From The Archives

1980-1989: The Awakening of Kool Moe Dee

Rappers make their livings being articulate, and there's no one better to articulate the '80s from an Afrikan, youthful, working hip-hop perspective


A Brother Doin’ 90 Into the ’90s

“I joke with my friends a lot and say I’m responsible for 50 per cent of the rap style that goes on now,” says Harlem-­native Mohandas Dewese.

Idle boast? Mohandas, a/k/a Kool Moe Dee, has the longest continuous ca­reer in hip-hop, has released hit records every year of the decade, and puts out platinum albums today — something no other artist in the genre can claim. His work stretches back before records to hip­-hop’s era of live NY clubs, where he made a name for his use of polysyllabic, esoter­ic, yet soulfully enunciated English. It’s been 10 years since the release of “The New Rap Language,” his recording debut on the B-side of Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap.” Featuring the Treacherous Three — Kool Moe Dee, Special K., L.A. Sunshine — “The New Rap Language” was just that — a futuristic record that shoved the lyrical and percussive possibil­ities of hip-hop right up your auditory canal

Years later, after Go See the Doctor, around How Ya Like Me Now, before Knowledge Is King and his work on Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block, I real­ized that people over the age of thirty-so­methin’ were giving hip-hop an ear. Kool Moe Dee was the reason most often for­warded. “He’s so articulate,” these Es­sence women would gush.

Well, rappers make their livings being articulate, and there’s no one better to articulate the ’80s from an Afrikan, youthful, working hip-hop perspective than Kool Moe Dee. During our conversa­tion, he gave his opinions on a variety of topics: Reagan (“He had a big hate-ap­peal in the Black community”), animal rights (“I have an army of leather… pro­bably 30, 35 suits. It’s definitely begun to mess with me on a value level”), crime (“Engineered, manipulated, and guaran­teed to be here; capitalism is the seed to feed the greed”), Japan (“They have nev­er lost a creative edge”) and AIDS (“Controlled and created… a genocide type of thing”).

I asked why more Afrikan people weren’t forwarding these issues. “You’re talking about African-Americans, right? I think most are concerned with getting themselves in economic power, and everything else is basically secondary.”

And he just talked.

THE WORST TREND of the ’80s was when, maybe around ’85, drug dealers became idols again. I don’t know how it happened, but I definitely felt the vibe where the drug dealer was seen as in. It got to a point where everybody was into having new cars, new kits, things like that.

In the ’70s, there was a big boom, and it didn’t ever really, really die out, but it was not so popular around ’79, ’80, ’81.

And that was the worst trend, because I started to see a whole lot of deaths and shootings and things like that, just on a local, close level. Not the kind you just read about. The kind you hear about from your friend who knew such-and-such, or such-and-such that you knew.

What made this happen? It’s the alter ego of rap. Run-D.M.C.’s explosion in ’85 and ’86, plus the fact that they were wearing gold chains and things, that ev­erybody knew about how much money they were makin’, and that the public followed them.

I mean, I would remember hearing drug dealers say, “Psh. I make more money than them rappin’ m.f.’s.” So, it was almost like a competition type of vibe. And then to be in concert and say to the crowd, “How many homeboys got money in their pockets?” “Ah! Yeah, yeah! I got some money!” It’s that type of focus-on-the-money type of thing.

THE GREATEST NEED for Black people in the next decade is focus. We need to have an agenda on a big level, where everybody knows where they wanna go, and it’s a matter of getting there, as opposed to just being scattered and thinking about what’s going on. Everybody needs to defi­nitely get focused on what it is that he or she wants to be doing, and just apply yourself that way, and work together.

If you know that your brother just bought a clothes store somewhere, even if it’s clothes that you don’t like, you make suggestions. He should then hire people that are in tune with what the kids are doing. So it’s that type of hand-in-hand thing: Giving each other the dollars so it’s a round-robin kind of self-sufficiency.

