Humans Are Hard to Kill
An interview with rap pioneer, film composer, visual artist and survivor Schoolly D
By Hanif Abdurraqib
Reading time 25 Minutes
Before we go to far down the paths of what is or isn’t gangsta
Before we go to far down the paths of what is or isn’t gangsta, or new music and old, or the many canvases that have carried his art over a lifetime, Schoolly D wants to show me a cake. He’s exceptionally excited about the cake, which was delivered a day before I arrived at his home. The cake has become a tradition with Schoolly: a condition he places, a tribute he insists upon, before granting an interview.
His home is tucked away on a quiet, sloping street in Philadelphia, packed tightly next to neighboring houses with all manner of flags swinging from their doors or awnings. Inside, Schoolly offers me a piece of the cake, but he does so in a way where it feels like he doesn’t actually want me to have a piece of cake. The offer is accompanied by exuberance about how much of the cake he looked forward to eating later. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and as he peels the box open, the dessert is in shambles. “I had a piece for breakfast,” he explains. “I don’t even cut the shit. I just take a fork to it. I don’t know. I should be 450 pounds.”
As we circle his kitchen, Schoolly points out small things around the room and neighborhood while still occasionally musing on cake (“When black people say chocolate, we mean a vanilla cake with the chocolate icing. White people think we mean a chocolate on chocolate…”)
We arrive at a handful of photos, haphazardly affixed to the metal fridge with magnets. Schoolly points to one of his daughter, on stage playing a bass. He tells me she plays five instruments. That she’s a better musician than he ever was. Next, he points to a photo of himself from 1985 with a group of old friends. Even if a person didn’t know who Schoolly was, they’d know he was the star of this photo. He’s in the center, adorned in dark glasses, and a seemingly endless fur coat, stretching all the way down into the dark edges of the photo.
“The day I bought this shit, I wore it out the store and motherfuckers tried to arrest me,” Schoolly tells me, laughing. “I was like ‘God damn, you can't have a mother fucking fur coat?’” And then, without skipping a beat, he somberly and matter-of-factly states, “All the dudes in this photo are dead, except me.” He says it like someone who has lost enough to make peace with the idea of loss. And like that, the tour of cake and kitchen memories ends.
Despite his insistence that he should be 450 pounds, Schoolly – born Jesse Weaver – turned 56 years old this summer. He is in great shape, not entirely far from the tank-top, gold rope chain version of his ‘80s self. He does yoga, works out when he can. He used to do gymnastics as a kid growing up, so he maintains an interest in keeping himself flexible.
From the outside, his house on this street might seem like any other house on any other street in Philadelphia. But the interior is a cavern of cacophony. When we finally sit down to talk, there is a TV playing a replay of an Eagles game in one room, and old soul and funk playing from the massive speakers in his living room, which doubles as a studio for his many creations: A mixing board sits in the center of the room, with speakers on both sides. In one corner sits an easel with a new visual art creation in progress. All around the room is Schoolly’s visual art, hung on the walls. An American flag on a wood board, made out of lights. Drawings of men in conversation, with thick text bubbles. It’s a space that shows his range and interests as an artist.
“I play my 45s on Sunday,” Schoolly tells me, rapidly scrolling through a playlist. “I got this mix I made on YouTube of all my 45s. It’s like when I was a kid, my dad – everything had a mood. Funky Fusion Fridays – depending what kind of weather it was, he came home from work, and make french toast for us and put some James Brown. It was cold as shit outside, door wide open. You hear the music half a block away. Saturdays was wild, Saturdays was definitely James Brown. But Sunday is for jazz. Sunday is for soul.”
Schoolly believes in music as a vehicle to keep away evil spirits, and so he relies on his moods, and his playlists. He loves sad songs, he tells me. Black people making upbeat and poppy music makes him a bit skeptical, which is something one would imagine an artist like Schoolly D saying.
Debating what does or doesn’t define gangsta rap is, by now, almost pointless. The aesthetics of the subgenre have been watered down to the point of a costume, or an inconsistent set of ideas that anyone can take up, regardless of their background. But, in 1985, Schoolly D’s self-titled album was described as the blueprint of gangsta rap, a bellwether for what would follow.
