Trenton Legends

How Poor Righteous Teachers put Trenton on the Hip-Hop map

Hip-hop music was still very new during the 80s when three Trenton-bred young men decided to make their mark on the budding industry. Poor Righteous Teachers (PRT) emerged onto the hip-hop scene promoting conscious rap deep rooted in their religious beliefs, city surroundings and social and political messages. During a time when the Garden State was delivering some of the industry’s greatest hits, PRT joined the ranks and added their unique style and a twist to the game.

Courtesy of Instagram/@wiseintelligent

“Trenton Makes, The World Takes,” is the Capital City’s motto sprawled across The Lower Trenton Bridge. Many residents feel that Trenton has a lot to offer, and that sentiment couldn’t be truer. As teenagers, Poor Righteous Teachers, comprised of Wise Intelligent, Culture Freedom, and DJ Father Shaheed formed forces to create a rap super group, birthed by the streets of Trenton, who impacted the culture. “Poor Righteous Teachers were certainly a product of Trenton, NJ. We attended the schools. We frequented the community centers…we were sustained by the free lunches in the local parks. We ran the streets of Trenton throughout our childhood and teenage years. All three of us were from single-mother households. We had a lot of street time. We navigated our fair share of “developmental” trouble. All of this contributed greatly to our approach to hip-hop music. Being situated between two major cities (New York, and Philadelphia) but being unlike either made Trenton different enough to give birth to PRT,” explains the group’s lead MC, Wise Intelligent. The longtime friends, who had been rapping since the age of 11 out of Culture Freedom’s in-home studio, had no problem getting a record deal back in those early days of hip hop. Influenced by well-known names like Rakim, Public Enemy and KRS-One, PRT was also inspired by a few local Trenton rappers, such as General Lee and Omar Superstar, to name a few. “People used to say that Trenton had a very unique sound,” says the MC and producer. He attributes Trenton’s significant sound to Italian producer Tony D. “He grew up in the culture in Trenton and produced a lot of artists there. He helped develop the sound of Trenton M.C.’s with his production. He was one of the main producers in the area at that time.” Having such a deep-rooted foundation within their own city proved to be the recipe for musical success.

Courtesy of Instagram/@hiphopstopchef

It was in Trenton on Roselle St., Divine Land where an up-and-coming rapper from Brooklyn who saw some local success as a featured artist on a song called “Hawaiian Sophie” battled PRT’s front man, Wise Intelligent. As Culture remembers the iconic hip-hop moment, a local DJ called “Boo Boo” was telling him about a guy that he knew who could smoke Wise. The challenge was accepted when Boo Boo brought Jay-Z to the projects to make good on his words. “Jay-Z was more just straight witty and funny. It was deep thought when Wise was spitting.” Culture noted that it was akin to watching Rakim and Big Daddy Kane go at it. “We were young. I think the influence of both our favorite rappers at the time was more present than we were,” explains Wise regarding the Rakim and Kane reference. “One thing’s for sure, Jay-Z was always a witty and clever pen and I was always clinical. In retrospect, it’s a dope part of Hip Hop’s and Trenton’s history.”

The name Poor Righteous Teachers was derived from the Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as The Five-Percent Nation of Islam. The group used their Islamic teachings to share messages with the youth. Their messaging, combined with their distinctive, bouncy and playful style provided a fresh new sound to conscious hip hop, as opposed to the more militant, hard tone prevalent at the time. “We played with the style a little bit more…We said we’re smooth with the roughness. We felt like that [hardcore] style turned people off from the message. We were for the kids…and felt we could reach a broader audience by teaching the truth with love instead of sounding like a parent. We weren’t afraid to have fun and still be us and still drop jewels,” confirms Culture Freedom. Wise Intelligent seconds that sentiment, saying, “What made PRT stand out among the pantheon of “Hip-Hop gods” was undoubtedly our innate and intentional proclivity to make the music bounce! We used beats no one else would have chosen until after we demonstrated how it could be used.”

Culture Freedom also credits Trenton’s diverse surroundings for their unique sound as he adds, “Trenton was one of the cities that was multicultural. [There were] Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Haitians. We were influenced by all of those cultures.” It’s easy to hear the dancehall, reggae influence in the group’s music on hits such as “Easy Star”. The trio’s Afrocentric vibes placed them at the helm of the conscious-rap phase of the culture. “We produced songs with hip hop and reggae vibes and captured mainstream audiences while remaining one of these most unapologetically Black groups hip-hop culture has ever produced. That was rare for a “conscious” hip-hop group,” boasts Wise Intelligent.

The group’s 1990 hit “Rock Dis Funky Joint” off their debut album, Holy Intellect, was an instant success, putting the group and the city of Trenton on the map. The title of the song came from a line spoken by a character from Spike Lee’s critically-acclaimed Do the Right Thang movie. “Culture and I knew “Rock Dis Funky Joint” was different from the time Tony D (RIP) played the War Slipping into Darkness record. I immediately spit to it while he was playing the vinyl. Tony D did not like the sample. Culture said, ‘we’re using that!’ The rest is history. “Rock Dis Funky Joint” is a historical marker for where Hip-Hop rhyme and beat styles were taken to another level,” says Wise Intelligent. “Looking at it today, that song literally moved the culture and craft forward.”

The group went on to produce three albums by the time they released New World Order in 1996. Sadly, DJ Father Shaheed passed away in 2014 in a motorcycle accident. The two surviving group members have gone on to do things outside of the musical field. Culture Freedom tapped into his love of cooking and now refers to himself as Hip Hops Top Chef, in which he also has his Put it in There barbecue sauce and rub. He reveals that he also recently produced an album for Trenton artist Nef 1 50, who unexpectedly passed away due to COVID-19. Culture is working on shopping that album in hopes of blessing the late rapper’s family during their difficult time. Wise Intelligent is the President of the Rap Snacks Foundation, while also developing and implementing entrepreneurship and financial literacy programs for the greater Black community. He co-founded tech platforms – an educational investment platform for beginners, and – an NFT marketplace and community. He’s also on the advisory board of the College of Business at Delaware State University, as well as the advisory board at Lincoln Universities entrepreneurship incubator. The MC released a book about the socioeconomic and political dynamics of Hip-Hop culture and the Black community. Music is never far behind, though for him either, as he’s notes that he will be releasing the music that he’s been developing since 2007 this year, as well as an NFT music project.

Although both members no longer reside in Trenton, they noted that they remained in the Capital City during the production of those first three albums. “That’s where all my best memories are…outside of my family,” says Culture Freedom. “Trenton has a lot of history. Trenton grew me. Trenton is everything.” And it’s obvious that wherever the Poor Righteous Teachers are, you better believe that they will carry Trenton with them.

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