Elijah Muhammad, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, is having a deep influence on rap music 15 years after his death. With unprecedented directness, a number of new rappers are quoting Muhammad's core dogma: that white people are a race of "devils" and "snakes," and that African Americans are descended from "the tribe of Shabazz," the "original man" created by Allah.

There's even talk of Armageddon, of righteous black men rising up with metaphorical swords to "take a few heads."

Some racially charged Muslim rap also happens to be cutting-edge pop music. And some of it is even bankrolled by megacorporations such as CBS Records and Warner Communications. "The people who run this business, their loyalty is not to themselves but to the dollar," says Paris, a militant Muslim rapper. "As long as it's selling, anything goes."

It is the latest fascinating phase in the evolution of hip-hop. And it comes at a time, ironically, when rap is exploding in popularity among young whites, and when a white rapper named Vanilla Ice is on top of the charts. (In a boldly bellicose guest appearance on the new King Sun album, Wise Intelligent of Poor Righteous Teachers slams white rappers with the line, "Who gave permission to the slave master's son to come among the gods and try to do the things we've done?" Then he verbally executes two white rappers by name -- Everlast and Pete Nice.)

The new racially charged rap also sheds light on the teachings of the Five Percent Nation of Islam, a highly mystical offshoot of Muhammad's organization centered in New York. So-called Five Percenters believe that the black man is God, but that only 5 percent of the black nation has this knowledge, so it is their duty to teach the others.

Five Percenters had been part of the hip-hop community throughout the '80s, from unheralded pioneer rappers such as Ramellzee to current stars Big Daddy Kane and Rakim. But not until the latest batch -- including Poor Righteous Teachers, King Sun, Brand Nubian and Movement Ex -- have Five Percenters shared so much of their arcane knowledge and coded language. "Maintain on the seventh plane, I remain the most high," raps Lord Mustafa of Movement Ex. "True and living, giving sight to my third eye."

King Sun's "Universal Flag," a dense recitation of numerological and astrological data, will be utterly incomprehensible to anyone but fellow Five Percenters. In an interview, Wise Intelligent reveals that even when a Five Percenter says "Peace" -- a common greeting among African American youth -- it means something more. "It's an abbreviation," he says. "The Powerful Eye of Allah Sees Everything." (Which explains how Wise Intelligent can do business with "devils" like the ones who own Profile Records, the company that distributes his music. "They're always watched," he says. "No one can ever fool me.")

In applying Elijah Muhammad's racial teachings to current events, Muslim rappers freely serve up conspiracy theories to explain crises in the black community. Grand Puba Maxwell of Brand Nubian mentions a "controlled substance contained in a vial, set up by the devil as he looks and he smiles." Lord Mustafa declares that "they're trying to take us out with the AIDS virus."

This is a leap beyond even the raps of Public Enemy, the group that showed that aggressive black nationalism on top of hard-hitting rhythms could sell hundreds of thousands of records. (Although PE declared solidarity with Louis Farrakhan, the keeper of Muhammad's flame, on its 1988 album "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," leader Chuck D has said he supports the Nation of Islam for its political agenda -- black unity and economic self-sufficiency -- and not for its religious dogma. He isn't a Muslim.)

Veteran rapper Daddy-O, who is a believer in "traditional" Islam and not a proponent of Muhammad, sees the unbridled racial rhetoric as a further demonstration of the growing freedom for all rappers, freedom that comes through economic clout. After all, if N.W.A. can sell a million albums with a song titled "{Expletive} tha Police," why should anybody hold back?

In the early years of recorded rap, says Daddy-O, "guys couldn't even curse on records. {But} right now, rap is so popular and so strong that you can say almost anything on a record. And find a way to sell it." To white folks, even.

Jon Shecter, a young white Harvard graduate and editor of the Source, a monthly hip-hop magazine, says "One for All" by Brand Nubian is "probably the best album out." During a live show, members of the group "spent a good deal of time on stage talking about the white devil," Shecter says. "There were a handful of white people in the crowd. In situations like that, I can't help but feel uncomfortable.

"But the truth is, I find that their music moves me. And their message moves me, in a way," he says. "I respect them. And I know of so many white kids who feel the same as I do. The white kids who are into hip-hop, who are students of KRS-One and Chuck D, they believe them. They believe that vision of America."

Brand Nubian: 'One for All' "One For All" (Elektra) is bound to be one of the most talked-about rap albums of 1991, and not just because of its Five Percenter declamations, which are basically contained on four of the CD's 15 songs. The star of Brand Nubian is Grand Puba Maxwell, who has an extraordinarily nimble voice and a great sense of humor, the latter a particular rarity among Muslim rappers.

Puba moves all around in the pocket, stretching and squeezing words, stacking rhymes, constantly confounding expectations of where a line will stop or start. "Not a rinky-dinky, never snackin' on a Twinkie. When it comes to flexing, I can bend like a Slinky," he says in "Ragtime." He likes to take oddball pop-culture references -- Ralph Kramden, "Three's Company," Ed Sullivan, pro wrestling, Son of Sam, Cinderella -- throw 'em all in his lyrical blender and hit "puree." And in "Step to the Rear," he manages to inject a little class, if not taste (or is that vice versa?), into a sexual bragging rap.

