The 5 Percent Nation's Impact On Hip-Hop's Golden Era
By Jay Quan
Manifesting. Building. Letting knowledge be born. In 1986, urban America (and a growing segment of the rest of the country) was experiencing and repeating the Supreme Mathematics of the 5% Nation of The Gods & Earths. But most of the fans who rhymed along with Rakim that there were “no tricks in ’86 -- it’s time to build" from Eric B & Rakim’s breakout single “Eric B Is President“ had no idea of the meaning behind those words. MC Shan proudly proclaimed in the same year “I got the knowledge to know, the wisdom to speak, the understanding of my rhyme is at its fullest peak." It was primarily youth in New York City and the surrounding Tri-State area who understood why Just-Ice referred to the Bronx as "Pelan" on “Going Way Back," his classic 1987 single with KRS-One. Elements of the 5% have existed in rap music since Se’ Divine The Mastermind and Jus Allah The Superstar of The World Famous Supreme Team sang “Allah & Justice” on radio station WHBI in the early 1980s.
But who are the 5% and what is the 5% Nation of The Gods & Earths?
The 5% Nation is a splinter group of The Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam is a Black American religious movement founded in the 1930s by Master Fard Muhammad (referred to by the Nation’s followers as Allah or God) and Elijah Muhammad – The Messenger of Allah who was chosen by Fard to deliver the Supreme Wisdom (the teachings of Fard) to the NOI members. The Nation of Islam taught financial independence, pride in self and race and that black Americans were God’s chosen people – the original people of the planet Earth. The NOI also taught that the nature of the black man was divine and that of the white man was evil. In the early 1960s, Malcolm X was the national spokesperson for Elijah Muhammad and the NOI. One of Malcolm’s students at Harlem’s Mosque #7 was Clarence 13X Smith (13 denoted that there were 12 other members named Clarence in his mosque and X denoted the unknown Islamic name that Clarence was yet to receive.)
“The name Kane is superior to many people, it means King Asiatic Nobody’s Equal” Somethin’ Funky – Big Daddy Kane 1987
In 1963, Clarence 13X parted with the Nation of Islam over differences in ideology and started his own organization which was based on many of the basic tenets of the NOI. Clarence targeted the youth in Harlem to teach this new way of life. Affectionately referred to by his young followers as The Father, Allah and Father Allah - Clarence called his new movement "The 5% Nation of The Gods & Earths." The first converts of The Father's new theology were called The First Born. 5% derived from the NOI teaching that 10% of the world’s population are wicked blood suckers of the poor, 85% are unaware of the plans of the 10% and that 5% are chosen, enlightened and aware of the plans of the 10%. The 5 percent are also known as the "poor, righteous teachers." The 5% Nation eventually spread to New Jersey & Connecticut in its infancy. The God Freedom Born says “Asbury Park was the first city in Jersey to receive the truth of the 5%. The city was affectionately referred to as Allah’s Paradise because of the ratio of Gods per populous”. Lakim Shabazz states “the 5% were abundant in the Tristate. We were always there!" Where the NOI taught that Master Fard Muhammad was God, the 5% taught that each Black man was God and the lord and master of his own destiny. The Father’s new movement was extremely attractive to impoverished youth and flourished greatly on the streets and in the prisons. The Five Percenters were instrumental in keeping peace in Harlem after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and in 1967 Barry Gottehrer head of New York’s Urban Task Force helped The Father open the Urban League Street Academy -- later known as The Allah School -- In Mecca.
At the core of the 5% theology is the Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabet. The Gods and Earths believe that this system of numbers and letters gives the believer a deeper understanding of themselves and everything around them. The system of the Supreme Mathematics is as follows: 1- Knowledge 2- Wisdom 3- Understanding and so forth (Grand Puba Maxwell sings the full mathematics 0-9 on Brand Nubians Wake Up). If today’s date were the 23rd then todays mathematics would be Wisdom Understanding. Claiming to be a God and not knowing the mathematics of the day could be met with severe consequences.
