Music: Black apocalypse

The end of the world is nigh, say the superstars of hip hop - but not for everyone. The Five Per Cent Nation will survive. How do we know? Just listen between the lines.
Millennium fever. According to our own professional teenager Robbie Williams, it represents little more than an invitation to come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. For many of the world's leading hip hop artists, however, the year 2000 promises little more than death, destruction and copious quantities of pestilence along the way.

Leading this obsession with the apocalypse are clown prince of hip hop Busta Rhymes and Wu Tang Clansmen, Method Man and RZA, whose respective new albums offer bleak visions of post-millennial doom, albeit wrapped up in huge amounts of b-boy posturing and crew-on-crew attitude.

To anyone with a passing interest in these unlikely prophets, there is nothing surprising about the subject matter of their albums. RZA and Method Man have long explored "eve of destruction" conspiracy theories, both in their Wu Tang and extra-curricular guises, with a vivacity worthy of Mr Illuminati himself, Robert Anton Wilson. Busta Rhymes, on the other hand, has promoted the "inevitable end" since his days with the early Nineties, Public Enemy-inspired group, Leaders of the New School.

In common with a number of high profile hip hop artists, RZA, Method Man and Busta continually allude to such conspiracy theories, many of which are drawn from fact and then interpreted with a leap of the imagination. For instance, the documented experiments on the black males of the US town of Tuskegee, who were unknowingly injected with syphilis over a number of years in order to observe the effects of the virus on a small community. With the onset of Aids, and the allegedly disproportionate number of black male sufferers, theories quickly arose to suggest that HIV was similarly racially tested.

However, a greater leap of imagination is required for the alien conspiracies favoured by a number of hip hop's leading figures. Apparently, aliens will return to reclaim their native earth in the near future. Part of the repossession process is Hollywood's promotion of alien blockbusters - such as Independence Day - which are supposedly preparing mankind for the inevitable.

For Busta Rhymes, Method Man and RZA, such theories go way beyond conspiracy and into religion. Like fellow artists Canibus, Rakim, Queen Latifah and Erykah Badu, both Busta and his Flipmode Squad, and Method Man and RZA's Wu Tang Clan, are followers of the secularised Islamic sect, the Five Per Cent Nation. Like the followers of the Nation of Islam, they consider extraterrestrial life to be a part of God's great design, as is the earth's great day of reckoning. The similarities end there.

The Five Per Cent Nation was founded by the ex-Nation of Islam follower, Clarence "13X" Smith, in Harlem in 1964. Their teachings are drawn from a combination of Egyptology, numerology and biology. Fundamental to this belief system is the notion that God exists within the self, and that 85 per cent of the global population is heading for cataclysmic doom. Of the remaining population, 10 per cent (the governments etc) already hold the truth about what lies in store, while the final five per cent are the chosen ones.

Few artists who follow the Five Per Cent Nation seem prepared to discuss the subject in any great depth. Furthermore, although their lyrics hint at a greater theory, rarely do they seem to be anything more than empty rhetoric. The complicated ideas of the Five Per Cent seem to have been dumbed down to suit the needs of rap's superstars. In the US magazine Spin, Busta Rhymes argues that this is all about getting across to as many people as possible. In his pre-MTV days, he made no such concessions.

"There are different levels of intelligence and many different ways of getting that intelligence across. Unfortunately, the motherfucker on the street who lives and dies for hip hop just wasn't with that (Leaders of the New School) poetic shit."

RZA has a far more effective argument when dealing with the question. While in London recently to promote his latest album - recorded under the alias Bobby Digital - he declared: "We don't need to talk shit 'cos then they don't know what we be planning. If they know that we're down with they plans then they'll come back at us. So we keep it tight."

Such reticence presents a quandary. The Five Per Cent Nation presents its teachings as a series of "degrees" of knowledge. There are 120 degrees that all members have to learn. Beyond this, there are "plus degrees" - spurious knowledge, if you like - which make up many of the conspiracy theories. The problem lies in the fact that none of these degrees, from 120 on, are actually written down. They are passed on in the oral tradition, an obvious attraction for hip hop's rappers.

But if these rappers are dropping lyrics which seem to have little substance, how can they pass on the knowledge? Old skool rapper and long-standing Five Per Cent-er Rakim, says you have to read between the lines. "Word is born. Like years ago, the slaves'd play a beat on the drums, a certain rhythm, and the whole village would know what was going on. That's just the way I like to drop my science - subliminally, but right there for a minute. Even the Bible and the Koran, it's right there for you, but it might take somebody 10 times to read one paragraph to understand it. So you gotta read in between the lines..."

In this context, millennial concept albums seem almost obligatory. Enter Busta Rhyme's third album, Extinction Level Event - The Final World Front. The record opens with an extremely graphic comic-book message of destruction. Similarly, Method Man's latest album, Tical 2000 - Judgment Day, kicks off with a New Year countdown. As the call of "Happy New Year" rings out, the bomb drops, right on cue.

The bomb, of course, is metaphorical. Neither of these artists believes that the world will end in Hollywood fire and brimstone. In keeping with Five Per Cent beliefs, it will collapse in a whirlpool of self-created chaos. Busta prophesies: "Stock market crash, computer virus, no democratic system after this term. I think of rap music being taken away by law."

And here lies the immediate factor which ties hip hop to the conspiracies of millennial doom. The idea that rap music, as the vessel of all teachings, is so powerful that it will become outlawed. This is the main concern behind RZA's latest offering. RZA, as Bobby Digital in Stereo, presents a story of b-boy past, present and future locked into a battle with corporate industry over the fate of hip hop. In a re-run of the rape of the blues, major industries have systematically taken hip hop and bleached it corporate- white. Bobby Digital is here to take it back underground. Allegedly.

It's due to such concerns that so many hip hop artists now run their own small empires. RZA's Wu Tang Clan has developed into a stable of solo artists. They also run their own perfume emporium, clothing line, comic books and, in the case of the Bobby Digital concept, a forthcoming break into film is on the cards as well. Similarly, Busta Rhymes has recently started Flipmode Entertainment with his own clothing concern and solo albums from his affiliated artists. Indeed, where once hip hop obsessed about East versus West and gang- against-gang violence, now they're developing their own self contained industries. Corporate gangs no less. Hip hop's first hostile takeover album may be just around the corner.

With hip hop long offering the most attractive escape route from the inner city ghettos, it comes as little surprise that rappers consider the control of their business to be paramount to their cause. As Busta Rhymes says: "If that (millennium bug) isn't fixed by the year 2000, we're gonna be fucked up... when it hits, man, I ain't trying to be the motherfucker that's too late, fighting my way up outta the shit. I want to have a self- sufficient system and be ready for all of that."

So with hip hop reclaimed, the chosen few appear to be walking into the next millennium like conquering heroes. The remaining 95 per cent, however, look set to disappear in a quagmire of computer virus, system breakdown and endemic corruption - Armageddon, as prophesied in every religious text known to mankind. Not even Robbie Williams is hard enough to deal with that.

`RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo' (Gee Street) and Method Man's `Tical 200 - Judgement Day' (Def Jam) are both out now. Busta Rhymes' `Extinction Level Event (The Final World Front)' (EastWest) follows on 7 December