It’s such an overused trope now but in 1990, this album shaped the direction of my life
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when almost all your favorite rappers were Five Percenters.
If you’re of my era, you knew of Rakim, King Sun, & Lakim Shabazz, very few people knew or thought of LL as God body.
Nowadays you hear the language everywhere — now cipher (incorrectly, annoyingly, pronounced non cipher), build, cipher, etc.
Back in 2005 when I interviewed Barry Gottehrer (author of The Mayor’s Man, one of the only outsider accounts of Five Percent founder, Clarence 13X) before he passed away, Gottehrer found it hard to believe that the organization still existed.
A large part of it still existing has to to do with Rap music, in the 90s particularly, we’re talking the music of Brand Nubian, and for me, specifically we’re talking One For All, which was released on 4 December 1990.
The only way I can explain the significance of the album is to flash you back to that Fall/Winter of 1990.
Mysister-in-law Melanie refers to me as being ‘wide-eyed’ when I first stepped foot on Clark Atlanta University’s campus and I was indeed that.
I went to high school in Denver and lived in the war zone of Park Hill. A fifteen minute walk from Colorado Boulevard to Grape Street was like a trip through the Walking Dead but instead of zombies we had men and women addicted to crack and the people that supplied it constantly screaming, “you looking?!!”
Sprinkle in tinted windowed Impalas, Broncos, and 6–4s, with gang members rolling their windows down taunting with the question, “where you from,” and that was my daily existence. That and jumping in the tub whenever I heard the spraying of semi-automatic weapons — which was often.
Being in Atlanta, particularly the AUC (which is Clark, Morehouse, Mo Brown, & Spelman) was heaven. I mean that. If I crossed the path of another Brother or Sister, we’d greet each other with peace or a right fist to the chest.
It was the first wave of Sistas wearing their hair natural (in my lifetime), we rocked African medallions, red, black, and green belts, ‘It’s Black Thang You Wouldn’t Understand’ T-shirts, being Afrocentric was a point of pride.
As I wrote here, we read every book that we could get our hands on that dealt with our identity and we discussed those books the same way people discuss their top 5 today. This is what the B-boy and B-girl was like in the Fall of 1990.
Despite that, for the majority of the semester (Sep — Dec), most of us didn’t listen to Rap. I always struggle to think of an album from those first months. I can think of some singles like “Around The Way Girl” or “Bonita Applebaum (Hootie Remix)” beyond that…I gots nothing.
It’s amazing how much time I spent in Club Woody (the nickname we had for Woodruff Library). If I wasn’t working on my school work, I was down in the basement, off to the left, four rows back in the African Religion section.
My main focus was on the African’s relationship with God. I studied the different initiation processes from KMT to the Bantu. I studied the Negative Confessions and how priests would study and learn self until they could control the weather. I read about how the Bantu would study and work to become one with Mantu, the great vital force (as Europeans came to describe it).
No matter the region, the African had an innate connection with nature and nature’s connection with God. Some cultures assigned God’s many attributes to animals causing the European to call the African animist. But that was never truly the case.
A vast majority of the cultures that I read about placed an emphasis on Self-Actualization. It was said that he or she who knew themselves would in turn know the universe — to know the microcosm is to know the macrocosm.
If one could master themselves, they could master the forces around them as they are one with them. Pretty heady stuff. But hella inspiring. The only thing that sounded remotely like that was the stuff I heard this Brother Wise kicking. He talked about man being god.
Mymain objective when I got to college was to become a Jazz Aficionado.
Mo Better Blues came out right before my freshman year in College on August 3, 1990 and songs from the soundtrack played alongside Soul II Soul instrumentals during Coronation and Fashion Show intermissions.
You rolled up on anyone my first semester, they at least had that soundtrack or Miles Davis Kind of Blue. I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted to know everything that I possibly could about the music.
So what a blessing that I went to school in the AUC. We had (and still have) a 24 hour, 7 day a week Jazz Station. WCLK is solely responsible for me learning the kind of Jazz I prefer (modal), finding my favorite trumpet player (Clifford Brown), and learning the different eras of Jazz.
Every night at midnight, the DJ would play “Acknowledgement,” my intro to Coltrane, and he would give the Arabic greetings of As Salaam Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah. This is what I studied to. But on Sundays, I would be looking for something else. That’s how I found WRFG.
If I have to give credit to WCLK for educating me on Jazz, WRFG has to be credited with bringing me back into the Rap-fold. WRFG gave me the same feels that WBLS, KISS, or Power 99 used to give me.
They played 12” B-sides, remixes, bootlegs, songs that I still can’t find. And this was the era for that. Part of what I love so much about Rap between the years 1990 and 1994 are the hundreds of songs found on 12” or cassette single that never made it to an album.
WRFG played all them shits. And they played the hell out of some bootlegs. Years later, that’s where I heard Illmatic for the first time and it’s where I heard Brand Nubian for the first time.
