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Divine Stylers: Rob Turner looks at Five-Percent theology in hiphop in his feature in The Wire 394

November 2016

Hiphop prophets from Wu-Tang Clan to Jay Electronica use Five-Percent theology to reveal New York as a site of holy revelation. By Rob Turner

Mos Def once claimed the reason that human beings are able to become hafiz – and recite the entire Qur’an from memory – is because the book was built up from a pile of rhyming units. “I mean it’s any surah that I could name: “Qul huwa Allahu ahad, Allahu samad/Lam yalid wa lam yulad wa lam yakun lahu kufwan ahad...”.” By his account, there’s a rhyme scheme running through all of it. “And then you start to have a deeper relationship on recitation. Hiphop has the ability to do that on a poetic level.”

The idea of hiphop as a poetics of holiness can be seen in cuts like Jay-Z’s 2013 track “Heaven” (“Arm, leg, leg, arm, head: this is God body”) and his protégé Jay Electronica’s “The Pledge”. In the latter 15 minute beatless track, Jay the Younger unfolds a scriptural vision of himself, “Walking on water with a scroll in my hand/The blueprints for a disc shaped-like vessel/That was chiselled out of metal off the coast of Japan”. The rapper goes on to accounts of Mexican mountain fasts, before encountering the “Asiatic black man from Zion/Quetzalcoatl supreme, lettin’ off steam/Dimethyltryptamine make a man dream”.

His DMT-infused images are drawn from the same sacred well as Jay-Z. During recent performances, both artists have worn Five-Percent Nation medallions – an eight-pointed star with the digit seven in its centre – and the alphabetical and numerical codes of the group are central to their spiritual visions. Jay-Z’s body parts spell out the deity’s name, while the steaming visitor from Zion is the same primordial black man (and god) taught by the faith.

Whether or not the holy book itself is, in fact, a vast book of rhymes, the connection between hiphop and the Five-Percent Nation thrives, almost 50 years on from the assassination of its founder Clarence 13X back in 1969. One explanation for such traces is that Clarence 13X was a proto-rapper, with oratory skills so smooth he was known as Pudding throughout the projects. In his 2001 track “No Idea’s Original”, Nas testifies to the survival of his ideas, words and dietary restrictions during his own childhood: “Ask for today’s mathematics, we Allah’s children/And this was going on in every New York ghetto/Kids listen: Five-Percenters say there’s pork in Jell-O”.

Where Nas was raised among the half-grasped fragments of Five-Percenter teachings, Wu-Tang Clan gathered this heap of material together, splicing it with half-remembered Shaw Brothers films into a new whole. Their tales of New York and environs are superimposed upon the cities of the Middle East, all mapped out according to Clarence 13X’s peculiar guidelines. As a bewildered teenager listening to this stuff, I was led by the ears on a trip through “Mecca” (Harlem), “Medina” (Brooklyn), “the Desert” (Queens), “New Jerusalem” (New Jersey), and kung fu’s spiritual home in Shaolin, China (Staten Island). Realist crime tales were warped by this layer of Biblical abstraction, with Raekwon’s trips “to the stash in New Jerusalem” menaced by “hungry hyenas from Medina” turning into weird pieces of sonic psychogeography.

Writing in Les Lèvres Nues in 1955, Guy Debord had a crack at defining the new fad of psychogeography, an idea he claimed to have stolen from an illiterate Algerian Kabyle. “More or less arbitrarily transposing maps of two different regions,” he mused, “can contribute to clarifying certain wanderings that express not subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influences.” If this revolutionary impulse has fizzled out in the literary field, the Wu-Tang discography promises a true fulfilment of the Kabyle’s occult tactics. “Now come aboard”, as GZA puts it, “It’s Medina bound/Enter the chamber, and it’s a whole different sound/It’s a wide entrance, small exit like a funnel/So deep it’s picked up on radios in tunnels”.

This article is featured in The Wire 394 Spirits Rejoice! issue, alongside Daniel Spicer on Indian Vedic scripture and Transcendental Meditation, Phong Tran on Buddhist ritual chanting in a Ladakh mountain monastery, Tony Rettman on US hardcore and Hare Krishna, Joe Muggs on The Church Of The SubGenius, Louise Gray on Éliane Radigue, Louis Pattison on The Louvin Brothers, Sarah Bryan on gospel in the American South, and much more. Subscribers can read them all via Exact Editions.

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