Schoolly D Is Living the American Dream

A gangster rapper looks at 50.

ON DECEMBER 15TH, A WEEK AFTER Schoolly recorded his Aqua Teen song about the milkshake, he found himself back in Northern Liberties, at Julius Curcio’s studio. That night, he and Curcio were set to perform at a holiday party at the Trocadero organized by Philebrity, the eclectic nightlife-and-gossip website. (Philebrity, run from a Northern Liberties loft by a white hipster who wears rectangular glasses, often posts affectionate items about Schoolly, and even publishes a regular column of his, called “Get Schoolled.”) But for now, the two men had to edit the Aqua Teen song they’d recorded earlier in the week.

Cartoon Network had asked Schoolly to remove the expletives. Schoolly was fine with it. “I’ve been doing this 30 years,” he said. “Your brain only needs to hear ‘mother.’ It’ll fill in the rest.” On the computer, Curcio snipped away at the waveform of Schoolly’s vocal track until the profanity was gone. Curcio played back the new version of the track while Schoolly played notes on a keyboard. When he pressed the keys, they made record-scratching noises, which the computer inserted into the vocal gaps.

Schoolly asked Curcio to make a minor change to one of the scratches. Curcio adjusted an on-screen slider. Schoolly said, “These programs are too fuckin’ complicated for what people need.” Curcio spun around in his chair, mock-aggrieved. “You know what, Schoolly? The program doesn’t make my music.” He touched his hand to his heart. “I make my music.”

“You make it too slow for me,” Schoolly said. He jabbed at his smartphone, trying to determine when he needed to arrive at the Trocadero for soundcheck. Unable to find an answer, and lacking a contact at Philebrity, he started to complain about this new breed of Internet-organized gig, and the Internet’s influence on music in general. “Music is art, it’s free? No, you fuckin’ suck.” Schoolly laid his hand flat near the ground. “This, this is the music worth payin’ for. Like the pea in the mattress. And the mattress is all the bullshit for free.”

Schoolly has recently been working on new music. He recorded a track with Philly R&B singer Mutlu and another with producer Eric Bazilian. The songs feature round, smooth beats. According to Schoolly’s former manager, Craig Kaplan, they’re part of a plan to rebrand Schoolly by “letting people know about the more-accessible-Schoolly-­D-type thing”: i.e., he’s not just a hard-core rapper; he does yoga, he wants to write books, he wants to host cooking shows. There is also a third new Schoolly D song, “I Love You,” that’s as hard-core as anything he’s ever done. I heard him perform it earlier in the week at a small bar on South Street. The verse is I love you repeated eight times. The chorus goes, I ain’t talkin’ about some bitch. I’m talkin’ about how much I love this gangster shit. Schoolly says he loves the song, and crowds respond like crazy when he plays it live, but he’s had trouble getting airplay. People in the music business tell him it doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio.

Several hours after Schoolly left Curcio’s studio, I went to the Trocadero for the Philebrity holiday party, thinking I might see Schoolly perform “I Love You” again. When he arrived, he discovered that the cookie clause of his performance rider had been ignored. “They didn’t think I was fucking serious,” he said. There was no anger in his voice, only pity for this new generation that never got to experience the majesty of an era of music in which riders were meticulously respected. “This doesn’t happen at the black gigs,” he said. “There’s always some husky black woman who says, ‘Schoolly, eat my cookies!’”

A young, white crowd of 20-somethings from Northern Liberties and Fishtown filtered into the Trocadero. They bought beers in plastic cups and sat at circular tables. A little before nine, Julius Curcio took the stage with a drummer and a bassist. Schoolly wasn’t visible. Curcio began to sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Then, after the first verse, Curcio stepped away from the mic. Schoolly burst from the wings in a top hat and a gray tailored suit. Curcio slammed into the chords from the theme song to Aqua Teen Hunger Force as cymbals crashed and Schoolly belted:

The mic rula
The old schoolah
You wanna trip? I’ll bring it to ya

At “Shake-zula,” a cheer rose up from the tables, and two guys moved toward the stage to record Schoolly with their cell phones. The song lasted less than a minute. Schoolly’s mic fell to the floor with a pop as he exited the stage.

Afterward, I found Schoolly at the back bar. He pulled me aside. “Aqua Teen,” he said, shaking his head. “A 30-year span. It’s just a testament.” He looked out at the stage. “If you transcend, and you keep transcending, you can do this for fucking ever.” Then he smiled, told me to drive safely, and returned his attention to the bar, where three beautiful women in their 20s were waiting to speak to him.