Look at Black radio, for example. On one hand you have a lot of radio stations that are supporting Black artists. Then on the other hand, you have another 50 per cent of them that are basically Uncle Tom–type of things that won’t play a rap record unless it breaks on a pop station first. There’s a lot of that going on, where we have to feel the politics from our own people, because of their lack of respect. So why be a Black station if you’re going to wait for the Pop to do something with your own people?

Controlling the youth and uplifting the youth is the key to uplifting the race, because the youth controls the system. They are the thought that’s coming. Let them know that, “No, you don’t only have to focus on being a singer or a basketball player. You have a bigger role in this society.” Let them know that there’s more money behind the scenes. You’re not gonna hear a Black guy say, “I wanna grow up and own the Nets.” He wants to grow up and play for the Nets.

I know brothers that coach Riverside Church, and they’re Black coaches and good. They don’t even think, “Why don’t I go to a Big 10 college and apply for the job?” Get the youth thinking on those levels. Broaden their minds to a point where they’re thinking from a 360° level.

THE GREATEST NEED for white people in the next decade is to be more open to the flaws of the system. A lot of white people are, I would say, blindly racist. They don’t know that they’re acting on racism. The system works against Blacks, and it just happens to work for them, they don’t see the flaws.

They’ve never felt the pressure of going to college, getting a degree, and then coming out and still not being able to get a job. I’m talking about on a mass level. They honestly feel this is the way it is: You go to school you get your degree you come out you have a job — and that’s not necessarily the case. A white person might meet an employer, and just not know that this employer is a bigot, and the reason you’re getting this job as op­posed to the Black man is because you’re white. Once you see the relevance of the flaws, then you can relate to a lot of the problems, and a lot of the tension.

WHAT AFFECTED me personally the most in the ’80s were the learning experiences that I’ve gone through with females. My outlook on women is more focused. It’s not cynical or demeaning, and it’s not like a lot of guys feel: “everything is doomed to fail,” “a woman’ll be a wom­an.” I basically learned to take relation­ships in stride, and realized that pain is a part of life. The threat of pain also has implications for the promise of joy.

I’m making a record for Black History Month called “African Queen.” I think the Black woman, in general, doesn’t re­alize her potential power, and how much influence she has over the Black man. The sooner they come to the realization of their royalty, the better off for the race in general. The stronger the Black wom­an makes herself, the stronger that makes the Black man. If it gets to a point where you know a Black woman definite­ly will not deal with a drug dealer because of what he stands for, you will see dra­matic changes.

If Woman gets deep, as deep as they can, and use their power, and sexuality­ — you can use your sexuality in a way with­out cheapening yourself as a woman — ­they can capitalize on the weaker man’s lust for them and get into certain posi­tions. Just like, for example, a Black woman can catch a Yellow Cab down­town before a Black man can. It’s a lot of advantages they have that they need to apply, because together they are more powerful than anything. So women have to basically find themselves, realize their power, not settle for less, and demand more from their men.

Black men have to start respecting Black women for what they are. Stop looking at them as objects for releases of tension, and basically just realize that you are also souls of kings, and you are not supposed to be living the way you are. If you’re dealing with the system like that, you have to find a way to deal with it and use it to your advantage.

If you feel you’re worth a million dol­lars, but the employer only gives you $10,000, you as a Black man, take that $10,000 and turn it into the million that you’re worth. Let’s take our position that we have attained, and turn it into the position that we want. If Arsenio wants to take it to the level and own the station, then focus on that. Work at it. Get your agenda, and figure out a way to get around what you have to do.

THE ARSENIO HALL Show was a perfect forum for more exposure and a perfect chance to expose both of my sides. The fact that I can perform a record shows that I can entertain pretty well, and then to sit on the couch and speak shows that I can articulate and give rap another look, as opposed to the stereotype that they’re used to seeing or perceiving. Which, like I said, there’s nothing really wrong with. But I’m glad to have the opportunity to supply an alternative for all of those brothers and sisters that have pride and want some type of representa­tion on an intellectual level.

