Schoolly D Is Living the American Dream

A gangster rapper looks at 50.

SCHOOLLY NEVER BELIEVED IT. Not when he was a boy and his father gave him a bass guitar for Christmas and he immediately formed a band with some neighborhood kids, the Grand Funk Mothership Connection; not eight months later when he fired his bandmates for being unwilling to practice enough (“We’re nine,” they replied); not when he was 19 and working at a shoe store and recording his raps on mix tapes that he’d sell in the neighborhood for a couple of bucks; not when he was 27 and writing ultra-hard-core Black Nationalist raps about “Black Jesus” and “Super Nigger”; not when he was 38 and a millionaire and living in an 8,000-square-foot loft in Northern Liberties; not when he was 40 and dead drunk; not when he was 44 and living on the Main Line and picking up his daughter from the bus after school, thinking, Ha ha ha, so this is what became of the gangster rapper; and not today, when Schoolly is writing music for cartoons and films and collaborating with R&B singers in an effort to reach an entirely new audience.

By inventing gangster rap, Schoolly changed the culture. Gangster rap took over hip-hop; hip-hop ate pop. “All those Disney songs?” he asked me once. “You ever listen to the fuckin’ lyrics? They’re just, like, talkin’ about getting drunk. And going to a party. And getting fucked up. And doing E. And having crazy sex. But they put, like, a melody behind it, and a cute little face.” Katy Perry, Justin Bieber—grab a kid’s iPod sometime and you can hear what became of Schoolly’s world of sound. For that alone he’s worth caring about, whether you like the way he changed the culture or not. But more than that, he’s an iconic Philadelphian. He has remained tethered to his roots in West Philly without being tied down by them. People tend to leave this place when they reach a certain level of success. But except for a few stints in Atlanta, where he has family, Schoolly has stayed here, for 30 years, and he has only grown, as an artist and as a man. He is bigger than his gangster image, bigger than the Main Line. He is a tribeless wanderer in a tribal city—the rare Philadelphian who can go anywhere, party with anyone, and come back with a story.

I MET HIM FOR THE FIRST TIME on an early-December morning, in front of an iron-gated door in Northern Liberties. Schoolly turned a key, walked through a dark anteroom, and opened a door with a sign that read DON’T LET THE FUNK GET OUT. Inside was a tiny room cluttered with guitars, amps, speakers, mixing boards and a Mac. A painting of Abraham Lincoln smoking a blunt hung on an orange wall. Schoolly was there to record a song for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a cartoon on Adult Swim about junk food that talks. Years ago, Schoolly wrote the show’s theme song, and its creators still ask him to kick in songs for episodes.

A gaunt man with goggle-thick wraparound glasses emerged from behind a carpet wall. “You ready, School?” he said, and took a seat at the Mac. This was Julius Curcio, Schoolly’s closest colleague.

“I don’t know if you know this,” Curcio told me, “but Schoolly D is also many people’s health consultant.”

“Yes, I am,” Schoolly said, peering over Curcio’s shoulder, “and that’s because I know what I’m fuckin’ doing.”

“I tell ya,” Curcio said, addressing Schoolly. “Close-handed push-ups, that made all the difference for me, Schoolly. I was doin’ ’em way too wide, and it was fuckin’ up my shoulders.” Curcio turned back to me. “I play guitar in Schoolly’s band sometimes. A few months back, I was a little heavy, and he goes, ‘Listen, man, no bellies allowed in my band.’ I was like, ‘Well, help me out.’” Curcio took a heroic puff on a nicotine vaporizer and exhaled a thick cloud of smoke. “I’m into the ghetto yoga. I do it all.”

Ghetto yoga is a creation of Schoolly’s. It differs from regular yoga only in name. As he has explained before, “It’s just yoga. But it’s the yoga that I try to get my homeys to do. These motherfuckers are at the age that they’re dying. I told them to do yoga with me and they’re like, ‘Man, I’m not doing that motherfucking yoga.’ Then I told them it was ghetto yoga, and they’re interested. You try to serve a monkey-poop pizza, and nobody gonna want to eat that shit. But you tell them it’s ghetto monkey-poop pizza, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll eat that.’” When Jesse Weaver Jr. became Schoolly D, he also became a kind of ambassador, sending messages back and forth across cultures; it’s such a part of who he is that he does it automatically, with everything, even yoga.

Using the Mac, Schoolly started looping a beat. He had made it two or three months ago, playing all the instruments himself: drums, keyboards, bass, even a flute. (“I’m teaching myself the flute. My girlfriend was like, ‘Would you please stop trying to play the flute. You’ve been trying to play the flute for fuckin’ 10 days! Jesus!’ I can drive anybody crazy.”) Schoolly said that his job today was to write a song for a cartoon scene in which one of the Aqua Teen characters, a milkshake cup, is getting tossed out of a club. “And I’m singing, There goes that cup, that motherfuckin’ cup.

Schoolly rapped over the beat, speeding it up, slowing it down, trying various cadences:

There goes that CUP, that MOtherFUCKin’ CUP.
There GOES that FUCKin’ CUP that
MOtherFUCKin’ CUP.

After a few minutes, Schoolly stopped rapping and plopped down in front of the Mac. He wanted to watch a pilot of a cartoon that Curcio and producer/animator Erik Horvitz had created—a late-night talk show set in space. They hope to sell it to the Cartoon Network. Schoolly plays the keyboardist in the show’s band, a woman in a low-cut red dress who’s named Chocolate Spider. “Every black man has to play a woman at some point in his career,” Schoolly said. He laughed loudly at every punch line. When the cartoon was over, he said, “We look like we’re having so much fun.” He meant himself and Curcio. “People think it’s not organic. It has to be some kind of outside substance.”

“It’s really weird,” Curcio said. “It’s really strange that people don’t understand that you can have fun from music and pussy.”

“Yeah, right?” Schoolly said.

Curcio continued, “It’s like, ‘Wow, you motherfuckers must need to use drugs, because all you got there is pussy and music!’”

When Curcio said this, I was leaning against my knuckles, and my laugh whistled through my fist and came out as a hiss. Curcio glanced around the room, frightened: “Wait, guys, did you hear that noise? What was that noise?”

I went to the bathroom, and when I returned, Schoolly said that Curcio had some work to do, and I should come back to the studio tomorrow. For what wouldn’t be the first time, I became conscious of the contrast between my own uncoolness and Schoolly’s universal ease. He leaned in for a soul shake and back pat.