Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 009: Schoolly D - "P.S.K.-What Does it Mean?" b/w "Gucci Time"

Schoolly D - "P.S.K.-What Does It Mean?" b/w "Gucci Time" (Schoolly-D Records, 1985)

In my intro to the Spray Cans series, I said that I wanted to create a hip-hop analogue to Nuggets. While most of the songs on Nuggets barely sold but were great enough that they deserved to be rescued from obscurity, others were singles that hit #1 on the Billboard charts (such as “Louie, Louie”) but that hadn’t achieved the respect or attention that they deserved, hence my choice to cover a single from Fiend’s Gold-selling album There’s One in Every Family in Vol. 008. On the other hand, some of the artists that found themselves on Nuggets, such as the 13th Floor Elevators, didn’t sell many records when they were active but their subsequent influence far outstripped their initial success. This week’s artist Schoolly D falls into this latter camp. While many people probably know him best these days for rapping on the intro song for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Schoolly D is a hip-hop legend who arguably recorded the first gangsta rap song ever with “P.S.K.-What Does it Mean?” in 1985.

Schoolly D’s earliest records were in the immediate wake of Run-D.M.C.’s debut self-titled album. The big single from that album, “Sucker M.C.’s” wiped the slate clean for hip-hop, essentially closing the book on the earlier Grandmaster Flash/Afrika Bambaataa/Kurtis Blow era of hip-hop. While those artists trafficked in disco-influenced breakbeat-driven songs, “Sucker M.C.’s” stripped hip-hop to its barest elements, knocking SP-808 and 909 drums and scratching. Schoolly D jumped on this sound for his self-titled debut, and the album’s single, “P.S.K.-What Does it Mean?” b/w “Gucci Time” is his purest distillation of this aesthetic. Listen to “P.S.K.” too loud on a decent pair of headphones and the drums feel like nails being driven into your skull. The harsh scratches surrounding the “fresh” sample is the closest thing this beat has to respite, and other than that, it’s six and a half minutes of relentlessly driving and overly reverbed 808s. It’s harsher than anything his contemporaries were doing at the time, which fit well with his revolutionarily hard subject matter. In the first verse, he cruises around and picks up a girl. After sleeping with her, he realizes that she’s a prostitute and, completely unfazed, he pays her. In the second verse, he goes to a party, gets high, hears another rapper who’s trying to sound like him, pulls out his pistol and presses it to the other guy’s head, and says “Sucker-ass nigga, I should shoot you dead.” Instead, he takes the mic and starts rapping and the biter leaves in shame. While Too Short was doing this kind of sexually explicit material over in the Bay Area a few years before Schoolly D, this level of violence was basically unprecedented in 1985.

The b-side, which can also be found on Schoolly D, starts out with more standard subject matter for the time than “P.S.K.” He calls out wack biting MCs and lauding his own abilities on the mic (as well as his expensive Gucci watch), but by the end of the song he’s having sex with a prostitute and killing her pimp. Lots of MCs were claiming to be the baddest in 1985, but Schoolly D took it one step further, willing to employ violence to defend his title and status in the rap game. As a new artist, Schoolly D made himself immediately known by openly threatening all challengers in a much more vicious way than anyone else had ever done. Also, he was openly calling out his gang affiliations (P.S.K. stands for Park Side Killas, the Philly gang that D ran with), another first for hip hop that would become commonplace, especially on the west coast, just a few years later.

Schoolly D abandoned most of the violence of his first album on his follow-up Saturday Night! – The Album in 1987. Saturday Night! is Schoolly D’s best album. While it doesn’t have any one song with the brutal power of “P.S.K.,” it’s a much more well-crafted and varied record than Schoolly D. Although he returned to the gangsta tropes of “P.S.K.” on his third album Smoke Some Kill in 1987, D left a temporary void in hip-hop that was filled by Ice-T in Los Angeles. Ice-T’s song “6 ‘N the Mornin’” (1986) and debut album Rhyme Pays (1987) picked up right where Schoolly D left off, and Ice has been vocal about Schoolly’s influence on him. “6 ‘N the Mornin’” follows the “P.S.K.” formula almost exactly, just with less-intense drums and a funky west coast edge during the hook. Ice-T reached a wider audience than Schoolly D, spreading gangsta rap across Los Angeles, where the subgenre reached maturity on N.W.A.’s masterful Straight Outta Compton in 1988 and became the dominant style of rap in the mainstream by the mid-90s.

Like most of his contemporaries (the Beastie Boys are probably the biggest exception), Schoolly D lost most of his audience and his relevance during the 90s as he struggled with sonic shifts and changing lyrical styles, but “P.S.K.” and his first two albums remain among the most important documents of eighties rap.

"P.S.K.-What Does It Mean?"

"Gucci Time"

Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Cashless Society
Att Will
Black Attack

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