Hip hop is a culture that’s been deployed in pursuit of various aims: celebrating life, livening up the party, examining institutional injustices and redefining the understanding of music and art, to name a few. Even though hip hop has been around since the early-to-mid ‘70s, it wasn’t until KRS-One christened himself the ‘Teacher’ that the genre started to fully embrace the possibilities of providing a moral and spiritual education through rhymes.
What followed 1988’s By All Means Necessary was an explosion of Afrocentric acts embracing the power of knowledge alongside the allure of rhymes. Whilst the West Coast broke new ground with gangsta rap, the East Coast brought forth acts such as Brand Nubian and X-Clan, posses who were more upfront about their allegiance to the Five-Percent Nation and the lessons of their faith. Perhaps the greatest amongst these early-’90s Five Percenters were a group hailing from Trenton, New Jersey. I’m talking, of course, about Poor Righteous Teachers.
Wise Intelligent and Culture Freedom - childhood friends - spent their teenaged years selling pot and honing their rhymes, eventually linking up with local producer Anthony Depula, otherwise known as Tony D, and cutting some singles. It was only after they signed their deal with Profile that the third member, DJ Father Shaheed, linked up with the Teachers. Like Tony D, Shaheed was a staple of the Trenton scene, a DJ who worked with a swathe of the city’s best and brightest emcees. “He was a great DJ and he was righteous,” said Tony D in Check The Technique. “He fit the bill.”
Upon release, Holy Intellect was a critical and commercial success. Not only did it launch the Poor Righteous Teachers to fame, it also made Tony D an in-demand producer and engineer, and transformed the onetime capital into a hip hop scene of national note. The record peaked at #142 on the Billboard 200, managing #17 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, both career highs for the nonetheless regularly charting outfit. Holy Intellect also landed two of PRT’s four charting entries on Hot Rap Songs, with “Rock This Funky Joint” hitting #4 and the title track managing #16. This success speaks volumes about PRT’s unobtrusive approach to intelligence and their ability to fuse lofty lyricism with funky musicality. “We showed youth that intelligence was fresh,” reminisced Wise. He’s right - wisdom isn’t supposed to be this fun.
In celebration of their exceptional talents, and in remembrance of both Father Shaheed and PRT producer Tony D, we’re breaking down the samples scattered throughout the trio’s acclaimed debut, Holy Intellect!
“Can I Start This?”
If the first verse of “Can I Start This?” doesn’t fill you with hope, that’s alright: the posse knows that it’s “rubbish,” as they explain in the opening, because it’s the work of producer Tony D. He goes by one of his nicknames, Harvee Wallbanger, and spits rhymes that manage on enthusiasm and palpable enjoyment alone. As the intro suggests, this was actually the last track recorded for the album: “for whatever reason,” said Wise Intelligent, “Profile thought that it would be good to put first.”
The propulsive, heavy-hitting drums that crash throughout the opener are courtesy of Willie Hayes, the drummer for Chicago funk outfit Southside Movement. It’s lifted from “Save The World,” a track off 1974’s Movin’, that’s since proved popular with hip hop producers.
“Rock Dis Funky Joint”
The hit single that buoyed the record and all but guaranteed it an underground following, “Rock Dis Funky Joint” combines Tony D’s funky production with PRT posse’s uplifting messages of wisdom and knowledge.
After the track blew up, War - who were sampled within - demanded the group pay up for the sample, which went unnoticed and uncleared by Profile Records. The members of PRT wanted Tony D to pay, but he felt that they were on the hook for this one. One night, Culture and Shaheed - described as “the bigger ones” - jumped Tony, and it took a year for the collaborators to link up again. “I had this stigma,” remembered Tony, “like I’m the [white] devil trying to rob PRT. It was pretty upsetting.”
The swinging cadence of the base sample is thanks to War, a funk group most famous for their 1975 hit single “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” That track holds the honour of having been played in space during the first joint U.S.-Soviet space flight. No, not a joke. Actually happened.
“Slippin’ Into Darkness,” however, is a bit more obscure. Nonetheless, it’s been sampled more than 60 times, including again by PRT in ‘91.
The subsequent samples are all vocal, and together they form the titular refrain. The fragmented sound is due to the sampling, which builds the four-word phrase from three seperate sources.
First up is Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, who tells DJ Terminator X to “rock that shit, homie!” It’s one of those samples that just makes sense: Flav is the gold standard when it comes to hypemen.
Another sample that’s both sonically effective and thematically in tune, the “funky” element of the sonic collage comes from James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad).” Who better to utter the words “funky” than the Godfather himself?
“Funky President” wasn’t quite as glowing as the title makes it sound: though Brown was undoubtedly a fan of funk, the track uses the word to deride Ford following Nixon’s resignation.
