Gang Starr. Photo credit: Mika Väisänen in Creative Commons

Intelligent hoodlum, pt. 1

7 mins read
The Intelligent Hoodlum relates to the streets
Cause the past stays on my back to remind me
Intelligence is what you gain when you find me…
          —Intelligent Hoodlum (aka Tragedy Khadafi), Intelligent Hoodlum (1990)

Me and my man Charles decided to go the Tunnel early this particularly Friday night.

The legendary Manhattan nightclub, which in 1989, was known for DJs playing the jumpy, fast-paced sounds called house music on Friday nights. Yet, in order to attract party goers who love house music and hip-hop, the Tunnel would promote “Hip-House Night.”

Young Black & Latino men and women from the city, the outer boroughs, Long Island and New Jersey, would make weekly treks to the Tunnel, or to the neighboring Sound Factory, which was located just up the block on West 27th Street. But what separated The Tunnel from the Sound Factory, was that they played hip-hop; and for many for us, though house music was the new dance music craze, we were still hip-hop junkies.

It was a little after 10 pm when me and the homie were walking down West 27th Street towards the corner of 12th Avenue near the Tunnel. We thought were going to be the first ones on line, but a couple of dudes beat us to the punch and arrived minutes before we did.

The club had not opened yet, and the bouncers began setting up the velvet rope for general admission and the guest list line. Me and Charles went on the guest list line because Flatbush, Brooklyn rapper, Special Ed was slated to perform that night, and we were invited by Ed’s bodyguard, who was our homie Big Ray from around the way.

As we entered the line for the guest list, there were about three or four brothers ahead of us. When the shorter brother of group turned around towards our direction, I instantly recognized him. The brother saw the Black Power medallion hanging from a leather-vined rope that I was rocking over my long-sleeved, multicolored Izod Polo and small button of Malcolm X pinned on the left side of my sweater. The brother said: “Peace to the gods…I’m Keith E.E., the Guru…”

I replied, “Peace god, you’re a part of Gangstarr, and I think “Words That I Manifest” joint is dope brother!

Guru replied with thanks, and then introduced me to his crew; Tommy Hill, Gusmo, and I think Black (who was one of the main characters for the video, “Just To Get A Rep;” also known as DJ Vic Black), was with them too — who are known to most hip-hop aficionados from interviews, video appearances and album covers, as members of the “Gangstarr Foundation,” a collective of rappers led by the group, Gangstarr.

I introduced Guru and the brothers to my man Chuck, and then we began to build for 5 to 10 minutes; mostly about rap music and the state of Black people. What I remember about our build was though Guru and the small crew was screamed Brooklyn in demeanor and apparel, comprising of BK neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and East New York, Guru was extremely intellectual and humble. An intelligent hoodlum.

The Rise of the Gods

The “intelligent hoodlum,” was a style and sociocultural reaction of Black and Latino men in New York City, that really began to take root around the mid-1970s.

As the Black Power movement waned, highlighted by the fracturing of the Black Panther Party which was due to governmental forces via the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and internal conflicts along with the death of the leader of the Nation of Islam, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in 1975. From this, Black liberation politics found itself at a crossroads.

The United States was in the throes of an economic depression, and New York City felt the brunt of the weak economic state.

The scaling back of cultural and educational programs, along with many social services, left poor and working-class citizenry severely affected.

Yet during this time, young people who were influenced by the politics of the day, as well as Blaxploitation movies, and the music and associated fashion exhibited weekly via television sets through shows like Soul Train, converged all of the aforementioned influences, through an emerging music force emanating out of the Bronx, N.Y. which came to be known as “hip-hop.”

The triumvirate who led this cultural movement were DJ Kool Herc, affectionately known as the “Father of Hip-Hop, who is from the West Bronx. Next came the technically innovating, DJ Grandmaster Flash, from the South Bronx, backed by the powerful spinoff crew from the larger Black Spades gang, The Casanovas, and founder of the legendary pioneering hip-hop group, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five.

Last, but not least, is the “master of records,” and the man widely credited for culturally codifying the elements of this hybrid, Black youth culture, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, and his organization, which was also a spinoff of the Black Spades gang, the Almighty Zulu Nation.

Moreover, there was another youth movement in New York City gaining a foothold amongst Black youth, that constituted a hybrid — part the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and part the allure of the “street life” — known to many as the 5 Percent Nation (today known as the Nation of Gods and Earths). It is this movement that is largely responsible for the style and philosophy of the “intelligent hoodlum” ethos that has permeated hip-hop culture since the late 1970s.

