Edutainment: The Rise and Fall of Hip-Hop's Intelligentsia Part 3
Once upon a time, rappers bragged about brains, not bling, about spinning lessons, not spinning rims. This is the story of edutainment.
3. "Over the Moon with Chants of Zoom": Edutainment's Reality Problem
So, with all of these factors feeding into it, why did edutainment die such an early death? In hindsight, it's easy to see the reasons for the fall. The year 1992 sparked new hope for black America. The election of Bill Clinton, whom African-Americans overwhelmingly supported, removed the convenient Republican presidential targets. Additionally, by 1992, the late '80s recession was over, and increasing employment levels, technology, and a surging stock market triggered economic growth. In particular, living conditions in New York City were improving. In 1993, the so-called Giuliani Revolution reduced the crime rate, renewed tourism, and lowered the number of residents on welfare -- improving (at least ostensibly) the quality of life of the city's black residents and thus reducing their receptiveness to edutainment's revolutionary speech.
If New York personified East Coast rap, Los Angeles epitomized the West Coast. And West Coast rap reflected the city's disarray and mounting racial tensions. The Rodney King beating in 1991 and the subsequent riots following the acquittal of the police involved brought to light the police harassment that black LA residents had bemoaned for years. While New York's aggressive crime tactics resulted in a 50% drop in crime, California experienced the most severely overcrowded prisons in the nation. The state's more aggressive approach to punishment culminated in the "three strikes" law of 1994, which sentenced anyone convicted of three felonies to life in prison. On the streets, the LAPD contributed to the crackdown with a heavily armed police force, including specialized CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) units, effectively transforming the city into a police state. Faced with these pressures, and fueled by its notorious gang culture -- growing larger, wealthier, and more violent with the trade in crack cocaine -- the West Coast rap scene, chose to market its vices. The result was gangsta rap, the polar opposite of edutainment.
On the strength of provocative gangsta acts like NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), 2Pac, and Ice-T, the West Coast began to challenge the edutainment-inclined East Coast's dominance in the rap game. Its violent, profanity-laden, sexually explicit lyrics lent gangsta rap the "bad boy" charm that crossed cultural lines and appealed to the masses in a way Five Percent Nation esoterica never could.
As West Coast gangsta rap rose, it became evident that edutainers had lost touch with the masses. The popular defense of gangsta rappers was that they merely reflected ghetto life; they were just "keeping it real". Edutainers were not. They spoke from pulpits. They daydreamed of "positivity". Compared to gangsta raps, their messages were dogmatic, stiff, and humorless. The teachers had to connect with the streets in order to get their points across. Their messages had to be more down-to-earth, more relevant to everyday life, and the rappers' personas had to be more accessible than kings, prophets, and gods.
With this in mind, some edutainers even "thugged up" their images. Poor Righteous Teachers' Wise Intelligent, for instance, released a solo effort in 1996 that was as much gangsta rap as it was edutainment. Entitled Killin' U for Fun, it contained songs like "Send fe Me Gunn" and "Name Brand Gunn". And Brand Nubian's sophomore album, In God We Trust, included tracks like "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down" and "Pass the Gat".
With edutainment appeal slipping, phrases from the Black Muslim lexicon soon lost all connection with their origins and became generic popular slang. "Word," for instance, is now accepted slang for an acknowledgment of truth or agreement, but is a shortened form of "word is bond", a Five Percenter's affirmation that he is telling the truth. In Five Percenter vernacular, "G" originally stood for God and was indicative of Five Percenters' belief in the divinity of man. Now, "G" is a sanitized term of affection, as in the greeting, "What's up, G?" Ironically, gangsta rap has appropriated the term as an abbreviation for "gangsta", popularized in tunes like Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang".
