Public Enemy frontman, Chuck D, once famously labeled Hip-Hop music as, "The CNN of the streets." While the infancy of the genre was decidedly more feel good — built around breakbeats that were turned into "party records" — Chuck's assessment speaks to the transition from "throwing your hands" up because a person was intoxicated with the music, and "putting up your hands" because of entanglements with gangs and police.
It's impossible to examine the shift from Chic-inspired rhythms to gangster rap without acknowledging Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." Melle Mel's lyrics were in stark contrast to that of The Sugarhill Gang. Gone was "hot butter on a breakfast toast," and introduced was "broken glass," and, "people pissin' on the stairs."
However, the birth of true gangster rap belongs to Philadelphia's Schoolly D.
Schoolly D — one of ten siblings in the Weaver family — bounced back and forth between his hometown of Philadelphia and Atlanta.
His first Hip-Hop memory were of the West Philadelphia row houses which have since been burned down. He watched Royal Rhyme and other rappers rehearse for the neighborhood block party. There were 12 performers; Schoolly was one of the DJ's.
"Royal heard me one time just messing around and he liked it," Schoolly D recalled in a 1994 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. At the next block party, he got me on the mike [sic]. As soon as I said bitches was the first time people noticed me. They stopped dancing, came over and listened to what I had to say."
Schoolly described the feeling of grabbing the crowd as "intoxicating." Soon after, he and Royal established Schoolly D Records in 1983. Hip-Hop historian, Soren Baker, believes this was the first rapper-run record label in Hip-Hop history.
He recorded "Gangster Boogie" in 1984. The rhymes built upon Melle Mel's portrait of life in the inner city — specifically taking the point of view of someone selling drugs on the block. The tape subsequently circulated through club DJ's.
"On the corner, selling some weed/ And then came along, a sucker emcee/Say, yo Holmes, whats up with that?/And can I cop me, a nickel bag sack?/I said, a nickel bag, is Ninety Nine/You can't deal you better bite some rhyme." - Schoolly D
"We really didn't have an organized distribution set-up," he said. "I'd have to send cars to to Texas or Baltimore, and send my soldiers to take care of business. They had to be smart enough to collect the money, but dumb enough to bring it back to me."
Schoolly D took the self-produced — and self-pressed record (made from money selling shoes) — to DJ Lady B whose Street Beat show on Power 99 was one of the most influential Hip-Hop radio shows in the country at the time. She told him that the record was too grim in its portrayal of life to warrant any spins.
"I wanted to tell my stories the way I wanted to tell my stories," Schoolly D said in Soren Baker's The History of Gangster Rap.
While some may have taken the criticism and changed his/her style, Schoolly D doubled down. Hip-Hop was starting to become a known entity in the city at the time thanks to Pop Art Records which released early singles from artists like Roxanne Shanté, Steady B, and MC Craig G. Schoolly saw first hand how these artists were able to move units through independent Philly record shops like Funk-O-Mart and Sound of Market.
His rhymes were inspired by the neighborhood around 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue in the city's Wynnefield area whose historic houses that bordered Fairmount Park were overrun by gang graffiti from the Park Side Killers. Naturally, he wanted to tell Hip-Hop fans about P.S.K.
Hip-Hop purists — and artists like Ice T — acknowledge just how profound an impact both Schoolly D and "P.S.K." had in the spread and popularity of gangster rap."
"Here's the exact chronological order of what really went down: The first record that came out along those lines was Schoolly D's 'P.S.K.,'" Ice T said. "Then the syncopation of that rap was used by me when I made 'Six In The Morning.' The vocal delivery was the same: '...P.S.K. is makin' that green', '...six in the morning, police at my door'. When I heard that record I was like 'Oh shit!' and call it a bite or what you will but I dug that record. My record didn't sound like 'P.S.K.,' but I liked the way he was flowing with it. 'P.S.K.' was talking about Park Side Killers but it was very vague. That was the only difference, when Schooly did it, it was '...one by one, I'm knockin' em out.' All he did was represent a gang on his record. I took that and wrote a record about guns, beating people down, and all that with 'Six In The Morning.'"
Legend has it that Schoolly D once pulled a gun on a record store plant worker after discovering his album was being bootlegged there. One could argue it was the start of bootleg tapes — which eventually gave rise to Napster culture in he late '90s.
Hip-Hop will forever be a time capsule to the time and place in which it was created. Schoolly D's contributions to the autobiographical nature of rap that came during and after his tenure can't be overstated.
For more Philly Hip-Hop, check out All City Day on Rock The Bells Radio on Sirius XM Channel 43.
*HEADER CREDIT: Schoolly D poses in front of a graffiti tagged wall on Harrow Road, London, UK, 1986. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)