requirements to study the Qu'ran or adhere to dress codes. Offering the pro-black sentiments of the NOI but without the rigid moral code, the Five Percent Nation appealed to the adolescents that formed not only hip-hop's fan base, but also its core artists.

  Next page | Knowledge Reigns Supreme over Nearly Everyone
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