Even the more obscure "arm-leg-leg-arm-head," reference to Allah has been secularly bastardized into a threat of bodily harm in today's gangster-ized hip-hop scene, as the chorus of Lil' Wayne's "Tha Heat" indicates: "I shoot your arm, leg, leg, arm, head". Likewise, on the Neptunes' "The Don of Dons", Jadakiss nonchalantly throws the reference into a hail of violent, criminal-minded lyrics:
And you know they say that it's better to kill 'em than rob 'em,
'Cause informers are problems; set 'em in water, you could dissolve 'em.
'Cause it's a rat in every hood and everybody knows 'em.
To whom it may, I'm the Don Jada;
Specialize in purple haze, cocaine in the Montega.
Arm, leg, leg, arm, head, probably get nice;
When I'm beyond dead, get ya shit tight.
You dudes is bitch; wear 'em if ya shoes'll fit.
The game ain't changed; the rules just switched.
Though the renowned vocabulary skills of the Five Percenters may have been useful in developing young rappers and crafting pop-culture references, its original purpose -- that of education and recruitment -- has been lost in the medium of hip-hop. The Five Percenter vocabulary still remains a mystery to many listeners. Acronymic jargon such as Allah and Islam ("I self lord and master") has only served to muddle the message in the minds of the mainstream. Edutainment rappers never hesitated to throw out Five Percent phraseology willy-nilly, but they'd do little to explain them. Some phrases, like "third eye" (the mind), were easy enough to figure out, but others left many listeners scratching their heads, or more likely, ignoring these enigmatic references altogether.
For instance, Five Percenters renamed several cities after holy Middle Eastern locales. Thus, references to Mecca, Medina, and New Jerusalem translated to Harlem, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. (As the Poor Righteous Teachers state in "Methods of Droppin' Mental", "We hail from New Jerusalem".) Also, "Yacub Crew" and "cave men" were commonly used as derogatory terms for whites, derived from Fard's teachings of a black scientist named Yacub who created the uncivilized, cave-dwelling white race 6,000 years ago. (On "Drop the Bomb", Brand Nubian, who occasionally ejected white fans from their concerts, exclaims, "We gonna drop the bomb on the Yacub crew / Drop the bomb! Drop the bomb! / We gonna drop the bomb on the cave man crew.") And Wise Intelligent's quote from the Poor Righteous Teachers' "I'm Comin' Again" that "God be on that road that leads to mastering one-twenty" makes more sense if the listener knows that the 120 Degrees is a collection of Fard's teachings held sacred by Five Percenters, alongside the Supreme Alphabet and Mathematics.
So, ironically, outside of trailblazers PE and BDP, many of edutainment's "teachers" didn't do much teaching. Notable exceptions like Brand Nubian's "Meaning of the 5%", BDP's "You Must Learn", and Paris's "Brutal" (which outlined the Black Panthers' 10-Point Program of demands) aside, edutainers ultimately seemed more concerned with boasting about their intelligence -- with traditional hip-hop swagger -- than actually putting it to use to educate others. Too many acts simply threw out catch phrases like "manifest", "cipher", and "third eye" in a dizzying display of vocal bombast and empty meaning.
The X-Clan was one of the most high-profile offenders. Poster children for edutainment extravagance, X-Clan members assumed names like Architect Tractitioner Paradise and Grand Verbalizer Funkin'-Lesson Brother J and decked themselves from head to toe in the traditional African red, black, and green. Their ornate beads, body piercings, walking sticks, and Afrocentric regalia actually served to overshadow their message of black pride. Their lyrics were a meandering mix of hard line "black and proud" messages and metaphysical references that baffled more than they taught. The ancient Egyptian imagery and cryptic lyrical content of songs like "Earth Bound" ultimately proved irrelevant in urban America:
Funking lesson vibes to earth, from Ra on to Jeb,
My verse it bled, bring chaos to order,
The abyss to the earth to the waters.
Vanglorious sound on the rain coming down,
Verbalizer with scroll, earth bound...
Speak the code, then depart upon raft
Over moon with the chants of zoom, who are you?
You wonder, forever, never never, a million years, key bearer.
The cosmic storm, illogical coming of chaos,
Again, Earth dweller comprehend.