As the gang era was beginning to die down in New York City in the mid-1970s, many splintered crews and organizations were beginning to spin-off from the larger gangs. This presented an opportunity for young men to showcase their individuality, and the 5 Percent Nation was the perfect platform for young brothers to reflect “royalty” and “being down” at the same time.

Nation of the Gods and Earths

Founded sometime between 1963 and 1965 by former Nation of Islam member, Clarence Jowars 13 X Smith (brother Clarence, who is also affectionately known as “the Father,”) in Harlem, the 5 Percent Nation has a lot of controversy surrounding its founder, their relationship to the Nation of Islam, the stereotypes and public persona surrounding members claiming affiliation to the group, not to mention its socio-religious philosophy.

Their teachings derive from the 120 Degree Lessons, which is a revision of the Supreme Wisdom Lessons by Nation of Islam founder, Master Fard Muhammad, that were given to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the NOI successor and leader after Fard Muhammad. In the Lessons, the foundational core of its teachings is “the Black man is god, whose proper name is “Allah.” It is taught the Black man is “god by nature,” and 5 Percenters must memorize the lessons (which comprise of Supreme Mathematics, Supreme Alphabet, etc.) and use the principles of the lessons as their daily guide on how one should conduct themselves and their lifestyle.

One of the main identifiers of 5 Percent Nation is that it is less structured than the Nation, as there is no hierarchical leadership. Elder 5 Percenters are addressed with the honorific, colloquial title, “older god/older gods.” These men, particularly those who were initiated into the organization by way of the founder (“the father”), or by the Father’s right hand man, Justice, have been known to settle disputes (both internally and externally), organize events and be a part of local leadership outside of the organization, and provide instruction to young initiates.

However, to date, there are no internal mechanisms or institutional checks and balances governing the lives of members of the 5 Percent Nation. The gods are pretty much “left to their own devices,” with the lessons as the primary source for self-governance and discipline. As a result, the 5 Percent Nation is viewed more as a “philosophy” than a religion, or religious organization.

Gang Starr, Daily Operation (1992)


This perceived lack of cohesion can lead to multiple interpretations amongst members, where the public perception of the brothers claiming “god-body” has bordered on extremes; illegal, gangster-like activities to fanatical diligence to a positive way of life based on the lessons. Yet, most of the adherents of the 5 Percent Nation lie somewhere in between those philosophical paradigms; out of which informed the style and social outlook of many young Black and Latino men within New York City, and cities within the Northeast and beyond.

Being “street” and intellectual, is the hallmark in presentation being a 5 Percenter. Whether a brother was rocking a kufi and tassel with his leather bomber coat, or the Universal Flag lapel pin on their Ralph Lauren Polo Rugby sweater, the god-body wanted to let you know that he was and is, “down by law” on the street and intelligence level. This is what Guru represented and manifested, pre-Nas and pre-Wu Tang Clan.

Brand Nubian, One for All (1990)

Though hip-hop group, Brand Nubian, came out the same time as Gangstarr (1989), it is this writer’s opinion that Guru embraced the street ethos more than Brand Nubian, though Brand Nubian perfectly captured and presented the style of the “intelligent hoodlum,” almost better than anyone else in hip-hop. The album that encapsulated the “intelligent hoodlum” life was Gangstarr’s “Daily Operation” album (1992).

It was not just Guru’s prolific monotone voice or his grounded, witty lyricism that meshed Brooklyn street life, the philosophy of the gods with his Morehouse College education. Simple and plainly, it was the album cover artwork! The cover features a portrait of Malcolm X hanging on the wall over DJ Premier who is smoking a cigar while manning the turntables.

Also, prominently within the album photography is the book, Message to The Blackman, by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, in between a typewriter and a slightly ajar suitcase with stacks of bundled money in it. And Guru is prominently placed in the front of all the iconography, replete with a gold chain and a hanging pyramid medallion. What better visual of the “intelligent hoodlum” than that!

Much of hip-hop today reflects a dearth of the intelligent hoodlum. Rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, J-Cole, Joey Badass and A$AP Rocky may reflect aspects of one or the other, but not the comprehensive packages that were prevalent in much of the content of rap music from the late 1980s towards the early 2000s where emcees such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, and etc. put their own stylized spin and added another level of refinement on the concept.

What is missing currently, is a projection of an enlightened man as the cultural “M.O.” (modus operandi) for many average brothers on the street.

The intelligent hoodlum — in presentation/style and sociopolitical outlook — still informs much of who I am today, though there are some flaws within the attitude that has negative effects on our psycho-emotional health, employment/entrepreneurial prospects and male-female relationships, just to name a few.

Fahiym Abdul-Wasi is a long time journalist and former editor for The Source. Now an academic advisor at NYU, he covers hip-hop and masculinity

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