I knew nothing about them when I heard “Brand Nubian” but I knew “Rigor Mortis.” The Jungle Brothers had used the song for the bridge on “Feelin’ Alright” and it was always one of my faves off Cardiac Arrest. It’s one of them Black family cookout jams.
Can’t lose with that sample. But the lyrics stopped me in my tracks:
Make the people aware that Black means first — Four hundreed years and we’re made to feel cursed — But now it’s our time to rule — Student of the old, teacher of the new school — My inspiration is the Five Percent Nation — As I cram, education was born
This is the first verse, delivered by Lord Jamar. (Sadat had an ill flow but rarely kicked that Five Percent shit). In the last verse, Puba offered up these gems:
I bet I’ll swing something this summer for the Benzi — Seep into the mind the brain and activate the pelvis — Keeping the blind, deaf, dumb, and blind is Elvis — Meaning old, so behold (The black, the beautiful, the bold) — Now if this falls short, I’ll try harder — A wisdom to me is someone like Assata
This was so-called conscious Rap very much in the same vein as The Native Tongues. They kicked these verses all within the confines of partying and having fun.
WRFG also played “All For One” and that song completely blew my wig back. Yes Puba and Sadat had ill rhymes but what stuck in my head and what I can never forget is the end of Lord Jamar’s verse:
Not a Dapper Dan fan, I stay casual — To rock like the J it comes gradual — You got to Know the Ledge to Wise the Dumb — And Understand your Culture of Freedom — Power Equally with the Gods — So you can Build and Born your Cipher — All your life you must teach truth — Of the True and Living God, not a mystery spook — And when you do that, pursue that goal — Which made the Student Enroll and only then you’ll prosper
It sounded like he was rapping with code..and he was (“Ragtime” was also played, but we’ll get to that). I wanted to know that code but in 1990…it was not that simple.
Them WRFG jawns were played right before the November break, a couple of weeks later, the album came out. I spent those weeks leading to the album release trying to get my hands on what was called Supreme Mathematics.
Wise was not coming off them. He pushed me off on his ‘Enlightener,’ Wakeel. Wakeel wanted to know if I was trying “to get down.” I ain’t know about all that, I just wanted to see what this Supreme Mathematics looked like.
Now you can Google em and get a gnarled, Frankenstein Math from god knows where. The only way you could get Supreme Mathematics in 1990 was someone had to allow you to copy theirs…and you had to “get down.” Since I wasn’t trying to do that, no dice.
Then the album came out.
The One For All cassette could have been an Al B Sure Nite/Day side type affair. Side One was The Brand Nubian side and Side Two was the Grand Puba Side. Side One was the Knowledge Side, Side Two was the Wisdom Side.
Opening with “All for One” was a good start, “Concerto In X Minor,” Sadat X’s solo, still brings a smile to my face — hearing a Cannonball Adderley sample can do that. Sadat X gave us the flip side narrative to X-Clan’s more militant one as he recounts the Yusuf Hawkins protest.
The protest known as The Day Of Outrage and Mourning was 7,500 people organized to protest the murder of sixteen year old Yusef Hawkins by a white mob. The protest was mired in violence. This is how Robert D. McFadden of the New York Times described the incident:
‘’Over the bridge!’’ someone shouted and the crowd surged forward into the police line. There was pushing and suddenly the clash erupted. Bricks, bottles and other missiles flew at the officers, who responded by swinging night sticks at protesters who tried to push through their ranks. Chief Scott was struck in the right cheek by a missile.
At least 20 police officers sustained injuries ranging from cuts to broken bones, and an unknown number of demonstrators were hurt in the 20-minute melee. Four people, including two photographers, were also arrested as the police kept the protesters off the bridge’s roadways. NYT, Sep 1 1989 pg B4
Brother J described the mind of those protestors, “Fist up to get down, always ready to step — And if they hit me with that stick yo man I’ll break your neck.” But Sadat gave the other version:
Now case in point y’all remember that Brooklyn Bridge joint — When things got wild and willy? — Yeah that day the Feds played the golden bully
Now we knew more were slain and we all felt the pain — of Yusef Hawkins, and they was mad but we was squakin’ — They tried to show a false compassion, yet at the rally — They tried to bash in our brains — Further adding to the bloodstains
I was mad at this news and so was my brothers — And I wanted to get violent but I’m a lover of Black mothers — And Black mothers need sons — Not children that’s been killed by guns
I had never even considered another perspective beyond being militant and violent. Sadat gave a more thoughtful perspective thus succeeding in one of my criteria for a classic — shit made me think.
“Ragtime” sticks out to me because of Grand Puba trying to throw off the scent of the Gap Band telling us if we want a beat like that “check the stack of Otis Redding,” that and Lord Jamar dropping Math again.
