Why did Schoolly D invent gangsta rap?
“I couldn’t sing like James Brown,” says Schoolly, also known as Jesse Weaver Jr., the enormously influential 1980s West Philly rapper who apparently is as Philadelphian as meat and cheese stuffed into an Amoroso roll.
He’s one of the principal attractions who will play Hoagie Nation, the “celebration of everything Philly” at Festival Pier on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend
“I knew it was going to be art and music for the rest of my life,” the 54-year-old songwriter and painter says as he gets ready to tuck into a syrup-slathered waffle at a Ridge Avenue cafe near his Roxborough home.
Along with Daryl Hall and John Oates, the inaugural Hoagie Nation — a summer-opening bookend to the Roots Picnic, happening in the same spot the weekend after — features several Philadelphia acts, including R&B singer Vivian Green, Bielanko brothers rock-and-roll band Marah, soul troubadour Son Little, and the Hooters’ David Uosikkinen’s all-star band In the Pocket.
But except for bluesy hip-hop bandleader G. Love — of whom Schoolly says, “I love that kid” — the auteur behind the immortal 1985 double-sided single “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” and “Gucci Time” is the only taste of Philadelphia’s hip-hop history Hoagie Nation is serving.
“Once you hear rap, you start identifying with it. It was new and rebellious,” he says. “I was going to do anything to make older people squirm. If you’re doing that, you’re developing your own personality. I knew that I was going to be able to do this for a living.”
The eighth of nine children, Schoolly spent much of the 1970s shuttling between West Philly, where he attended Overbrook High School, and outside Atlanta, with his sister Pat, 15 years his senior.
“It was that era when, if black boys were bad, they would send you to the country to chop wood,” he says with a laugh, on a morning when he’s just back from closing night at the Okay Space gallery in Brooklyn, where his paintings were being shown.
Schoolly is thankful for that time spent down South, because it gave him a wider view than friends back in Parkside. After graduating from high school in Georgia, he came home to start Schoolly D records.
His inspirations were Prince and pioneering Bronx rap crew Funky 4 + 1. “It was the lyrics Prince was using, being rebellious and free. The Funky 4 were talking about smoking weed on the corner, going to dollar parties, riding around in hot rods. That was my life! If they can say it, I want to say it, too. ... The Funky 4 made it seem possible. That I could actually do it.”
Rapping with the 52 Crew, named after the 52nd and Parkside neighborhood, he met DJ Code Money (born Lance Allen). “He said, ‘I don’t have any turntables, but I could scratch on my mom’s turntable.’
“And he did! He scratched on one of those old '70s Sylvania consoles. He was like me. Naive enough to think we could do it. Because in a couple of weeks, we wrote 'P.S.K.' and 'Gucci Time.' You don’t have to be the greatest musicians in the world, but you get together in a room, and that’s when magic happens. It’s like Hall & Oates. Weren’t they the best when they were together? That’s the way it was between me and Code.”
The Parkside Killers were “a neighborhood gang, before there were drug gangs.” Graffitti writers would tag “PSK,” prompting the song’s question. “A friend of mine’s brother came up with the idea. ‘There are all these songs about the Bronx. Write a song about us. Write a song about Parkside.’ ”
The result was stark and powerful, a minimalist, menacing sound that was new in 1985. “P.S.K. we’re making that green / People always say, ‘What the hell does that mean?' ”
“He literally invented gangsta rap,” says Roots drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, talking from the set of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
“Even Ice-T can attest to this. And the Beastie Boys” — who sampled “Gucci Time” on “Time to Get Ill” — “pretty much told me that License to Ill was their homage to his first EP. And, of course, N.W.A. So just by the transitive property: Schoolly D influencing License to Ill. License to Ill influencing Eazy E.’s first EP and Straight Outta Compton.”
“He was on to something really stark and gritty,” Questlove says. “I never heard somebody use so much reverb. Everything was like a booming nightmare. .... And probably his biggest contribution is his least spoken about: His rhyming style, which is between a blues structure and a limerick. That ruled hip-hop for about three years. Anybody who had to tell any kind of narrative used it. That, and he was the first person to curse a lot.”
Schoolly had an enormous impact with just a few songs, the hip-hop historian says. "That's all he needed."
In cartoonist Ed Piskor’s graphic opus Hip-Hop Family Tree, a 15-panel page illustrates the Schoolly D story. The artist is seen painting in front of an easel, then he strips down to a sleeveless T-shirt and gold chain, becoming Schoolly D, pointing the way for gangstas to follow.
The artist doesn’t dispute the cartoony depiction. “I wanted to make it real, but also use your imagination. You can do anything in the cartoon world. Look at Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk [a George Clinton Parliament-Funkadelic character] or KISS. They were dealing with real things, real issues, in the cartoon world. Schoolly D was like a superhero character.”
The cartoon aspect of Weaver’s rap career was prophetic. After a run of albums that included the half-gangsta, half-Afrocentric, Billy Paul-sampling 1989 Am I Black Enough for You?, he found further fame with the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim hit Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which ran from 2001 to 2015.
Schoolly rapped the theme to the series about an anthropomorphic meatball, milk shake, and order of fries. He’s also scored several movies made by Italian director Abel Ferrara, including 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel.
The rapper was also among the first to regularly perform with a live band, touring with much-missed West Philly reggae-influenced three-piece Scram. At Hoagie Nation, DJ Code Money will be on hand, as well as a band he’s been rehearsing with at Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk.
Weaver has a son, Rashod, 29, a Delaware state trooper, and a daughter, Jordan, who’s 16 and plays multiple instruments. “She’s exactly like me,” he says with pride. Over the years, he says, he’s been remunerated adequately. “Every artist after the fact is going to say, 'I should have been paid more.' I didn’t want to get bitter.”
For two years, he’s been making furniture as well as painting. “Woodworking. I sold a couple of pieces. But I’m developing my style. It’s relaxing. Challenging. I’m just like an all-around artist. I got to do a lot of stuff.”
He’s also making new music, which he hopes to release in the fall.
“The last few years have brought some clarity. People say, ‘You do yoga, you do all these earthy things, people want to hear about that.’ ”
“But if I go to a Kool & the Gang concert, I want to hear 'Jungle Boogie.' ... You should make records the way your fans originally loved you. I’m going to make a Schoolly D record. I got to be Schoolly D.”Hoagie Nation at the Festival Pier, 601 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd., at 2 p.m. May 27. $40-$61. 215-922-1011. hoagienation.com