A third pitch-perfect flip comes courtesy of Funky 4+1, an old school hip hop quintet. “That’s The Joint” was released in 1980, just one year after “Rapper’s Delight,” on Sugar Hill Records. It was their debut single and, as such, the first track from a hip hop group to feature a female emcee.
The word “joint” has been a staple of hip hop for as long as it’s been on wax: Big Bank Hank spits it on “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip hop hit.
At this point in the record, it’s probably time to clarify one of PRT’s most interesting terms: “butt naked booty stinking.” In the hands of a lesser group, it might mean as it reads, but PRT use the word to refer to “stripped down and raw,” as in “the naked truth.”
If you didn’t sample James Brown at least a handful of times, were you even making golden age hip hop records? It’s not a criticism in the slightest: Brown’s palette, which favoured extended instrumental passages and drum breaks, is arguably the cornerstone of sampling itself.
“Mind Power” was included on 1973’s The Payback, one of Brown’s most lauded efforts, and has been sampled a good 60 or so times.
Gil Scott-Heron was an artist and poet now widely considered one of the forefathers of hip hop.
Though he played on Gil’s first two records, between ‘74 and ‘80, keyboardist Brain Jackson shared primary artist credit with Gil on all his releases. “H2Ogate Blues,” from which Tony D samples “for example, there is the I-ain't-got-me-no-money blues,” appeared on 1974’s Winter in America, the first of their credited collaborations.
The soundbite of Scott-Heron’s bluesy spoken word is followed by the very opposite: an uplifting crescendo of singing voices. This tonal shift is executed with a little help from Earth, Wind & Fire, the famous funk/R&B/disco outfit.
They released “Getaway,” the titular phrase from which is sampled here, on 1976’s Spirit, their well-received seventh studio LP. Tony D was the second to sample it, following UTFO in ‘89.
“Holy Intellect” is interesting, in that it features two samples from groups who’ve already appeared on the record: Earth, Wind & Fire and War. When “Rock Dis Funky Joint” blew up as a single, War wanted a payout, but the flip on “Holy Intellect” never became a problem.
War released “Good, Good Feelin’” as the lead single from 1979’s The Music Band, the first instalment in a two-album series. It just missed out on hitting the Billboard 100, a sign of the group’s waning popularity.
Whilst it’s fairly obvious that Tony D is a fan of sampling from War’s catalogue, this break illustrates just how inspired he was: this, according to WhoSampled, is the first sample of the ‘79 cut.
Wild Style is a classic slice of history: as the first hip hop film, it straddles the line between fact and fiction, casting real-life artists in narrative roles and documenting genuine performances from notable emcees. The 1983 OST is a staple in its own right.
Tony takes an oft-borrowed vocal phrase from “Fantastic Freaks at The Dixie” - “turn it up!” - and inserts it at 1:02. You might recognise it from Public Enemy’s “Bring The Noise,” released a year earlier.
“Devotion,” a minor hit for Earth, Wind and Fire in 1974, later featured on 1975’s live album, Gratitude. It’s that version that Tony D flips on “Holy Intellect,” pulling the chanted phrase of “clap your hands!”
Gratitude would ultimately net EW&F a Best Soul Album Grammy, and the live version of “Devotion” has been sampled by acts such as 2 Live Crew, Geto Boys, Leaders of the New School, Naughty by Nature and Drake.
There are two tracks that share nigh-identical titles: “Shakiyla,” the ballad featured on Holy Intellect, and “Shakiyla [JRH],” the more energetic cut from PRT’s second album, Pure Poverty. The former, which we’re looking at here, is an ethereal love song backed by a sample from P-Funk affiliates Zapp.
“Be Alright” was the second single from Zapp’s self-titled debut. The song, along with the rest of the record, was produced by JB alumni and P-Funk legend Bootsy Collins. The record was a defining electro-funk hit, and played a large role in the rise of G-Funk over a decade later.
WhoSampled lists this as the first sample of the track in hip hop history. It would go on to back Tupac’s anti-misogyny classic, “Keep Ya Head Up.”
“Time to Say Peace”
The b-side to PRT’s first 12”, “Time To Say Peace” was originally released way back in 1988. There were some small changes made to the final product - namely, the removal of an introduction that interpolated an element of Asa Phillip Randolph’s introduction for Martin Luther King at his 1963 I Have A Dream address - but the general gist remains the same.
The commanding voice that cuts through that horn sample - “bass!” - belongs to none other than Just-Ice, a mid-to-late ‘80s emcee from the Bronx. Just-Ice cut an imposing figure - he used to be a bouncer - and his hardcore raps were unique, predating the explosion of gangsta rap on the West Coast.