“Dance to My Ministry” is still one of my favorite songs, certainly my favorite thing that Lord Jamar has done. It’s a “Bad Tune.” And it’s lessons from top to bottom. Lost Tribe of Shabazz, Quran and 120 is his fuel, 12 Jewels, Show and Prove, Question and Answer Number 17 in Lost Found Muslim Lesson Number 2, the oft used Allah acronym, all that, rhymed fast as hell over a funky beat.
“Drop the Bomb.” Yo, I love reading the Genius annotations for songs like this. The stuff they miss is great and their explanation for things that they think they catch is hilarious. Like, they totally mess up Lord Jamar saying Just I See Equality (Justice) and Equality are must. Got him saying just I seek equality (I can read the twitter argument between me and the person who read and believes in annotations now).
Then, although they correctly point out where a couple of verses came from in the 1–36, they give the simplistic answer of the wrong food being pork but in the context of the song, Lord Jamar is talking about the mental food consumed that has us thinking like slaves. Jamar offers Islam as the solution for that.
Then a separate annotation posits that the Student Enrollment (the 1–10) is a Nation and Gods and Earth lesson which is entirely wrong. First of all, there was no such thing as that organization in 1990, we were Five Percenters or the Five Percent. Second of all, all the lessons originate from the Nation of Islam. Every one who registers in the NOI has to quote the Student Enrollment.
Then the annotator tries to explain Knowledge Knowledge. Just wrong. This same annotator also falsely claims that some of the Supreme Wisdom derives from Masonry…
See what I’m talking about? Before the internet, this type of thing wasn’t even possible. No one would pretend to know. And forbid the thought if they did because they would be confronted, you can bet on that.
If you wanted to know what that was about in 1990, you had to let someone TEACH you. There was no way around it. There was no other way for you to learn that information and that’s part of what made this album so appealing.
I could go through Grand Puba’s verse also but you get the point. I could also go through the whole album but this ain’t that type of party. I’m sure there’s retrospectives out the wazoo about the album. This is about how One For Allchanged my life.
All of the above mentioned led me into learning about the Five Percent, the tipping point was the video for the remix to “Wake Up.”
Brothers are wearing crowns, there’s a huge ass Universal Flag behind Grand Puba as he raps, as well as on the neck of an elder, and on the pin of several people throughout the video. That Black and Gold was mighty attractive and hella magnetic.
Then there’s the lyrics. Without knowing the Lessons, Puba might as well be talking straight jibberish. “The attribute Hagi, Helpful to another God In need, He Allah God Islam…” Wait, what? That’s how the song starts.
“Making sure these travels are twenty-three million miles the other six I set the crucifix…” Ooook.
“Preacher got my old earth putting money in the pan…” Your what?
“I wrote this on the day of wisdom power, all being born to myself — god.”
So on and so forth. I’m sure folks listened to it and either phased the words out or did like we tend to do, made up their own words for what they thought Puba was saying.
After that, Hagi takes us through the 1–36. That’s the whole song. Lessons. With an accompanying video. From that moment on I was determined to learn what the hell Brand Nubian were talking about.
My African studies led me to believe that I could arrive their on my own but Brand Nubian and a verbal duel with Wakeel Allah ended all of that.
For the next ten months I researched everything that I possibly could on the Supreme Mathematics, writing down my own definitions, taking on my own name (Sayyed and myself both did, Zig and Zag, we thought that shit was fly), and hunting down someone to give me the lessons.
No one did.
I had to join. And on 31 Oct 1991, before a Rich’s night shift at Lenox Mall, Wakeel finally let me photocopy his Supreme Mathematics, I memorized the words and definitions that night, found an attribute both in English and Arabic that weekend, got tested that next Monday, was on to my Supreme Alphabets, and finished my lessons by 8 March of 1992.
Brand Nubian made the Five Percent appealing. They were B-boys who could rap but they also dropped knowledge. They were fallible, ‘loved’ women, stylish, a couple of years my senior, they were like us.
When I read people saying that 808 and Heartbreaks changed their lives, I can imagine that it was to them what 3 Feet High and Rising was to me, something that made them feel that it was okay to be themselves. If they’re musicians, I gather that it opened up to them the possibilities of making music outside of Rap and R&B.
But I doubt Kanye changed the whole course of their lives.
The past twenty-six years of my life, the majority of my relationships and experiences (I can RELATE to the opposition the Prophet (saw) faced, and know what it’s like standing on belief in the sight of death), all can be traced to that time in my life, my study, my environment, and the catalyst that was One For All.
I remember once I learned the Lessons, listening to the album with a grin. It all seemed so simple to me. And that was part of what made it so dope. That was the power of Rap.
Learning 120 cracked that album open for me as well as Rakim verses, Poor Righteous Teacher verses, Just-Ice verses, etc. It’s also why people’s so-called conscious albums do nothing for me now, if Brand Nubian was steak, that shit be baby food, but that’s another writing for another day. Peace.