Those who grew up in certain places, with a proximity to certain dangers, understand that what Schoolly D was doing on his early records was simply reporting. He was (and remains) a reporter, adept at storytelling with vivid imagery and clear narration. Depending on what those images are, and what that narration entails, there are those who might call it gangsta, due to their own inability to articulate its messaging. Schoolly has spent a lot of time doing the work of articulation for people who don’t have the imagination to do it themselves. It is a nearly impossible task, in the face of having stories of your life treated as only exotic fascinations. I tell Schoolly that for me, and for many people from places like where he’s from, his music has always given a glimpse of familiarity. He pauses over his cake thoughtfully, and mentions history.
“Well, here’s the story I was told. What happened was, when the Dutch first went to Africa, and they heard the drums, they couldn't understand it. So, they figured out the technique…and come back and bring the notes back to the Africans and say, ‘This is what you're playing.’ Africans look at them ‘No, it's not.’ And it's not, but the way for them to understand us, they have to break our drums down to what they could understand. But there's a difference, there's a major difference in like what we know, what our stories, what we know, that's us keeping our history line.”
He sighs, before completing the full circle of his idea. “When we was making that shit, we were talking to our contemporaries. We was talking to people who knew exactly what we said, you know? When we were young, we was in our 20's and shit, we didn't really know how to answer those questions from white people. Then when I got older, and especially then, I was like ‘Dude, I don't got to explain myself to you.’”
Of the many moments that stand out
Of the many moments that stand out from Abel Ferrara’s 1990 neo-noir crime drama King Of New York, the nightclub shooting scene is the one I remember carrying with me through the years after sneaking a viewing at a friend’s house when I was too young to see it. The scene is drenched in a blue haze, punctuated by bright bursts of gunfire and bodies flailing as bullets hit them and send them flying into bathtubs or against walls. It is a scene that contrasts aesthetic beauty with jarring violence – a person spinning slowly in the blue light while each bullet goes through their body.
In the scene, a sped-up horn and a cascade of drums howl under the yelling and the gunfire. The song is a slightly altered version of Schoolly D’s “Am I Black Enough For You?” from his 1989 album of the same name. Am I Black Enough For You? didn’t have much commercial success – it was a shift in sound, a political potency for Schoolly at the time. But the album did catch the ear of Ferrara, who was known for situating his films in urban landscapes, where the settings were just as important to the narrative as the characters themselves. Ferrara felt like Schoolly’s music would be a perfect pairing with the films he was making at the turn of the decade, beginning with King Of New York. This began a decades-long collaboration between the two artists.
Schoolly’s music has always had elements of scene setting. Even in his earliest songs, like “P.S.K.” the instrumental builds for nearly a minute before the vocals arrive, and then, just as suddenly as they appear, the vocals give way to the waves of instrumentation once again. The scene demands as much sonic mapping as it does visual. For Schoolly’s part, he insists that his natural ability to set scenes to music comes from being young, asthmatic, and falling in love with musicals.
“I was just in the house all the time,” he says. “My mom, taking care of my mom just like, watching the Sunday afternoon movie, and that's where I fell in love with all those musicals.” To drive the point home, Schoolly weaves out of the conversation and begins singing a bit of a song from the musical Oklahoma. The trick he found to integrating his own sound into scenes was turning the music down during musicals, and making up his own songs to go over the visuals. “My mom would watch me watching these things with no sound on, and my mouth would be moving. That was me, laying the songs in my head over the movie. I found out years later that’s what they do at NYU, but I was doing it as a kid in Philly.”
Still, when first approached by Ferrara with the idea of scoring films, Schoolly was lukewarm, to say the least. He had been so immersed in making Am I Black Enough For You? that it felt like he was in character. By the late-‘80s, he had already begun to grow exhausted with white people acting as tourists in the very real world he was presenting in his music, and he wasn’t exactly keen on the opportunity to have his songs used in a way that furthered that tourism. He wanted to be seen as what he was: an authentic artist, trying to contribute that authenticity to a world that was growing increasingly artificial.
“I was pissed off with white people, man,” Schoolly says with a half laugh, half sigh. “He [Ferrara] kept calling, and I was like, ‘Yo, I can’t talk to white people right now!’ But he believed in me. People actually believe in me because they can tell I'm authentic. And I could tell he was an authentic dude. I still get work, because people are always going to want something real.”
Schoolly agreed to come to New York and see a cut of the film, where Ferrara sold him on the idea that he could be a film composer. “He told me to go home and listen to all of my music,” Schoolly says. “And so I did, and I realized that I’d been composing films within my work the whole time.”
Another, clearer selling point was once of audience. Ferrara told Schoolly that his songs would likely never get radio airplay unless he drastically changed his style. Which, of course, Schoolly wasn’t interested in. Schoolly himself wasn’t that interested in his work hitting big on the radio, but he did want it to live a life outside of himself for a long time.