THE TAWANA BRAWLEY case affected me deeply. Number one, I believe, definitely, that she was raped. A lot of people let the media dictate the way they think, and a lot of people can’t read between the lines. People don’t remember that, once they’d painted the picture that she was lying, made her the defendant, and started cross-examining her, they put every Black person that didn’t believe it on TV. You had never seen more Blacks on the news. Every single time I turned the TV on, you saw another Black saying, “Well, if she’s telling the truth, why don’t she just tell who did it and get it over with?”

She was not gonna accomplish any­thing. So her power move was not to say anything at all, and basically reverse it to where it had to be public. But I personal­ly feel that because of the people in­volved, there had to be a cover-up, because once you have high-visibility people in the community involved in a case like that, that creates more racial tension, and you have a situation where it’s al­most civil war. And then to go back and admit that they were wrong shows you that you can’t have faith in your judicial system any more. So it’s almost like they can’t let her win, no matter what.

They give information like, “We found carpet fibers on her, and feces on her glove.” Who’s to say she didn’t get raped and taken to her house? Take it to the next level. Who’s to say? What about the fact that the doctor’s report has been lost, that documented she couldn’t re­spond to the most powerful stimuli? What about the fact that that doctor is no longer at that hospital, and nobody knows where he is? What about all of these elements that lead you to suspi­cion? Nobody takes a chance to even think about all o’ that. How fake can you be? How much fakin’ is that? You can’t fake a coma.

I don’t think it’s gonna be put to rest, although they will put it off as long as they can, and keep it out of the media as much as they can. But you know, things are still going on. What they’re also try­ing to do now is discredit her lawyers, so that they have no validity. Whoever comes in and replaces them… who knows? He might be some type of sellout. I think they should just keep going with the case and go ahead with their plan. They’re trying to put her back as the plaintiff, trying to take it to the next level, and go through the appellate court.

NOW WITH Yusuf Hawkins… it’s to the point now where I’m hearing Blacks on the street level say, if they continue to kill Blacks in situations like that, then they’re gonna start randomly doing it to whites. Once you have that happen, you have anarchy. Then nobody’s safe.

HARLEM IS VERY important to me. That’s where I was born, raised, and it has a lot of history in it. In the ’70s, the Loews closed down, and the West End turned into a supermarket, and then a church, or something like that. The Apol­lo closed. And everything just started happening in terms of just letting Harlem deteriorate.

Now, it seems like there’s an interest in rebuilding. The Loews is back open, and the Apollo is back open, and there’s a Black store on that street… I forgot the name of it… right next to the Apollo. (Note: It’s a clothing store called Heaven on Earth, and it is!) There are at least talks of making moves, of buying more businesses in Harlem. The effort is not full-scale yet, but it’s just a matter of getting more of the right, key people­ — with enough dollars to buy it back — to start buying it back. That mentality will definitely be there going into the ’90s.

A lot of people don’t understand how we wound up there, and why they’re try­ing to take it back. They put us in that area and it backfired: they realized it’s easy to get to anywhere in the city from Harlem; it’s much better than driving a car in from Long Island, which was the ideal thing to do. When the mass produc­tion of cars got overwhelming and traffic backed up, Blacks had access to trains that get you downtown in 20 minutes. So it’s like, “Let’s get this place back! This is an ideal place to live, ya know?”

So, a lot of people just don’t under­stand how we got into this situation, and why it deteriorated. Or, should I say, how it was left to be deteriorated.

GOING INTO THE ’80s, I was a little disil­lusioned. I was ignorant to the politics of the system, in terms of the musical realm. I still knew that I definitely want­ed to go to college. I knew that I wanted rap to be more than what it was, and I had faith in it. So, I was more of an idealistic type of person.

Going into the ’90s, I’m much more focused, much more aware, definitely more in tune, and extremely racially con­scious, in terms of the business. I under­stand the politics of life in general much more. I’m awake. I’ve been combusted. ■


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By Nicholas Von Hoffman

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 7, 2020