Gangsta rap might be the illegitimate offspring of countless characters, but if you’re searching for one true father then look no further than Schoolly D. Before Ice T, N.W.A. and 50 Cent sprang to fame on the back of the gangsta label, Schoolly D was rapping about the realities of life in the ghetto — in his case the area surrounding 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue in West Philadelphia.
Over the course of his four decade-long career the rapper has been one of the most sampled artists in hip hop — notably on UK dance duo The Chemical Brothers’ 1997 global hit, "Block Rockin’ Beats." He enjoyed a significant collaborative relationship with the provocative filmmaker Abel Ferrara and has latterly reinvented himself as a multi-instrumentalist artist of some repute, writing music for films and cartoons, DJing and collaborating with R&B singers.
In the Philly Ghetto
Jesse Bonds Weaver Jr. was born in Philadelphia on June 22, 1962. He was the youngest boy in a family of nine children — five girls and four boys. His dad worked two jobs to make ends meet , one at the Post Office, the other at the local General Motors plant. As a child Weaver demonstrated a talent for art, drawing his favorite cartoon characters repeatedly. Music was another passion. His dad gave him a bass guitar one Christmas, and he formed a Funkadelic/Parliament-inspired band with other kids in his neighborhood called Grand Funk Mothership Connection.
After spending a couple of years of high school in Atlanta, he returned to the city of Brotherly Love to find it overtaken by the sound of early hip hop. Speaking to HipHopDX in 2009 he recalled what he saw and heard: “It was vibrant, it was colorrful, it was like the birth of jazz. It was all you heard on every block, every weekend. You just wanted to do that, you just wanted to be part of that.” After hearing Funky Four Plus One and Spoonie Gee, he was converted. “I was on my way to being a painter and [moving] to the south of France and [instead] I said I want to make rap records. I think I got something to say,” he explained.
'P.S.K.: What Does It Mean?'
Taking his name from his basketball prowess (“Me and my friends were always playing basketball and always told ‘let's go school’ somebody. Then I took my name of Schoolly D. I don't know where the ‘D’ is coming from.”), he began his musical career alongside DJ Code Money releasing his raps on mixtapes funded by his job in a shoe shop. In 1984, after local artist Lady B advised him that no label would release his first proper record, Gangsta Boogie, because of its confrontational subject matter, Schoolly simply released it himself.
If Gangsta Boogie made a name for Schoolly in Philly, his next release would see him go national. "P.S.K.: What Does It Mean?" was an unapologetic sledgehammer of a track. Over a Roland 909 beat and Code Money’s heavy-handed live scratching, Schoolly laconically recounted a colorful tale of the local Philadelphia gang, Park Side Killers.
The Original Gangsta
Today, P.S.K. is routinely referred to as the first gangsta rap record — including no less a hip-hop authority than The Roots’ Questlove. Schoolly D says it wasn’t about being deliberately inflammatory. “It was just natural,” he told HipHopDX in 2009. “We had no pigeonholes, we were just being who we were. That’s it. It was no, ‘Okay I’m going to be gangster.’ I’m from Philly, I don’t sound like I’m from any place else, I’m not gonna try to make New York Rap, I’m gonna try to make Philly Rap. I grew up in a community, 52nd & Parkside, which is pretty tight and basically it was just like if you can impress your community you can impress the world. I wrote music about people I knew for people I knew. And it just so happened that the rest of the world loved those stories.”
On the west coast, Ice-T was certainly listening. Despite many proclaiming him to be the Godfather of Gangsta Rap, Ice-T constantly demurs at the suggestion, stating that Schoolly D rightfully has that crown. Indeed, before he released his groundbreaking, "6 in the Mornin,’" in 1986, Ice-T rang Schoolly D to explain that any similarities between "6 in the Mornin’" and "P.S.K." were a matter of homage rather than him biting Schoolly’s style.
"Am I Black Enough For You?"
Capitalizing on the notoriety of "P.S.K.," Schoolly D released his first, self-titled album on his own Schoolly D imprint in 1985. A tour with the post-punk band Big Audio Dynamite in the UK cemented his burgeoning status in Europe. In the US, he released his second album, Saturday Night! — The Album, in 1987. It was, as Spin’s review stated at the time, a seamy celebration of bad habits and bad language. No wonder the LA Times described Schoolly D as a "full-blown nightmare."
He signed to the major label Jive Records, which released his third album, Smoke Some Kill, in 1988. But critics derided it for its unimaginative music and its reliance on knee-jerk misogynism. Thankfully, his 1989 follow-up, Am I Black Enough For You?, was a return to form as he embraced socio-political concerns, quoting Malcolm X and portraying an Afrocentric attitude.
Soundtracks, Lawsuits and the Chemical Brothers Give Props
In 1990, the Schoolly D track, "Am I Black Enough For You?" made its way onto Abel Ferrara’s new film, King of New York. Thus began a relationship between the pair. After Ferrara directed the video to Schoolly D’s "King of New York" single, the filmmaker then used Schoolly’s Led Zeppelin-inspired, "Signifying Rapper," on his 1992 release, Bad Lieutenant. Unfortunately, Led Zeppelin successfully sued Schoolly D over use of an uncleared riff from their song "Kashmir," ensuring the song was removed from future presses of the movie. His friendship with Ferrara saw him branch out into movie soundtracks and composing. He scored Ferrara’s 2001 film, 'R Xmas.
The 1990s saw him release three albums, How a Black Man Feels (1991 on Capitol); Welcome To America (1994 on Ruffhouse, a subsidiary of Columbia) and 1995’s Reservoir Dog on his own P.S.K. imprint. While these albums were critical hits, the sales were less impressive. In the UK, however, Schoolly was being discovered by a new generation of dance fans. In 1997, the electronic-dance band the Chemical Brothers sampled his "Gucci Again" track for their No. 1 smash, "Block Rockin’ Beats"; the same year he supplied vocals for Mekon’s underground dancefloor hit, "Skool’s Out."
Composing for Animation and Other Art Projects
In 2000, Schoolly D returned to his first love, cartoons, when he supplied the theme tune to the animation series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. He likened the impact to that of Isaac Hayes — one of his musical heroes — appearing on South Park. Alongside releasing two albums (Funk N’ Pussy in 2000 and International Supersport in 2010), he now spends much of his time painting and sculpting. He staged an exhibition in March 2017 with the visual artist Pablo Power at the Okay Space in Brooklyn, which explored the rivalry between New York and Philadelphia. It was a continuation of a partnership that began in 2013 with their show, Am I Black Enough?, which featured some of the artwork Schoolly D created for his first releases 30 years previously.
(Profile photo of Schoolly D by Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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