Illustration by Ruth Gwily
An extract from my contribution to Mark Goodall’s brand new book Gathering of the Tribe: Music and Heavy Conscious Creation, a collection of essays on music and the occult, featuring contributions from Mick Farren and David Kerekes among others, and pieces on the Beatles, the Fall, Nick Cave, John Coltrane and many more.
Before it was destroyed in a 1965 bombing, Harlem’s Nation of Islam Mosque No.7 could boast a cluster of striking alumni and associates, suggestive perhaps that powerful — or even sinister — forces were circling it. Louis Farrakhan was once in charge there, and was preceded in the role by none other than Malcolm X, who famously brought Cassius Clay into the Harlem orbit (turning him into Muhammad Ali in the process). Somewhat bringing up the rear is the comparatively little known Clarence 13X, whose eviction from Mosque No.7 and the NOI by Malcolm X led him to found The Nation of Gods and Earths — more colloquially known as the 5 Percenters, an heretical sub-sect of the NOI that would later distinguish itself by providing the slang and mythos behind much of the greatest rap music ever made, including Rakim, DOOM, and the (so to speak) meta-gangster rap of mid-nineties New York, exemplified by acts such as Nas, Mobb Deep and The Wu-Tang Clan.
Cassius Clay, of course, remained “Orthodox” — describing himself as “a fisherman for Elijah Mohammed” (the then-head of the NOI and self-proclaimed savior of Black America). While there is inadequate opportunity to get into the rules and dogma of the NOI, we should note that the hook upon which Clay skewered his bait had much more in common with Freemasonry than it did traditional Islam…
As in any Masonic sect, NOI members are initiated incrementally, and must memorize (and demonstrate some understanding of) tracts of esoteric lore in order to graduate to higher levels. One of the things neophytes must learn is a catechism of symbolism and numerology called “The Lost and Found Muslim Lessons.” These can sound pretty odd to profane ears (for example: “What are the exact square miles of the useful land that is used every day by the total population of the planet Earth?”) but are meant to impart esoteric insight through recitation.
These “Lost and Found Muslim Lessons” are wedded to the NOI’s recognizably Gnostic narrative, in which the traditional Gnostic Demiurge figure (the inept or malevolent creator of the material world in which the soul finds itself imprisoned) is the infamous Yacub, a mad scientist responsible for breeding the defective white race (“Dad”) and endowing it with a significant metaphysical fallacy for good measure — the concept of a “mystery god,” a deity that exists without (rather than within) humanity. Humanity itself is divided up between the ten percent of people aware of such truths but who opt to use them to oppress the ignorant eighty-five percent, and the remaining five percent who are aware of these truths and dedicated to using them to empower and enlighten the masses (good on ‘em).
Unfortunately, membership of the NOI looks a bit of a drag. As well as apparently having to permanently don a bow tie (I think I’d sooner be circumcised), gambling, fornication and intoxication are forbidden. Rectitude is the order of the day… excluding, apparently (and as ever), the sect’s leadership, who in the Sixties were beset with a number of scandals regarding its near pathological philandering, a double standard that must have helped to inspire Clarence 13X – expelled by Malcolm X from Mosque No.7 for like incontinence – to form his 5 Percenters, changing his own name to “Allah” for good measure.
Now here’s where it gets interesting, for Clarence 13X did not found his group in order to implement the top-down rectitude lacking in the NOI, nor to replicate its hypocrisies, but to instead altogether loosen the shackles of piety.
Goodness knows they chafed him enough — Clarence (a handsome fellow, as well as a snappy dresser) enjoyed a drink, smoke, toot, flutter and fuck no less than the average Rolling Stone, and saw little wrong with his fellow 5 Percenters enjoying the same, so long as they were careful to eschew pork — the notorious P.I.G. (he also — and in no little contradistinction to Mick, Keith and the gang — encouraged his followers to steer clear of smack, which he deemed “the swine of substances”).
Of much greater importance to Clarence than conventionally respectable behavior — which he appeared to think either would or wouldn’t assert itself in its own sweet time — was the wider dissemination of the NOI’s metaphysics among the offspring of New York’s African American slums, a rambunctious generation theoretically ripe for NOI conversion but likely to be deterred by the required lifestyle strictures.
Clarence lived out the remainder of his life balancing his role as religious mentor with his penchant for drinking, gambling and womanizing, during which time the 5 Percenters spread impressively, with its founder attracting plenty of negative attention and spending a certain amount of time in New York prisons and mental institutions, eventually being shot dead in ambiguous circumstances.
It was surely Clarence 13X’s teasing apart of morality and metaphysics that later made his creed so viable to the Nineties rap outlaws. Even in his lifetime this masterstroke had its repercussions, with the initial generation of Clarence’s converts causing a tabloid furor, the press misunderstanding the 5 Percenter insignia as merely the shtick of a dangerous new gang — by the time the ‘crack epidemic’ would divide up America’s slums into predators and prey, 5 Percenter theology was well entrenched as the warrior creed of a growing urban soldiery.
One tempting explanation for the ensuing high proportion of significant 5 Percenter emcees is that, by demanding that adolescent initiates begin committing the extensive NOI catechisms to memory, the proselytizers — usually older friends or relatives — incidentally enhanced these young persons’ mnemonic and recitative abilities.
Certainly, by the time the young RZA decided to form his collective, he was able to reap seven superb emcees with a single close sweep of his razorblade. For the initial core of the group, GZA, Method Man, and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA’s blade hardly had to travel, as all four were related to varying degrees and had been listening to hip hop, studying 5 Percenter theology and playing chess since childhood. These three voices — respectively cerebral, stylish and anarchic — dominate Enter the 36 Chambers...
So, one minute the Wu were playing clubs and house parties in their native Staten Island — there are rather picturesque accounts of ODB tripping on acid and firing his gun into the ceiling mid-gig — and the next they were superstars. RZA would spend the following five years brilliantly consolidating their legacy: producing and directing classic solo albums by the Wu’s five most talented members. Taken together, these solo debuts — Method Man’s Tical, GZA’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Ghostface Killah’s Ironman and ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers, the Dirty Version — surely constitute the richest oeuvre in hip hop.
Besides the career criminal and the cataclysmically unlucky, no one is more instinctively superstitious than the superstar — who fortune has touched with her most conspicuous (albeit volatile) wand. You can only imagine how the members of the Wu, all long since initiated into a form of urban witchcraft that attested to their inner divinity, felt to wake up and find themselves world famous. Whether or not the impoverished and mundane aspects of their former lives ever tested their faith in the mystical worldview of The Nation of Gods and Earths, their subsequent success manifestly compounded it, resulting in their becoming propagandists for Clarence 13X’s small sect and introducing it to tens of millions of listeners around the world.
For ODB, meanwhile, who had betrayed schizophrenic tendencies long before stardom provided ostensible confirmation of this supernatural worldview, success would only push him deeper into psychosis. By all accounts, he was one of the most dedicated 5 Percenters in the Wu, a fact that has usually been met with incredulity by some chroniclers of the group, who are stumped by the challenge of ascribing fervid religiosity to a pop star renowned for his spectacular affection for arrest, anilingus and crack cocaine. Fair enough, though in ODB’s history of womanizing, incarceration, shootings and insanity, we can detect an echo of the life of Clarence 13X himself, and are reminded that the 5 Percenters are an unusually flexible – and, frankly, rock’n’roll – sect.
A limited number of special edition “Gathering of the Tribe” hardbacks are available only from the Headpress website for only $35.71 (US postage just $3) – paperback out next month.
Splendid footage of some early 5 Percenters discussing Vietnam