“Some try to be hard, front and say I’m God don’t know your lessons say ya blessings you’re gonna get scarred” Rikers Island - Kool G Rap 1987
The 5% Nation (as well as the NOI) believes that the world was once known as Asia, and that because the black man is the original man, his proper title is the Asiatic black man – Father of civilization & God of the universe. Men are symbolic to the Sun and Women are symbolic to the Earth. In the Supreme Mathematics the number 7 is the number of God and the number 7 is prominent on the Universal flag of the Nation of Gods & Earths. The 5 % also assigned nicknames to many New York boroughs and neighborhoods. Brooklyn is Medina, Harlem is Mecca, The Bronx is Pelan and Queens is the desert. Members of the 5% Nation are required to master a revised version of the NOI’s Supreme Wisdom called the 120. The 120 are also known as degrees and 120 represents a 3rd of the 360 degrees that compose a cipher. The Gods build (discuss their lessons) in a cipher (a circle of listeners and contributors) and they wear “righteous names” like Understanding, Justice, Divine, Born, Melquan, Freedom etc. The key to what separates the 5% from the “85ers” is knowledge of self, which is a combination of what Master Fard Muhammad revealed to Messenger Elijah Muhammad in the Supreme Wisdom and the teachings of the Father.
Because both Hip-Hop and the 5% Nation were birthed in New York City by underprivileged Black & Latino youth they were bound to cross paths and they crossed paths early in Hip Hops infancy. According to Wakeel Allah’s book “In The Name of Allah Vol.2”, Kool Herc the man credited with birthing Hip Hop by extending instrumental breakdowns of already existing music for B Boys and Girls to dance to was embraced by members of the 5% Nation when he immigrated to the Bronx from Jamaica in 1967. 5 Percenters also acted as security at Herc’s early parties. The World’s Famous Supreme Team which consists of Se’ Divine The Mastermind & Jus Allah The Super Star are widely credited as being among the first Mc’s to inject 5% ideology into their music. On their WHBI radio show World Famous interacted with members of the 5% live on air and they broadcasted their rendition of “Allah & Justice” (Justice was Father Allah’s right-hand man) and “Allah & Justice” is a National Anthem of sorts for the 5% Nation. Just Ice tells me emphatically “I never felt that mathematics should have been a part of rap music. I put math in my music because it’s who I am. I am God Justice Scientific Allah and I am God. I stopped putting math in my rhymes because it started becoming the popular thing to do. I don’t care if your whole family is 5% and you eat, breathe and sleep with the Gods – if you’re not 5% you have no business putting math in your rhymes”. Just Ice (who says that his actual righteous name is Justice and Just Ice is strictly for entertainment) was one of the first MC’s to open and close his songs with what he calls the universal greeting for civilized people – Peace.
Big Daddy Kane (whose name is an acronym for King Asiatic Nobody’s Equal) says that the reason for the emergence of so much 5% mathematics on records in 1986 is because prior to that year, there was a string of poppy records like “The Show" from Doug E. Fresh, Dana Dane's “Nightmares” and “I’ll Take Your Man” by Salt-N-Pepa. “By ’86 there was a shift in consciousness and Public Enemy, KRS One, Queen Latifah and, later, The Poor Righteous Teachers & Brand Nubian were on the scene. Malcolm X once said in a lecture that there is a rise in consciousness amongst the people every 30 years. Malcolm was dead on in his assertion with the 1930s being the period that Master Fard Muhammad, Noble Drew Ali and Marcus Garvey were prominent. In the 1960s the Black Panthers, The Nation of Islam and others were extremely influential. In the 90s Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, The X Clan and King Sun were dominant and in 2021 “woke culture” is popular. Just-Ice offers a simpler reason for consciousness in ’86. “1986 just happens to be the year when many 5% rap artists were signed."
“I take a thought around the world twice from knowledge born back to knowledge precise, across the desert that hot as the Arabian but they couldn’t cave me in ‘cus I’m the As-i-an” The Ghetto – Rakim 1990
The Nation of God’s and Earth’s was not only attractive to rap artists, but young people in general. Rahiem of both The Funky 4 and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 speaks of the R&B group G.Q. and their influence on him. “Sabu Crier the bass player for G.Q. lived in my housing complex and his Father Arthur Crier was the neighborhood musical mentor. Rahiem Leblanc also of G.Q. and his group originally called the Rhythm Makers would perform at block parties around the neighborhood. Because I had aspirations to be a singer I was always upfront at the Rhythm Makers jams, getting techniques from Rahiem. Sabu and Rahiem were both 5% and Rahiem later became my mentor. I was 5% before I met Rahiem and my first righteous name was Amar. I later adopted the name Rahiem from my mentor."