It's hard to believe this is the same happy-go-lucky fellow who can declare in "Wake Up": "The devil's still causing trouble amongst the righteous people. Drugs in our community, can't even get a job, poisoning our babies, lying who is God. ..." Puba also turns Trouble Funk's old party chant "Drop the Bomb" into a beckoning of Armageddon. "We're gonna drop the bomb on the Yakub crew!" he says, referring to Mr. Yakub, the mad scientist who concocted the white race more than 6,000 years ago, according to Nation of Islam mythology.

Brand Nubian will also draw notice for its musical perkiness, especially with irresistible grooves such as "Feels So Good" and "Ragtime." One major miscalculation is a new jack swing track, "Try to Do Me," that already sounds a year out of date.

Movement Ex The self-titled debut album by the duo Movement Ex is another Five Percenter project with major-label backing (Columbia). Unlike Puba, rapper Lord Mustafa never lets up on the teaching, preaching and instigating. And he doesn't crack a smile, though a listener is likely to, especially when faced with a tirade such as this from "Zig Zag Zig," directed at the white race: "What's up with the hippie you worship on the cross? 'Cause Jesus was dark-skinned, not like the painting. Since you're the one who's lying, you must be Satan. A devilish demon, savage, scavenger beast. Since you have been, there's been no peace." Another over-the-top rant is titled "United Snakes of America."

The 19-year-old's anger is heartfelt, but not very moving. Mustafa isn't a gifted writer or vocalist, choosing much too often to employ the obvious rhyme or metaphor ("My grammar is a hammer, and you are the nail"). As for the content of his attacks, well, a wise man recently told me you can argue with people over interpretations of fact, but you cannot argue mythology. You can't argue that a virgin didn't give birth to Jesus, or that Haile Selassie wasn't God incarnate. These are beyond the realm of true and false. What are you going to tell Mustafa? That he's wrong? That whites aren't the devil? It is an article of faith with him.

Indeed, Mustafa's war of words seems to take place largely on the battlefield of myth. "You drink eggnog celebrating the holiday of the enemy. I'd shoot Santa Claus if he came down my chimney," he says in "The Lord Speaks His Mind."

One time, when he does deal with a matter of fact, Mustafa blows it. Referring to the Tuskegee syphilis study to bolster his claim that AIDS is chemical warfare against black people, he says (wrongly) that whites "injected blacks with syphilis." The truth is evil enough. Before penicillin was developed, the U.S. Public Health Service began monitoring poor black volunteers in the town of Tuskegee, Ala., who had contracted syphilis, to learn about the progress of the disease within the body. For decades after the cure was found, the government kept up the project, allowing the volunteers to go untreated and studying their bodies when they eventually died. When all this was publicized in 1972, it was a scandal.

If you're going to rap about complicated history, you've got to sweat the details.

The best thing about "Movement Ex" is the outstanding scratch-mixing of Mustafa's partner, King Born.

King Sun: 'Righteous but Ruthless' The moral contradictions that make up King Sun are evident in the title of his second album, "Righteous but Ruthless" (Profile). With his deep, gruff voice and fluid, dispassionate delivery, he seems better suited to gritty urban narratives -- "gangsta" raps -- than to science-dropping. This is proven by one of the album's best tracks, "Big Shots," a well-written crime story that ends with a shootout in an alley, a cynical comment on the justice system, and a disturbing refusal to pass judgment on his gangster hero. "Dollars are chill and the women are real hot, so no matter what, you'll always remember a big shot." Is this righteousness? Is it the truth? And if it is, so what?

King Sun also distinguishes himself with a good old-fashioned foul-mouthed devastating "dis" of his rap competitors in "Soft Shoe Booty." ("Your rhyme style is faded like pre-washed jeans. Go back to rhymin' on the corner with your crackhead fiends.") But again, there's nothing uplifting about it, spiritually or intellectually.

The most startling contradiction comes in one of his lessons in Afrocentricity, "Be Black." He tells the black man to gain self-knowledge, and he calls Farrakhan a "paragon." But then "they say I'm prejudiced because I like redbones {light-skinned black women}," King Sun raps. He goes on to say that most dark girls are too "headstrong," not "sweet, truthful and soft." His taste in women is reiterated in the ballad "Undercover Lover," in which he describes his beloved as "half original, lovely Puerto Rican. Just the type of girl I like keepin'." Five Percenter or not, King Sun doesn't seem to have this blackness thing all worked out yet.

Beat-wise, "Righteous but Ruthless" is done in the polished style of labelmates Poor Righteous Teachers, with an array of tasteful soul samples. (PRT producer Tony D handled several of the tracks.)

Paris: 'The Devil Made Me Do It' Though a member of the Nation of Islam, Paris of San Francisco also draws inspiration from the radical legend across the bay, the Black Panther Party. A prowling panther, in fact, is part of his logo. (Slick, huh?) On his debut album, "The Devil Made Me Do It" (Tommy Boy), Paris even recites the Panthers' 10-point program -- calling for the immediate release of all black prisoners, for instance -- and declares it a fine blueprint for black America today (though in an interview Paris makes note of world politics and admits to a change of heart about the viability of socialism).

It's hard to know how serious Paris is about armed struggle, and his voice doesn't have the weight, the authority, to tempt you to pick up a rifle and take aim on a cop. But he does show promise as a hip-hop social critic in the gutsy first single "Break the Grip of Shame" and an impressive short burst titled "The Hate That Hate Made," which alludes to the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst. Unfortunately, Paris is thoroughly unimpressive as a producer and drum programmer.

The album's liner notes are a cool bonus, though, containing a brief history of the Panthers and bios of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, alongside those of Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and, of course,Elijah Muhammad.