“Self Destruction” is one of the greatest collaborative songs in Hip Hop history. KRS-ONE, lead rapper of Boogie Down Productions, and one of the greatest philosophers of Hip Hop, formed an organization called “The Stop the Violence Movement” in 1987 in response to a concert homicide. What hit even closer to home was the death of BDP’s own DJ Scott LaRock, founding member of the group and a known peace maker in the community. “Self Destruction” was released in early Hip Hop’s golden era in the year of 1989 and featured a who’s who of M.C’s including M.C Lyte, Stetsasonic, Just Ice, Heavy D, Public Enemy, and Kool Moe Dee. It was so successful at capturing the anti violence, Black unity sentiments of the rap community at the time that a similar project entitled, “We’re all in the Same Gang” was put together shortly after this song was released. For those of us who were there at the time “Self Destruction” is one of the ultimate reminders of the fresh, youthful, common sense activism of the golden age of Hip Hop.
The song begins with a sample from one of the primary intellectual fathers of Hip Hop, Malcom X, saying “All of the speakers tonight agree that America has a very serious problem.” Then the beat comes in, riding a large sample from another one of Hip Hop’s fathers, James Brown, taken from Fred Wesley and The J.B’s Nixon era funk classic, “You Can Have Watergate, But Gimmie Some Bucks And I’ll be Straight.” The main bass line from “Watergate” is sampled along with the laid back funk guitar chords of the J.B’s song. This is laid over a hard, slightly shuffling Hip Hop beat. Underneath the beat are powerful 808 drum kicks that play a pattern every other bar, leaving space for the heavy thump to be absorbed. A crashing horn sample is inserted every two bars right on the “One”, highlighting James Brown’s favorite beat. At the end of the cycle snare drums play 8th notes that bring you right back to the top of the arrangement, while the whole group chants, “Self Destruction/ya headed for Self Destruction.” KRS ONE begins his verse with a stripped down drum beat featuring a siren like horn sample. He speaks in the video from a lecture at the Schomburg Museum of Black History in Harlem, New York. KRS’s verse says, “Well/todays’ topic/self destruction/it really ain’t the rap audience/that’s buggin/it’s one or two sucka’s/ignorant brothers/trying to rob and steal from one another.” KRS makes it clear that the Hip Hop community was banding together to address the violence in the Hip Hop community, which was itself a microcosm of the dog eat dog violence in the Black community as a whole, stating “We got ourselves together/so that you could unite/and fight/for whats right.” KRS brings it home with, “The way we live is positve/we don’t kill our relatives.” M.C Delight of Stetsasonic makes it clear that Black on Black violence should be limited going into the 21st Century, saying “M.C Delight here to state the bottom line/all the Black on Black violence/was WAY before our time.”
The O.G rhyme master Kool Moe Dee raps next, delivering one of the most compelling of all the rhymes he ever delivered in his illustrious career, not just for his usual pollysallbic internal rhyming, but for the succintness of his message. He paints a scenario where a man got stabbed while his wife cried “cause he died/a trifling death.” The Moe Dee delivers one of his greatest lines, “Back in the ’60s/our brothers and sisters/were hanged/how can you gang bang?/I never ever ran/from the Ku Klux Klan/and I shouldn’t have to run/from a Blackman!/cause that’s!….” After which the group chants the chorus again. It always amused me how Moe Dee maintained his black superhero persona, slowly bobbing his head with his Geordi LaForge shades on while everybody else rocked to the beat! A sample of Gil Scott Heron counting down to “The Bottle” en espanol leads in to M.C Lyte’s famous “Funky fresh/dressed to impress/ready to party/money in ya pocket/dying to move ya body”. She goes on to describe how parties get turnt out in the hood, as brothers enter the club with drugs, knives and guns. She says “There’s only one disco/dont close one more/you aint gaurding the door/so what you got a gun for?”
Wise and Daddy O of Stetsasonic come up next, delivering a tag team rap in a jail house set over a sample of Donald Byrd’s “Falling Like Dominoes.” They use their verse to lay out the prison repercussions of stealing and tearing down the community. Next up is BDP member D-Nice, who warns that if we don’t get it together, “The rap race will be lost without a trace.” He paraphrases the Black Panther Party saying, “To teach to each/is what rap intended”, then laying down a prescient warning about what would happen to rap if the community did keep it, “but society/wants to invade/so do not walk this path/that they laid, its”. Mrs. Melodie of BDP follows next with encouragement, after which Doug E Fresh raps backed by a drum beat and his own distinctive beat box mouth percussion. Doug E insists, “It dosent make you a big man/and/to wanna go and diss your brotherman.””
Hardcore rapper Just Ice comes next, talking about his own criminal past and saying firmly, “You don’t have to be soft to be for peace.” The late great Heavy D follows Just Ice’s biting flow with his smooth New Jack delivery, saying clearly, “Heavy’s at the door/so there’ll be no/bumrushing!” After which the beat is enhanced by a sample from “Pass the Peas”, which had been immortalized by Eric B & Rakim’s “I Aint No Joke.” Heavy makes a very poignant statement for Black people when he says, “I don’t understand the difficulty, people/love your brother/treat him as equal.” He also addresses racist stereotypes head on, saying, “They call us animals/uhm uhh/I don’t agree with them/I prove ’em wrong/but right is what/you’re proving ’em.” Fruitkwan of Stetsasonic comes on smooth in black gloves rapping about how the penetentiary is the most likely end for those who don’t heed the songs message. This makes way for the masters of political rap, Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, and Chuck delivers one of the most fiery activist orations of his career, “Yes we URGE to merge/we live for love of our people!”, as Flavor Flav provides his agitated interjections. You can hear a snippet of Jesse Jackson’s “Brothers and Sisters”, just as it was used on P.E’s breakout hit, “Rebel without a Pause”, as Clyde Stubblefield’s classic beat from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” also gives you “Rebel” deja vu. Chuck says it’s our job to “Build and collect ourselves with intellect”, as he raps from a radio DJ control booth reminiscent of the one in the movie, “The Warriors”, while Flavor hits dance steps outside. Chuck ends the song with a firm summantion, “To revolve/to evolve/with self respect/cause/WE GOT TO KEEP OURSELVES IN CHECK/or else it’s….”
“Self Destruction” was so strong and so potent in it’s time it formed my perception of what Hip Hop was. 7 years after Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s classic “The Message”, the next wave of M.C’s had transformed rap into a Malcom X quoting, James Brown powered explosion of Black creativity. This era of Hip Hop would essentially die out in 1992 with Dr. Dre’s nihilistic classic, “The Chronic.” But the steps these M.C’s took in their time to use whatever influence they had to steer the community in the right direction will never be forgotten by me and many others who groove to this song. While its now an obvious truth that good music cant stop or overturn the larger economic forces that Black people or any other group face, it’s also admirable for anybody who has a public voice to use it to promote the perpetuation and saftey of human life. Ice Cube would make the ultra pragmatic observation, “Self Destruction don’t pay the f!@#$ng rent” within the next year, but he also would become almost a strict message rapper in the years after this song. Though this song did not end violence, just as “We are the World” did not end poverty, it stands tall as a group of young Black men and women taking the responsibility to use their platforms to talk about something of benefit to the community. Which is something that must never be forgotten or diminished.