Is Schoolly D Philly’s Greatest Hip-Hop Crash and Burn?

A look at the legacy and downward spiral of the godfather of gangsta rap.

Drawing by Mike Hague.

Drawing by Mike Hague.

First, the Founding Fathers came to Philadelphia to birth American democracy, the shimmering benchmark of freedom and self-empowerment that has alternately subjugated and enlightened the world for 300 years.

Things were quiet after that. The Phillies won the World Series in 1980.

Then, as a result of the stagnation of a bloated, pop-riddled late-’80s hip-hop scene and his own desire to move some damned wax, Jesse B. Weaver Jr. a.k.a. Schoolly D invented gangsta rap. He’s the progenitor, father of Ice Cube, grandfather of Tupac, Abraham and every post-gangster, Frooty Loops-hounding loudmouth, talented or otherwise.

Schoolly mythology begins with the same opening salvo as most hip-hop creation stories: an unnaturally early devotion to music and the written word. He led a band when he was 9; ten years later, he was gripping and ripping mix tapes and hustling them on his own. By the time he was 22, he’d recorded “Gangster Boogie,” a groovy, pitch-able jam—not unlike the Run DMC pablum he railed against, but undeniably grim—that played precursor for the tracks that were about to knock the head clean off hip-hop.

PSK – What Does It Mean” came out in 1985. Hear it without listening, and it’s just another mid-’80s, mid-tempo, mid-market scratch track—another tire for the burning fire of rhymes that, amazingly, helped birth the hip-hop world of today. Listen to it (not when your mom’s around) and you’ll hear some stuff that the likes of Posdnous wouldn’t touch if they had a gun to their respective heads. “P.S.K. – What Does It Mean” is regarded by some as a rejection of the mid-’80s Adidas-ization of hip-hop. Hell, even Schoolly says it is. But on a deeper level it is an acceptance of the urban viscera that has come to define Schoolly’s spiritual successors—from MC Ren to Earl Sweatshirt.

In the song, Schoolly, or at least the character of Schoolly, gets with a ho, puts back an impressive amount of opiates, and spares the life of some kid who was copping his style—if only because he doesn’t want to go to prison. It’s nasty, wretched, artless, grisaille stuff.

Amazingly, it was just what the art form of hip-hop needed. Ice T—Fin Tutuola to early-period millennials and the uncool—openly admitted that one of his first tracks with traction, “6 In The Mornin’” riffed largely on “P.S.K. – What Does It Mean.” Ice T, too, is regarded as one of the godfathers of gangsta hip-hop, and by extension, modern hip-hop.

There were more successes for Schoolly. Director Abel Ferrara had a crush on his prowess, and deposited Schoolly’s rhymes in a few of his movies, including Bad Lieutenant, which featured the unfairly dope “Signifying Rapper,” a combo of Schoolly D’s own caveman rap and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” It is ass-kickin’ music, and Jimmy Page doesn’t want you to hear it.

Time left Schoolly, mostly, behind. Gangsta rap became complex, combative, and triumphantly political, and rap as a whole began to tilt upward in quantity and quality. The early ’90s largely left easy-flow rappers behind; as such, Schoolly was left to spiral. There were arrests, the inevitable crashing of the meteor, and ultimately, a small, meaningful garnish that came more than a decade after his prime: the Aqua Teen Hunger Force theme song, which sports the same aloof, potentially genius, potentially half-assed lyricism that followed Schoolly from the days of old.

It’s tempting to call Schoolly D a cautionary tale, or Philly’s greatest hip-hop crash and burn. But when it comes to people who have, purposefully or not, completely changed the world we live in, credit must be given.

After all, we don’t throw shade at Jonas Salk because he pretty much coasted on eradicating polio.