“Going Way Back” was included on ‘87s Kool & Deadly, Ice’s sophomore effort.
Where do those uplifting harmonies at 1:26 come from? Good question: they’re lifted from the acapella rendition of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life,” a 1989 R&B hit. The acapella version was actually the album edit - instruments were added for the single.
“Medley: Style Dropped / Lessons Taught”
Though one vocal sample - “this is a message from a black man” - remains unidentified, it’s a phrase reminiscent of Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America, a 1965 text by the founder of the Nation of Islam.
The distinctive drum/vocal combination that underpins Culture Freedom’s opening narration is the work of Eddie Kendricks, a soul singer and onetime member of The Temptations.
“Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” was released as the third single from the breakout LP, and has since been considered an early example of disco music. My personal favourite Kendrick sample is “My People, Hold On,” flipped on Dilla’s “People.”
You might have a hunch as to where Tony D sourced these soft backing vocals: Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” acapella.
It’s no surprise that these samples are proving so popular. Not only was their 1989 album one of the defining R&B efforts of the year, but it included this acapella rendition, which is easy to isolate for clean, vocal-only elements. Marley Marl flipped the very same track on 1990’s “Back To Reality.”
By All Means Necessary, the 1988 sophomore LP from Boogie Down Productions, found emcee KRS-One occupying the role of the ‘Teacher’ in the wake of DJ Scott La Rock’s death. We broke it down last year as a part of our 1988 series.
Tony D pulls the titular phrase - “by all means necessary” - from “Necessary,” the spoken word track that closes out the record. Both the phrase and the cover art are modelled on Malcolm X.
“Speaking Upon a Blackman”
The first of two tracks produced by Eric ‘IQ’ Gray, “Speaking Upon A Blackman” is Wise’s favourite track on the record. Gray is an interesting artist: born in Trenton, he produced two tracks for PRT before signing with Sub-Up-Records - who are based in Munich, Germany - and releasing two studio LPs.
You know a sample is obscure when it’s hard to find a video for online: Mel Brown’s “Good Stuff” proved challenging, and I only found a video that combined two tracks off 1971’s Mel Brown’s Fifth.
Brown was an American blues guitarist and vocalist who recorded 13 solo albums prior to his 2009 death from emphysema. Born in Mississippi to a musical father, he would go on to play as sideman to BB King and T-Bone Walker.
Tony D expertly juxtaposes two seperate vocal samples from Main Ingredient’s “Black Seeds Keep on Growing” to form a new phrase. He lifts a segment at 0:05 - “tell the real story” - and prefaces it with a subsequent passage from 0:17 - “you, black man!” - to create the phrase at 0:36 on “Speaking Upon a Blackman.”
This track later appeared in 2003’s Tupac Resurrection, a documentary about the emcee.
“So Many Teachers”
Boasting one of the slower and more ambient instrumentals, “So Many Teachers” finds Wise and Culture shouting out the wisdom of some legends whilst extolling the benefits of teaching, learning and unity. In the words of Wise himself: “… our people need some leaders and some positivity!”
There’s two distinct musical phrases looped throughout “So Many Teachers,” and both are sourced from Millie Jackson’s 1975 track, “Tell Her It’s Over.” The Georgia-born singer-songwriter made waves when she moved to NYC, launching a career that would earn her six Gold certifications.
The ethereal vocals are sourced from a section beginning at 0:54, whilst the instrumental underpinning the verse comes from 2:54.
“Word From The Wise”
The second of the two cuts produced by Eric I.Q. Gray, “Word From The Wise” finds Wise Intelligent waxing poetic all on his lonesome. His verses are intercut with fragments of speeches: the first, as discussed below, is a late oration from Malcolm X, and the second, which we’ve yet to fully identify, seems like a Farrakhan speech on the power of unity.
If you’re someone who considers themselves to be well-versed in the golden age, you’ll probably recognise this tight little lick that runs through “Word From The Wise.” It’s taken from James Brown’s “The Boss,” the centrepiece to his Black Caesar OST.
“One of the first things I think young people,” starts Malcolm X in this particular recording, “especially nowadays should learn how to do, is think for yourself and listen for yourself…”
This speech, delivered to teens in Mississippi, fell just a month and a half before the influential thinker was assassinated. The speech was first issued in ‘68, but Tony D’s flip is apparently the one and only sample of this particular oration.
If you had to pick a hip hop act that captured the outspoken, Afrocentric, anti-establishment ethos of Malcolm X, then Public Enemy would be a lead contender. The Chuck D-led outfit incensed the status quo with their unabashed political views and unfaltering dedication to the promotion of African-American voices.
Tony pulls Chuck D’s commanding vocal as he announces: “the problem is this!”