To remain real, but also to be immortalized, presented a clear path for Schoolly: to have music in films, during memorable scenes of violence, or joy, or sex. Radio is cyclical; music comes and goes and then ends up as nostalgia trips. But in film, Schoolly felt like a stamp could be made that could never be taken from him.
Schoolly and Ferrara went on to work on several films together, including 1992’s Bad Lieutenant and 1995’s The Addiction. Schoolly insists that he can’t remember the number of films he’s worked on, but places it around 15. He and Ferrara remain close. “We just got back from [doing an event at] the MoMA!” he exclaimed, in the middle of trying to recount all of their collaborations. “The fucking MoMA, man! You think you made it, but then you really made it.”
While reminiscing about his childhood forays into making his own music in his head, Schoolly tells about getting up early on Saturday mornings in time to turn on the TV and watch the intro to Scooby Doo. He knew the song by heart, and would sing it out loud at the TV, and make up his own melody over the existing one. He’d tell his mother that when he grew up, he was going to write a Scooby Doo song.
Schoolly credits his work in film with the realization of this dream. In 2000, he was approached by the creators of the show Aqua Team Hunger Force and asked to contribute to the show in some fashion. The creators had listened to Schoolly while they were in college, so they came to him with the ask, offering him money to play a role in the show’s creation. “I told them I didn’t want any money,” Schoolly tells me. “I just wanted to make my Scooby Doo song.”
That is how the theme song to Aqua Team Hunger Force was born, and a lifelong dream fulfilled. When reflecting on it all, Schoolly leans back in his chair, scans the room as if trying to pull another memory from its corners, and says “The main thing I would love to teach these young cats – Like, dude, think about what you want to do at 12, because that's the last year…the last pure year. After that, it’s over. The guardian angels leap on your soul at 13. And then everything changes.”
There are no clear guidelines for how to effectively age in rap music
There are no clear guidelines for how to effectively age in rap music. Everyone cannot be Jay-Z, and not everyone wants to be. As the music changes shape, and the concerns of artists shift, it can become difficult to maintain the level of popularity one had in the decades before this one, where music is released in waves and then often forgotten about as quickly as it arrives.
One way that Schoolly D has moved with the world and not let the world speed past him is by being versatile, by finding ways to keep his work and his voice in cultural narratives. But, he’s also continued to make new music. Schoolly has an album set to release soon. The exact date is uncertain, but the album does have a title. It is called ‘Cause That Nigga Crazy, That’s Why, and Schoolly sees it as a tribute to the 1974 Richard Pryor album That Nigger’s Crazy. If you’re small, a way to survive in any treacherous area is to be quick-witted or committed to comedy. Schoolly leaned on Pryor from an early age, and his ability to always have a rebuttal or build comical jabs into conversation has aged well with him.
Tributes aside, the album took Schoolly nearly a decade to create (“Ten years and the engineer still got two things wrong!” he grumbled, while fiddling with his computer.) Schoolly insists that this album is it – the signature album he was struggling to create right after Am I Black Enough For You? but couldn’t make at the time. He didn’t have the lived experience, the hindsight, or the width of emotional range to make it then. It’s an album that has grown with him, and reflects every part of who he is now, and also who he’s been.
Schoolly plays some tracks from the album for me, and as the songs spill out of the speakers and rattle the walls, he can hardly contain himself, bouncing up and down in his chair and yelling the lyrics over the beat. The songs themselves sound sharp, brilliantly crafted, and very present, despite drawing from similar soundscapes that Schoolly played with in his early career: chunky and booming basslines, vocal samples chopped up by record scratches. His voice and cadence is mostly unchanged, showing no signs of wear. His delivery is a bit slower, more contemplative. But mostly, the songs sound like refreshing updates on his past comforts. There’s a song with Ice-T, who notoriously championed Schoolly as a pioneer of gangsta rap in the ‘80s. There is something to be said about the many ways that artists can consider reinvention. In the new music he plays, Schoolly D chose to reinvent himself by further honing what was already there, and what had been there the whole time.
What is notable, though, is that the album is more celebratory than his prior work. The songs still deal in Schoolly’s signature mix of storytelling and blunt truths, but the tunes feel like a party, unconcerned with what the guests need, or what they think. It’s an album made by someone happy to still be here.
