Happy 30th Anniversary to Kool Moe Dee’s third studio album Knowledge Is King, originally released May 30, 1989.
Mohandas “Kool Moe Dee” Dewese never receives enough credit for promoting the intellectual discussion of hip-hop. In my earlier tribute to his sophomore album How Ya Like Me Now (1987), I noted the man wrote There’s a God on the Mic (2003), a book that examines the art of emceeing. Between its pages, Moe expresses his opinion on the essential elements required to be a great rapper. The book’s centerpiece is a ranked list of the 50 best emcees.
A few years later, Kool Moe Dee helped launch SpitFire (2007), a short-lived online Politically Incorrect-styled panel show where guests discussed both musical and political issues facing the Black community. A decade after that, he worked to create Behind the Rhyme (2017), a series that would feature one-on-one conversations between Moe Dee and another dynamic hip-hop personality. They would talk about their craft, their history, favorite verses, etc. One nearly hour-long episode was filmed with Chuck D; there doesn’t appear to be any subsequent episodes.
Which is all to say that Kool Moe Dee takes hip-hop very seriously. A battle-tested warrior since the genre’s earliest days, he believes in hip-hop and its ability to enrich the lives of the audience. He utilizes this approach on Knowledge Is King, his third and best album.
Released 30 years ago, Knowledge Is King came on the heels of How Ya Like Me now, Moe Dee’s largest commercial success featuring the best-known hits of his career. Moe Dee handles most of the production duties, assisted by frequent collaborators Teddy Riley and LaVaba Millison, along with Pete Q. Harris, an in-house producer with Jive Records. They utilize James Brown tracks and various Ultimate Beats and Breaks records to put together the album’s beats, but make them each sound darker and menacing than when previously sampled.
On the lyrical end, Moe Dee shifted his focus to providing dazzling verbal displays of skill. The album is best known for its lead single, “They Want Money,” a track aimed at dissing materialistic women fixated on his cash. But the real meat of the album lies elsewhere.
Knowledge Is King is at its best when Moe Dee focuses on dropping knowledge, either as he gives verbal lessons on how to be a dope emcee, or as he stresses the importance of education through his raps. He dispenses wisdom on many songs, often kicking four separate verses packed with complex vocal wizardry.
More illustrative of the album’s power and quality is “I Go To Work,” one of Moe Dee’s masterpieces. Built around a sample of James Brown’s “Superbad” and horns that sound lifted from a James Bond film theme, Moe Dee conducts a lengthy lyrical clinic, rapidly rhyming in double-time, putting together words and phrases at a break-neck pace. Moe Dee expertly crafts verses filled with unique imagery and metaphors. He adopts the role of a verbal architect, constructing whole worlds from his words, and then brags “rappers can’t capture Moe Dee’s rapture / And after I have ya, I have to slap ya / Senseless with endless rhymes don’t pretend this / Is anything short of stupendous, and when this / Rhyme is done, your mind will become / So trapped in the rap you'll lust another one.”
Some of the album’s finest moments come when Moe Dee stresses the importance of knowledge and education to his audience. The title track presents a disgusted Moe Dee, decrying the lack of intellectual and spiritual pursuits by others, rapping, “Knowledge is infinite, suckers ain’t into it / Ignorance is bliss, and they're kin to it.”
“I’m Blowin’ Up” covers similar themes. With a flow that’s “so cool yet so hyped,” he stresses the importance in creating music for “fans that crave hip-hop with relevance, I’m here to save rap from an early grave / Like God I gave life to the mic as I watch it enslave.” In an effective touch, Moe Dee further explains that to him, “blowing up” doesn’t necessarily entail destruction, since he views the act as spreading his own knowledge and ideas to other emcees.
Tracks like “I’m Hitting Hard” and “Get the Picture” are solid exhibitions of the type of straight braggadocio that Moe Dee has always excelled at creating. Meanwhile, “The Don” is one of the earliest examples of “rapper as Mafioso” on record. Moe positions himself as a hip-hop Vito Corleone, starting “out in parks as a hit man killing with the rhymes that sparks a mic,” and eventually ascending to role of rap Godfather, controlling the market with an iron fist.
Knowledge Is King varies in quality when Moe Dee moves away from delivering ferocious verbal haymakers. Songs like “They Want Money” and “All Night Long” haven’t really stood the test of time, but “The Avenue” is a stronger stylistic departure. Over its complex, Go-Go-esque percussion, Moe uses a more old school delivery to portray slices of life within an inner-city neighborhood, from impromptu car shows to testy interactions with police. He uses the third verse to urge street hustlers to pursue wealth through more legal means, concluding that “there’s gotta be a better way to get the money, y’all.”
Knowledge Is King ends strong with “Pump Your Fist,” Moe Dee’s forceful sermon against racial inequality in the United States and across the globe. Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” never sounded as sinister as it does here, with Moe Dee rapping defiantly, describing deep past atrocities in order to educate others on how to secure a better future.
Knowledge Is King was Moe Dee’s second most successful album, going Gold and demonstrating that sometimes knowledge does sell. Sadly, it was Moe Dee’s last strong effort, as albums like Funkee, Funkee Wisdom (1991) and Interlude (1994) couldn’t re-capture his late ’80s magic.
Even though he might not receive as much attention as he used to, Moe Dee has earned hip-hop immortality through leading by example. As mentioned above, Moe Dee did try to transition to the next phase of his career, championing hip-hop culture after his rhyming days had largely come to a close. He has become a respected elder statesman, and has appeared on tracks with the likes of Will Smith, Nas, and Macklemore, each one celebrating his legacy. And legacies built on knowledge are definitely worth celebrating.