The original architect of gangsta rap, West Philadelphia’s Schoolly D (Jesse Weaver Jr.) has made a career as the rhyming reporter of violence, drugs, gangs and other grim aspects of modern urban reality. Whether he’s a detached observer, a fictional stand-in or an amoral exploiter (corners of a triangle that aren’t very far apart), Schoolly is a potent rapper with a deromanticized tell-it-like-it-is style. And while his native locale has worked against him — the cold-blooded art he pioneered found a better commercial berth in California and Texas — Schoolly and his loyal DJ, Code Money, have stuck it out in the city of brotherly love.
After two self-released shots right into the bow (the essentials of which are compiled as The Adventures of Schoolly-D), Schoolly lost his gangsta concentration on the disappointing major-label debut, Smoke Some Kill. His followup, however, switched its focus from street crime to black power and got back in the groove. Am I Black Enough for You? is a loud and proud album that uses spoken-word bites (political speeches, Star Trek dialogue, Richard Pryor crack-horror routines) to increase the consciousness. If the record doesn’t wind up saying much of anything, the inspirational chant of “Get Off Your Ass and Get Involved” and the Afrocentricity of “Black Jesus” are a whole lot more positive and encouraging than “It’s Krak” or “Mr. Big Dick.” (The 1995 Jive compilation draws equally from the first three albums, adding one jam from Am I Black Enough for You? and the previously non-LP “Code’s Megamix.”)
Despite those inklings of political savvy, the titular report of How a Black Man Feels is neither illuminating nor impressive (“We’re fucking up the nation / Think about it if you doubt it / Crack cocaine, we’ll do without it / Some are up and some are down / Some muthafuckas can’t be found”). “Original Gangster,” a Caribbean-inflected track mixed by KRS-One, offers equally useless thoughts on a substantial topic. In fact, other than the unfashionable stripped-down beats (complete with Run-DMC samples), Schoolly’s ugly and all-too-common gangsta threats (“Die Nigger Die” is unfortunately typical) sound like a sorry-ass imitation jackin’ for bucks.
Shifting to his third major label in three albums (and mislaying an “l” from his name in the process), Schoolly made an important hookup with Philly’s Ruffhouse organization, whose Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo executive-produced and helped mix Welcome to America. Working with the label’s house band (including bassist Chuck Treece and drummer Mary Harris, who later joined Spearhead) and assorted DJs and MCs, Schoolly got himself a hardcore record that sounds miles better than any others he’s made, strapped with psychedelic guitar, thundering bass grooves, tense rhythms, bits of horn, piano and sound effects. Rhyme-wise, the self-declared “No Good Nigga” is still fronting big-time, putting himself in the picture at the center of the action: killing, robbing, smoking sens, drinking 40s, pulling gats on every muthafucka he sees (including, in the title track, the president, since “He ain’t nothin’ but a bitch, I figure”) and waving his dick around. Except for the perceptively autobiographical “Another Sign,” the lyrics of Welcome to America are witless and insulting, a thuggish grunt without imagination or insight. Shame about all that good music going to waste.
Schoolly came back to his senses on the self-released and almost single-handed Reservoir Dog, a homey, stripped-down session of scratchy samples and simply effective keyboard/drum machine inventions (and a badly recorded live track). Despite the intentional vintage-style P-Funk packaging and presentation, other than having soulful singer Tamika Vines on a bunch of these tracks, this R-Dog hasn’t learned any new old tricks (“Big Fat Bytches,” “Hustler Life” and “Date With Death” come down the usual sex and guns chutes), but tones the songs down to tolerable vulgarity levels and sparks them with some better ideas. “Nigger Entertainment” actually adds another chapter to his slim volume of cultural/political insights, “Ghettofunkstylistic” does a look-around with typically lurid vision, “If You See My Little Brother” offers thoughtful advice to the hip-hop community and “Eternity” (giving credit for conception to director Abel Ferrara) dabbles ineffectually in metaphysical zombie cinema: “I’ll bite your neck / Treat you with no respect.”