And it is, of course. The album took ten years to make, in part, because Schoolly’s health took an unexpected turn a few years ago. “I died and came back,” he tells me with no drama, tacking it on to a story about production techniques. When I press him on the story, eager for details, he puts down his mug and sighs. “I was on my way to France and somebody said I didn't look right. I went to the hospital and they said ‘Yeah, you only walking on five percent of this shit.’"
His kidneys were failing, suddenly and almost inexplicably. Doctors couldn’t figure out how or why it was happening, but Schoolly was placed on dialysis, and kept in the hospital while doctors prepared to operate on him. He tells me that on the morning of the operation, after being analyzed, it appeared he was fine. Everything was working like new, and he was released after a few hours. The doctors called him a miracle.
“The thing about prayer is if you pray something, once it come out of your mouth, you have to believe it's going to happen,” he tells me, somberly. “I think that's the mistake a lot of us black folk make when we making prayers, we don't believe it already happened, so we keep saying the same prayer over and over again.”
When he left the hospital, he was renewed, and aimed to make an album that reflected the miracle of his living. There are songs about space, that borrow from Afrofuturists like Sun Ra. The album has its eyes set on the future, while its sound is set in the past. Schoolly wanted the album to feel present, but sound ‘80s. He didn’t want to be one of the pioneers of hip hop who links up with new artists to reformulate his sound. He knew it wouldn’t sound like he always tried to sound: authentic. Songs that never depart from the lane he created for himself. “Motherfuckers might be wack, but they ain’t stupid,” he insists. “Niggas know when you’re trying to play them.”
Schoolly D is alive, well, and in good spirits. During much of our conversation, he meanders playfully. At one point, his cousin stops in, and Schoolly chides him for wearing a Washington Redskins jacket. “Ah, man! What you doing? Why you wearing that racist-ass Washington team name? You in Philly!”
His speaking style reflects his visual art, which hangs above his head in front of his mixing board, and above my head on the couch. The pieces depict outsized characters making outsized statements, woven together by neatly sketched or painted borders. He gestures at a lamp in the corner of the room. “I go out to the woods and find trees and shit, chop down some wood and make coal, make some lamps and that's what I like to do.”
He tells me that painting was his first love, and is the thing he still retreats into when everything else is stagnant. For nearly two years after he got out of the hospital, he painted to regain his confidence in creating. Beyond the songs on the new album, he thinks about space often. He refuses to accept the narrative that black people’s history began with slavery, and so he refuses to accept the narrative that black people’s existence will end on earth. He tells me that he misses the days when black people he knew would talk about the stars, and so he is going to start painting stars. He’s as reflective as any person who has lived a long and varied life might be. He doesn’t want to talk about violence in his music anymore, he says. It’s stale, it’s boring.
“We were always supposed to be scarier than that to the establishment,” he near-shouts. “We are. Listen, man. If they playing your shit 11:30 in the morning, you not a rebel. No one cares if you’re talking about killing niggas. They want you to talk about killing niggers. They want to hear that shit. People never mention the end of [his 1985 classic] ‘P.S.K. What Does it Mean?’ It's like, you know what, I got to use my educated mind. Say that and see what happens! They’d give it back to us in a heartbeat, because they don't want no parts of that shit.”
Many might consider this the traditional route that older rappers and rap fans take when discussing new music, but Schoolly is one who has earned that particular lens. He’s a rapper who helped introduce the style that is being mimicked and profited off of in ways that aren’t always as authentic as he’d like. And, beyond that, he’s had it with death. He’s lived long enough to not find death romantic, and he’s been briefly to the edge of a long life and managed to find his way back. As our conversation winds down, he leans forward, as if sharing a long-held secret.
“Humans are hard to kill,” he starts, pausing a bit for affect. “Mother nature been trying to kill us, you know what I'm saying? For years. The heavens, God tried to get us more than a few times. We're easy to discourage but we're hard to kill. One of the hardest things to burn on this planet is a human body. And so I’m not finished until I’m finished.”
Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer from the east side of Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in 2017 and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, and NPR, among others. His latest work, Go Ahead In The Rain, a biography of A Tribe Called Quest, was a New York Times bestseller.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bad Lieutenant is also notable for the infamous removal of one of it’s most critical pieces of music: Schooly D’s “Signifying Rapper.” The tune is based entirely around an unlicensed lift of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,”and a subsequent lawsuit brought by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page resulted in the song being pulled from all existing prints, videotapes and LaserDiscs of the film in the middle of its release. No currently available versions of the film include the song as it was intended.