Twenty five years have passed since Philadelphia’s Schoolly D burst onto the rap scene with a string of reverb soaked gangster fairy tales like “PSK-13” and “Gucci Time.” In the years he’s dropped several Rap classics and expanded his resume to include not only Rap pioneer but also film composer and found an entirely new audience through his theme to Adult Swim‘s Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Schoolly School recently reached out to HipHopDX to remind us just how the fuck he got so cool.
HipHopDX: So what made you want to get into rapping?
Schoolly D: Are you serious? [Laughs] After 27 years, somebody seriously asked me that shit again? You could have just Googled that shit! How about I make an answer up… It’s the same shit. It was all magic, it was bound to happen. When I was 10 years old, I knew exactly what I was gonna be doing when I grew up. It was like keeping your eyes on the prize, as they say. It was never a question in my mind. Either I was gonna be a recording artist or a painter or something [where] I didn’t have to go sit behind a desk or change oil on a car or deliver mail. I just felt I was destined to do big shit. And that’s what I was told. I grew up in the ’60s, when it was like “yes young man, you too can be an astronaut or a president.” We believed that shit! Langston Hughes, Issac Hayes, WattStax. I believe in all that shit. Superfly, Bruce Lee. All that shit inspired me. All of it.
DX: Why do you think you were drawn to Hip Hop specifically?
Schoolly D: Well I couldn’t sing that good but I damn sure knew something about music. And when you heard it, you was just like, “Wow I could do that.” But I was in the era where people were still amazed at the shit that they heard and saw. So if you said you could do it you had to be really confident because we didn’t have computers. There was no drum machines out, turntables were still belt-driven, so if you really wanted to do it you [had to] find a way to do it. And it wasn’t even a job description then, think about it. You couldn’t say, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna be a rapper, I’m gonna start my own record label.” You would get fuckin’ laughed at. But when I heard Funky Four Plus One and Spoonie Gee, that shit just made it for me. 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.
DX: What sort of a Hip Hop scene did Philly have back then?
Schoolly D: Thank god I had moved back down to Atlanta to finish high school. I was back and forth between Philly and Atlanta, if I had stayed in Philly my whole life, I think I would have had a different view of the world. I travelled the east coast and lived in South Carolina, Kentucky, so I had a different point of view. I didn’t just have a from the hood point of view, so I knew there was something else outside of 52nd & Parkside. But when I came back it was vibrant, it was colorful, 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. You wanted to get the girls to like you. That’s another part of being a musician – we all do it for some pussy. [Laughs] It was huge in all the black and brown communities. Everybody else thought it was a fad. So it was something to fight for.
And the word I got coming from all the cats from New York was that this was created for us, by us and was to be kept for our children and our grandfather. It’s something that, you don’t have to be corporate, you don’t have to wake up and go to work. It could be about fashion, it could be about music, it could be about Spoken Word, it could be about being a deejay, it could be about writing books, it could be about being a fine artist. All that shit, it was all ours. Nobody could tell us what to do with it. That’s another fascination – where is that in the world? Something that’s created by a people for the people. And I’m not saying for corporate widespread, “we gotta be accepted.” Very few people [in the early days of hip hop] wanted to be accepted by corporate America because we had our own income and our own income status. It wasn’t like you had to be a billionaire to be successful. If you was doing it and you was doing it right you was successful. That was the allure – I could be who I wanted to be, I could still practice fine arts. I used to draw all my own album covers and do my own t-shirts and I could write my own songs and it was my own record label. I could put out whatever I wanted to put out. And people actually fuckin’ liked it, so I was in Hip Hop heaven.
DX: What do you think of today when people like Jay-Z or Puff have turned it into a corporate thing?
Schoolly D: Here’s the strange thing – I was watching Kathy… whatever that shit is… Regis & Kelly and a Rap artist came on. I’m sitting there like “Why is a Rap artist on there? who is watching this?” Then I had to look in the mirror like, “Oh… I’m watching it.” So all of the sudden it was relevant. I guess it’s a good and a bad thing that America has actually become that country of one. The bad part is we’ve sold our blackness. James Brown said it – once we lost our stroll, we lost our soul. When we sell that, that’s gotta be the last thing we’ve got to sell. The things that the brown people had to offer this country was our coolness, our flyness, our hipness and now anybody can be black because we sold that shit. Anybody can be black in America. Anybody and everybody is black and it’s not as cool anymore. You see certain artists like Fergie on the television grabbing her balls. But we sold that shit, we don’t own that shit no more. But I’ve learned one thing, whatever personal feelings you have [about other artists] you keep them to yourself. Do you know how hard it is to make money being an artist? That shit is damn near impossible. The people who do it, we should just let them be. Because somebody sold that shit to corporate America way before Jay-Z got to it. He’s just being part of it now.
DX: Do you think it’s possible for the cool of the black community to evolve into something new?