“Butt Naked Booty Blues”
One of my favourite tracks on the album, “Butt Naked Booty Blues” boasts a propulsive percussion sample atop a simple, repeating two-note phrase. It’s so simple that it isolates the vocal performances, putting the spotlight on the lyrical trappings of Wise and Culture - that is, until the horn-laden hook arrives.
One of the things that makes this such an interesting sample - besides the compelling percussion it makes use of - is that it uses a universally-known song but eschews the elements that would prove most recognisable.
“Poor Righteous Teachers”
In Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique, Tony talks about a reversed drum sample from another Quincy Jones track, but that hasn’t yet been identified. Nonetheless, the crux of the instrumental - also courtesy of Jones - is plain for all to see.
“Gula Matari” was the 13-minute centrepiece from Quincy Jones’ 1970 jazz album of the same name. It was the only cut on the four-track LP written by Jones. The record featured a swathe of big name jazz artists, including Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Freddie Hubbard and Milt Jackson.
What followed Holy Intellect can only be described as one of the hottest runs in hip hop history - if not in commercial success, then certainly in critical reverence. Holy Intellect itself was a huge success, and whilst Profile hasn’t done much to clarify sales, it’s safe to say that the record has shipped over half a million copies. It turned the group into underground stalwarts overnight, making PRT the chief hip hop outfit in Trenton and Tony D a sought after producer.
The group’s second album, Pure Poverty, was released in 1991. Though a 14-month turnaround could be taken as a sign of half-assed hype chasing, the record proved anything but: it became the trio’s second critical darling. It also helped substantiate Tony D’s national reputation as a producer, as he again helmed the entirety of the project for the posse.
1993’s Black Business brought the group’s Five Percenter beliefs to the forefront: whilst it had always been a dominant force in their lyrics, Black Business featured religious iconography on the album cover itself, a bold and unconventional move. The album was - you guessed it - warmly received by critics, even if such reception wasn’t reflected in the sales figures. It also featured a marked change in the creative process, as Poor Righteous Teachers themselves were credited as the sole producers on seven tracks. Culture Freedom produced “None Can Test” on his own, whilst Tony D - once the chief architect of their sound - earned four credits. It would mark his last time producing for the group.
It was another three years still before their fourth record, The New World Order, arrived. Though it eschewed entirely internal production for collaborations with Ezo Brown, KRS-One and DJ Clark Kent, much of the record was credited to either PRT DJ Father Shaheed and emcee-turned-producer Culture Freedom. Guests included members of X-Clan, who’d all but disbanded in the late ‘90s, as well as The Fugees, Nine and Wyclef Jean. The album failed to crack the Billboard 200, and the lead single, “Word Iz Life,” only just broke in at #50 on the Hot Rap Singles chart. Even though the record proved another critical success, the failure to convert praise into units must have proved disheartening for the trio. It’s not surprising that The New World Order would be their final LP.
Wise Intelligent, however, disputes that reading. “PRT never ‘broke up,’” he told San Fransisco Bayview in 2011. “Upon getting caught up in the business of making music with Profile Records, each of us decided it a good time to get off some individual and personal projects. So we did. Culture Freedom has Cult Free Music, Father Shaheed has Fugitive Entertainment, and I’m establishing Intelligent Muzik Group and a couple other companies.” He also mentioned recording verses for what would be a fifth PRT record, but an untimely death seems to have put that project on hold.
Father Shaheed died in a motorcycle accident on Memorial Day Weekend in 2014. “This hurts beyond the head, heart and stomach,” tweeted Wise Intelligent. “This pain cuts deep into the souls of who we are. We were more than just a "rap group" and Shaheed was more than just a member and brilliant DJ/producer. He was a great human being, a loyal friend, a great father, a great brother, a damn good son, and a committed husband.” The motorcycle rider charged with causing the crash plead guilty to criminally negligent homicide in 2014. He was riding on a revoked license at the time.
Shaheed’s death followed the passing of Tony D who, though he’d not collaborated with PRT since the mid-’90s, remained a pivotal part of the group’s story. The 42-year-old lost control of his car near his New Jersey home and, not wearing a seatbelt, died soon after being admitted to the hospital. “I think I pioneered the use of vocal samples in hip-hop,” recalled Tony in the months before his death. “No one was really using samples or loops that had a Tony voice in it until I did that.” Though a rapper in his own right, even Tony knew that his legacy was cemented behind the scenes as a versatile, influential producer.
If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that you can never stop learning about yourself, the world around you and the interactions between the two. The spirit of the Poor Righteous Teachers lives on with each and every lesson learned, though they’d prefer you got down to their funky treatises at the same time. Hip hop promoting morals, virtues and the knowledge of self? That’s truly the best of both worlds.