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Schooly D’s ‘Signifying Rapper’

-Click here to download ‘Signifying Rapper’.

A decade before Puffy got Jimmy Page to recreate his own riff for the ‘Godzilla’ soundtrack, Schooly D got some guitar player named Mike Tyler and some drummer named Andy Kravitz to recreate Jimmy Page’s ‘Kashmir’ riff for ‘Signifying Rapper’. Movie director and friend of Schooly D Abel Ferrara, says here that ‘Signifying Rapper’ is “50 million times better than ‘Kashmir” and I uh, sort of agree (the best Zep song is ‘Fool In the Rain’ but you already know that…).

The replayed riff is as bad-ass as Zep’s proto-Metal but it lacks the pretension and adds some funk that makes it sound like the Bad Brains covering Zeppelin, which fits Schooly’s sound and rage more appropriately than if he were to have sampled the actual song. The repetition overwhelms you in a way that the original, because it breaks out or changes due to its adherence to musicality, cannot. There’s nothing elegant about ‘Signifying Rapper’s “beat” and Schooly D’s not really rapping, he’s just shouting (it’s ordered shouting, which is rapping but you get my point) a tale of a “little rapper” who stands-up to a “bad-ass pimp”.

The sort of catch of the song (and the reason David Foster Wallace named a book after the song) is that it addresss “signifying” which is referred to with frequency in the African-American tradition but also the sort of shit Roland Barthes and other literary types talked about. Real quick because it’s not that interesting and sort of obvious- the rapper who insults the pimp is insulting the pimp through another rapper (who will later actually kick the pimp’s ass). The rapper confronting the pimp is “signifying” what “this big bad, faggot” rapper is going to say to him when he confronts him. There’s also the double-signifying of the signifying rapper using the pimp’s insult of “faggot” to describe the big bad rapper. It’s not interesting that a rapper would know about “signifying” but it is interesting that he would openly refer to it. Rap often shies away from being so overtly intellectual but Schooly pulls it off because the song itself is about the signifying rapper; you don’t need to get what that means or entails to enjoy the song…

But I said that wasn’t that interesting, right? And it’s not because the real thing about this song is that it fucking rules. As I said, the “beat” is heavy like Zeppelin but tougher and scarier due to repetition and the rawness of the recording. It just starts and goes and goes for almost five minutes only letting up for the final line: “I shoulda kicked your ass/My motherfuckin’ self”. Schooly is technically rapping, you can break the lines down and everything- but the storytelling aspect of his delivery takes over. He moves in and out of emotions, performing different voices, and he shifts his cadence to match the tone of the story rather than the beat. It’s just fucking awesome. Drive around to it, you’ll see.

I mentioned this book above and I talked about it here and I do recommend the book even though its intellectualism can be grating and it often feels more bemused by rap than appreciative (the original wigsters?). Nevertheless, it also bursts with enthusiasm, even if it’s the kind of enthusiasm that makes one spout out postmodern theory. Wallace really gets the song and sums up its point well:
“a person, even if small, marginal, and oppressed, can still say pretty much whatever he likes to whomever he wishes, and do it with impunity, so long as he has enough ball to present what’s said as a message…a delivery from the heart and mouth of some Other”(78)

What troubles me about Wallace’s intellectual interest in rap is that it sucks the life out of the song. Can’t you just imagine, even today, a Professor being incredibly “intriqued” (my god, they’re always fucking intriqued) by a rap song that makes the signs and signifiers of rap so explicit as when Schooly says “Remember that law?/When you had to put your shades on to be cool?”. This intellectualism too, permits Schooly to say stuff like “She so low/She suck the dick of a little maggot…”. It is excused because Schooly knows what “signifying” is but also because the signifying even extends to Schooly and sensitive, intellectual types can see Schooly as only the deliverer of these insults (which he is and isn’t and is and isn’t and is again); he’s not gasp- actually saying faggot. Well, fuck that, that’s why the song is good and why rap is better than anything else ever made (pretty much). It can be really “smart” and actually smart and dumb all at the same time! Wrap your head around that Bill O’Reilly…

Last week, I watched Abel Ferrara’s ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ which originally featured ‘Signifying Rapper’ in three different scenes. I say originally because at some point after the theatrical release and home video release, Jimmy Page heard his riff on ‘Signifying Rapper’ and sued. Subsequently, the song was removed. I could explain it but Abel Ferrrara does a much better job in this interview:

“Oh, yeah. I’ll strangle that cocksucker Jimmy Page. As if every fucking lick that guy ever played didn’t come off a Robert Johnson album. “Signifying Rapper” was out for five years, and there wasn’t a problem. Then the film had already been out for two years and they start bitching about it. And these pricks, when their attorneys are on the job, our guys are afraid to come out of their office. You’re not gonna fight their fucking warriors, you know what I mean? Can you imagine, this was down at a federal court in New York, with a 70-year-old judge, and they’re playing Schoolly D and Led Zeppelin to the guy? It cost Schoolly like $50,000. It was a nightmare. And meanwhile, “Signifying Rapper” is 50 million times better than “Kashmir” ever thought of being. And then, this prick [Page] turns around with Puff Daddy and redoes it for the Godzilla soundtrack. Here’s Puff Daddy, where every other song this boy sang was King Of New York this and King Of New York that. And I would never even fucking think of suing these guys. Why sue? You should be happy that somebody is paying homage to your work.”