These types of lyrics eventually led to a short-lived feud with KRS-One, who dismissed the X-Clan as "blabbering fucking fools" on "Build and Destroy". He took offense to their strict adherence to the deification of blackness and their fanatical focus on ancient Africa:
What are you doing for yourself, black man?
Trying hard to be the original man; who?
The first man with the first tan on the first land
With the first plan. Who gives a damn?...
You gotta learn not to be so concerned
With the original man, and see the criminal man, yeah!
The now man with the now land with the now tan
With the right now genocide master plan. Damn!
Although "Build and Destroy" tapped into hip-hop's legacy of rappers "battling" each other on records, the discourse was, by comparison, civilized and cerebral -- in true edutainment fashion -- rather than the callow jabs of 50 Cent calling Fat Joe a "fat nigga".
Even if listeners could translate their lyrics, edutainers faced a changing audience in the early '90s. Middle-class suburban white kids seeking a thrill flocked to the aggressive, countercultural, often profane hip-hop sound. The Parental Advisory stickers that Tipper Gore brought to the music industry made the genre all the more dangerous and appealing, serving as a perverse stamp of quality to many disillusioned youth.
When hip-hop began to spread en masse to the suburbs in the '90s, non-black listeners certainly couldn't relate to the Five Percent and NOI messages of black power and white demonization. Granted, suburban listeners were no more familiar with the violent scenarios painted by gangsta rap, but they could at least find vicarious appeal in the sexy fantasy of a hardcore, criminal lifestyle. The edutainers were left alone, preachers without a flock. As the mainstream cozied up to the gangsta rap sound, record labels jumped edutainment's ship for the new bandwagon and diluted the market with look-alike and sound-alike act all trying to be the hardest, most dangerous, most "real" representation of street life. The cycle became comical when NWA wannabes emerged with names like HWA (Hoes With Attitude) and BWP (Bitches With Problems).
It soon became clear that edutainment was no grand social shift but just another hip-hop fad, alongside fat shoestrings and breakdancing, baggy jeans and backwards caps. The listeners turned out to be fleeing fans rather than devoted followers of a perceived movement. The edutainers, in it for revolution, found they couldn't rely on their black audience to act as a racial whole any more than any other race in America; they discovered that for fans, buying a CD is one thing, but staging a protest is another. In 1992, the injustice of the Rodney King verdict afforded an opportunity to actualize the vision of edutainers and focus black anger and frustration into an organized revolt. But instead, the resulting riots were more a convenient excuse to run wild. The temperature of the populace had changed little since the 1970: "Niggers are scared of revolution."
Today, the Five Percent Nation is still a driving force among hip-hop artists, but its presence is not nearly as overt. Rappers still convey topical messages, but they are no longer self-proclaimed teachers and luminaries. There is still racial pride within hip-hop, but acts no longer base their entire image around it. "Intelligent" rappers today like Mos Def, Common, and the Roots -- all with Muslim ties -- relish the role of articulate "regular Joes" from the street, not holy men guiding the masses. Gangsta rap's legacy of "keeping it real" ensures that in today's hip-hop, any socioreligious expression is likely to come immersed in thuggish posturing.
Perhaps the highest-profile Five Percent rappers around today, Wu-Tang embodies the troubling duality of the spiritual, teaching "way of life" of the Five Percent and the hardcore street element. On "Older Gods", for instance, Ghostface Killah delivers the introspective refrain, "It only takes a lesson a day / Just to analyze life / One time in the respectable mind," while Raekwon spouts violence and misogyny:
Fidel way of thinking, roll with the Mac bent Ac-10; Most of my team Five Percent, check what the live said. Rolling with Guess vests, pedestrians, Holding my nuts, fucking thousand dollar lesbians.
Whether officially termed "gangsta rap" or not, such gangsta elements continue to rule the airwaves. Rappers today are grounded gods who revel in the Five Percent Nation's loose code of conduct. These are everyman heroes, without noble pretensions and with everyman failings. And the audience is listening.