Schoolly D: I see us actually being worse. Now we look for images on television and in movies to tell us how we supposed to behave, that’s how I see it. We don’t behave as black people naturally anymore. I watch kids now who, if they didn’t see it on the video or on television, then it’s not black. That’s where most of the harm is coming from. I don’t care what people say. We are role models. These kids do look up to us. It’s lazy trying to say that you’re not a role model. What if Jim Brown was lazy? What if Dr. J was lazy? What if Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier were lazy? What if all those guys were lazy and didn’t take a stand? Arthur Ashe? What if those guys said “I’m not a role model“? I know I’m a role model and I know I have a certain part to play. It’s like I play a part, Heavy D plays a part and Chuck D plays a part. We’re all in Hip Hop and we all play a different part. I’m more Richard Pryor, Chuck D is more H. Rap Brown or Malcolm X, Heavy D is more Sam Cooke. I think it’s something for cats to look up to and aspire to be.
DX: What was it like coming from an independent background and then making the jump to corporate when you signed with Jive?
Schoolly D: It sucked! I’m not an artist that can be controlled. And [they] were like, “If you’re not gonna let us control you, then we’re gonna help destroy you.” Once you get in that machine of being on record labels you gotta stay there for ten years or so. They don’t let you leave, somebody has to buy you out. So I went from Jive to Capitol to Sony because I had to be bought out from each contract until there was no contract left. But I’ve made tons and millions more from being independent than I did being signed to a label.
DX: What made you inject the gangster persona into your work?
Schoolly D: It was just natural. 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.
DX: How did you end up with the actual sound of the records? There was no real precedent for the production on those early albums.
Schoolly D: I came from listening to Funk and Soul and Jazz and fuckin’ Opera. We listened to everything when I was growing up. All you got was on radio, so you had to listen to everything. So my influences are different from cats now. And it just happened. I had something in my head and it just fuckin’ happened. It wasn’t like “Okay, I’m gonna put a ton of reverb on this when I go to the studio tomorrow.” It was just like, “More… the sound is not there yet… more, more… more of that… keep going.” The engineers were looking at me like “Is this motherfucker crazy?” “No, more of that…” And another thing – I recorded everything live. I would play the drum machine, [DJ] Code [Money] would scratch, the musicians would play and we would do it all at once. And I think that’s how we got that full sound out of everything. That’s how I recorded the first four records, just like they used to.
DX: What kind of impact has doing the Aqua Teen soundtrack had on your career?
Schoolly D: I follow careers of people who inspire me, and Issac Hayes is one of the cats that always inspired me. When I play my keyboard, I actually try to channel a piece of Issac Hayes. I know it sounds weird, but I pretend to be Issac Hayes and I watched his career what he did with the music, then scoring films, then the cartoon thing and I thought if I could do that [it would be] pretty cool. I always wanted to write a theme song. When I was a kid I used to watch Hong Kong Phooey. [Sings] “Hong Kong Phooey…” I just wanted to write a song like that, and I did a couple favors for the Cartoon Network and I was like, “When you get a cartoon that suited for me, give me a call.” And they did and the impact has been just like the way people fell in love with Issac Hayes with South Park. I’m feeling the same stuff. It was a natural progression – I went from performances and making records of my own to doing to doing film with [director] Abel Ferrara to doing television. If you want to survive, you gotta survive and you gotta keep doing different shit. But I’m loving it. I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing all the shit that I said I wanted to do.
And the fans have taken over a little bit of the industry. I got fans booking me for shows now. I’m getting a lot of people who listen to the music or watch the cartoon who can do stuff. If you get in touch with your fans you’d be surprised how much shit can get done.
DX: When are we gonna an actual Schoolly D cartoon, one with the characters from the covers?
Schoolly D: You know what? I’m working on it right now. It takes so long, it takes a couple years, but we’re writing right now.
DX: Tell me a little about your relationship wtih Abel Ferrara.
Schoolly D: It’s on again, off again, and it’s on again now. He was the first one who saw my potential in film composing and writing music. He was like, “Your music is so dramatic, it’s a shame to just keep it in one place. It should be film and for listening. Your music should be experienced everywhere.” So he taught me all I’m supposed to know about film and music. It’s a good time, he pushes me and he makes me think about my music deeper than anybody else.
DX: It must feel good to get that sort of feedback.
Schoolly D: It makes me feel like I’m doing it right. When you have a particular sound and you sound different and you’re not part of the mainstream, people kind of look at you like, “Well, if you’re a rapper, how come you’re not along with the others? how come you don’t sound like them? how come you don’t look like them?” And that’s a little hard to take. But I have to suck it up and I know, with being around for 30 years I know that I’ll have pockets. I’ll have a seven-year run where everybody loves Schoolly D and then for two years or so, three years maybe you gotta suck it up [and be out of the limelight]. And I take that time to learn a new instrument or learn something new. I have a new CD coming out called International Super Sport and I’ve been writing it for two and a half years. So yeah, it’s easy being me, but it’s hard being me.