Lots of good points there. First, there’s the whole aspect of what “sampling” really means? Wasn’t Page “sampling” Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson and others? Yes, Willie Dixon sued his ass at some point, making Page’s suit even more retarded. Schooly D was certainly commenting on this when he decided to base a song around ‘Kashmir’; He’s smart like that, remember? I’m also confused as to how it is illegal to re-play something on a record like that? Isn’t that how sample laws are avoided? Maybe a reader can explain it to me?

Second, it’s messed-up because it seems directly related to Page playing on ‘Come With Me’. To me, it seems as if ‘Signifying Rapper’ was wiped away as not to somehow compete or co-exist with Puffy’s ‘Kashmir’-sampling track. It becomes particularly egregious as if someone really had a grudge against Ferrara because of course, Biggie called himself “Black Frank White” in reference to Ferrara’s hip-hop classic ‘King of New York’.

Third, the absence of ‘Signifying Rapper’ in ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ is felt. I rented the DVD and only reading about the movie later, did I find out about the Schooly D music. I was lucky enough to grab an old VHS copy from a local video store that still has ‘Signifying Rapper’ in the scene. It doesn’t totally change the movie or anything but it certainly shifts the context of certain scenes and broadens some of the movie’s points.

Scene One: “Get Back, Police Activity”

As the Lieutenant runs down the street, the Zep rip-off riffs of ‘Signifying Rapper’ play. A group of young black kids, one of which just handed off drugs to a moving car, run away from the Lieutenant. He chases one into an apartment and at the top of the steps, the chase stops. It was a ruse; the Lieutenant is a customer (and occasional supplier). The scene also shows the movie’s dark humor as the Lieutenant shuts up a complaining neighbor between hits from a crack pipe.

At first, you hear the super-identifiable ‘Kashmir’ riff and it maybe reads like some bad-ass theme for the white cop. Then, Schooly comes in and the song becomes a typical, Hollywood “ghetto” atmosphere-setting song (play rap when white characters go to a black area). Then…once the Lieutenant is shown to be pretty much the same (only way worse of a person) than the dealer, the song sort of becomes the Lieutenant’s theme. This would be missed or ignored for most viewers then because even today, rap music is rarely used in relation to white characters for anything other than irony (exceptions: ‘Boiler Room’ & ‘Office Space’).

Below is the scene without the Schooly D (presumably ripped from a DVD)…

Scene Two: The Rape of the Nun
One of the best thing about the movie is that it is essentially plotless, structured around a couple of days in the life of this self-destructive Lieutenant. Yet, it has some threads that hold it together and one of them is the investigation by the Lieutenant of the rape of a nun.

Ferrara plays the rape out fairly respectfully. Although it is explicit, it is not gratuitous and it has an over-stylized feeling to it. A Virgin Mary falls in slow-motion. The entire scene is bathed in red light. It’s sort of surreal and kind of reminded me of Alex’s biblical sex fantasies from ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Originally, this scene was accompanied by ‘Signifying Rapper’ but in the DVD, it is replaced with classical music. This is a real shame because the super-obvious visuals are moved into pretension by the music. In the original version, ‘Signifying Rapper’ acts as counterpoint to the super-serious religious imagery and was meant to complicate the scene and give it one additional shock (besides a nun being raped!).

Scene Three: End Credits
The DVD version ends with a Dylan-esque song called ‘The Bad Lieutenant’ played by Abel Ferrara which gives a very different feeling than ‘Signifying Rapper’. For me, ‘Signifying Rapper’ just kind of feels like the Lieutenant and I think that ending the movie with the song really does sort of solidify it as the Lieutenant’s theme. Imagine leaving the theater to ‘Signifying Rapper’! It becomes a final reminder of the Lieutenant which makes sense because the movie has, while not exactly sympathetic, a non-judgemental perspective on his actions.

The camera is often hand-held bouncing right behind him, nearly subjective. It also captures his explosions of anger as well as his explosions of guilt and regret, so he isn’t just a horrible, remorseless person.

Harvey Keitel gives a really amazing performance, especially when he kind of grimaces and scream-grunts in frustration (see the clip below) like a little kid. You don’t like the Lieutenant in the movie (okay, I did, but there’s something wrong with me) but you’re so close to him for just about every minute in the movie that you can’t help but feel something for him. Ending on ‘Signifying Rapper’ nearly resurrects him one last time as you’re leaving the theater.
-Costello, Mark and David Foster Wallace. ‘Signifying Rappers’. Ecco Press: New York, 1990.

Written by Brandon

August 29th, 2007 at 3:34 am

Posted in Schooly D, film, films

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