The golden era
It is important to understand that many everyday phrases which have become permanent fixtures in both popular and Hip Hop cultures have their origins in the 5%. Dropping knowledge (and science), Dropping jewels, Word is bond, Word, Cipher, Peace, Building, Seeds (as in offspring) etc, are all phrases that are heavily tied to 5% lexicon. Some 5% artists chose to insert gems into the music that weren’t easily identified with the Nation of Gods and Earths. Se’ Divine spat “live out the first law of nature self preservation, if the show doesn’t help you change the station” on their classic “World’s Famous”. When asked why he didn’t fill his verses with lyrics that were more directly tied to 5% theology Big Daddy Kane said “I took a different approach because I’ve learned that no one likes being preached to. You have to find a connection with people and relate to them on their level. There were great artists like Rakim, Sir Ibu, Poor Righteous Teachers, King Sun and Brand Nubian that were droppin’ lessons in their music and some people related to it and others didn’t. I put a sample of food on the spoon and let the people taste it because too much could cause them to choke”. Rakim dropped math in his music but he combined it with esoteric imagery and in the case of “Follow The Leader” which is one of his most poetic pieces, he turns to the celestial. “Follow me and while you’re thinkin’ you were first, lets travel at magnificent speeds around the universe/ what could you say as the Earth gets further and further away – planets are small as balls of clay/ astray into the milky way worlds outta sight as far as the eye can see not even a satellite/ then stop and turn around and look as you stare into darkness ya’ knowledge is took/so keep starin’ soon you’ll suddenly see a star, you better follow it ‘cus it’s The R.”
Wise Intelligent of New Jersey’s Poor Righteous Teachers incorporated math in his lyrics, delivered in a rapid fire cadence similar to the dancehall artists of the 1990s. Brand Nubian combined 5% theology with social commentary and traditional lyrical prowess making them among the more successful of the 5% artists. On Brand Nubians debut album “One For All” songs like “Who Can Get Busy” where Puba skillfully delivers witty metaphors and punchlines with songs like “Drop The Bomb” and “Wake Up” which are much more politically charged. The video for “Wake Up” contained images that bothered MTV enough for them to ban it. King Sun who debuted on Zakia Records around the same time as his label mate Rakim drew comparisons to Rakim, but where Rakim had an image of mysticism King Sun was more reminiscent of a gangster rapper in his delivery and image.
“Im a slayer rhyme sayer who’s out to kill – progress manifest drop science and build” - Raw Radio Freestyle - Big Daddy Kane 1988
The height of conscious rap's mainstream visibility was from the late 1980s until the mid 90’s. When questioned about the commercial decline, Rahiem asserts that the powers-that-be don’t want an educated listening public.
“Music is very powerful and plays a huge role in the majority of people on the planets everyday lives. The powers that be understand all too well that music can easily and effectively convey positive messages. The 5% epitomized the independent consciousness that was not related to any organized religious group." Big Daddy Kane puts it succinctly. “It was definitely Gangsta Rap that caused the decline. You can’t spit your lessons on a song if you don’t know your lessons and further and more importantly to be convincing you have to believe your lessons. A new generation came in that didn’t necessarily have knowledge of self and it was easy to put a bunch of gold teeth into their mouths and make 'gun' rhyme with 'run' and 'kilo' with 'steelo.' That’s very simple."
Just-Ice is more animated. “Mathematics ended in rap because it was a fuckin’ fad that never belonged there anyway," he yells. "It got played out once 85ers started putting it in their rhymes." Lakim Shabazz holds a different position – “if anything the mathematics in the music gives us more exposure. When the people are exposed to that which they aren’t used to, they ask questions and we can teach them!" Nas, AZ, The Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes and many other acts to name held down the banner of the 5% through rap's commercialization. Jay-Z has been seen donning the Universal Flag and Roc Nation signee Jay Electronica is a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths.