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The Blueprint of KRS-One: Highlights from Hip Hop Appreciation Week

by Rodney Carmichael

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Few embody the mantra of Hip Hop Appreciation Week (“Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live”) like legendary MC and Temple of Hiphop founder, KRS-One.

His May 21 performance at the Loft highlighted a week of wide-ranging cultural events (from concerts to ciphers to community service efforts) conceived and/or promoted in part by HHAW organizers Ms. Dia (host of “The Show” on 89.3 WRFG-FM), Angie the HipHop Angel, and Minister Server of HipHop Ministries, Inc.

As he passed the mic among an overflowing stage of true-school Atlanta MCs — including an impressive Killer Mike — KRS-One’s set resembled a progressive rap revival more than a traditional concert. His own freestyle flow took on a metaphysical air when he began to rhyme about his spiritual self occupying a different dimension of time and simultaneously meditating on the present moment as he acted it out live onstage. The show concluded with Ms. Dia and others awarding KRS-One a plaque in honor of his life-long service as hip-hop’s revered “Teacha.”

Five hours earlier, while holding court with local media, the 44-year-old was asked to tell the story of his life. The following, in his own words, recounts how he met his eventual DJ Scott La Rock in a homeless shelter in 1986, how he got his big break in hip-hop via the Bridge Wars with MC Shan (who popped up backstage near the end), and how he continued on with Boogie Down Productions after Scott La Rock’s murder in ’87.

KRS-One: I was born August 20, 1965, Brooklyn, New York.

Back then it was the ghetto — little small town, working-class people. Today you can’t even buy a condominium there for a million dollars. Gentrification at its best. However, we did move around. I moved from Brooklyn. My mother, single parent; my father I never met. He was actually deported, he came from Trinidad. Him and my mom hooked up, but then he got deported and we never saw him again. And so I was raised then by a single parent, single mother. And she started in Brooklyn, like I said. Moved to Manhattan. I went to the Charles B. Russwurm (sp?) School. Lived in Lenox Terrace at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. Spent several years there. But then around 1972-1973 — really it was from ’72 to ’74 — I moved to the Bronx, to a place called 1600 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. And why would that be across the hall, across the way a park, from Kool DJ Herc. Kool Herc lived at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, and it was there that he first brought his system out at the request of his sister, Cindy, brought his turntables out, started playing music for me and other six and seven and eight year olds, and teenagers of the neighborhood.

I saw a lot of jams go on in that park and the surrounding area. We didn’t know it was early hip-hop. We had no idea. We would just call ’em jams, block parties. You just hear the music and you went to the block party and that was it. Years later we learned that was Kool DJ Herc, Pebbly Poo, Coke La Rock.… We were in the birth of hip-hop, we didn’t even know it.

But there I was, ’72-’74.

Sometime around ’74-’75, I moved back to Brooklyn…. Hip-hop is in the parks in Brooklyn — Wingate Park, Prospect Park, Grand Army Plaza Brooklyn — crews are out there battling, breaking. We go down to Coney Island and see Grandmaster Flash playing in Coney Island, cutting it up. It was incredible.

I leave home in 1981. I’m 16. “Rappers Delight” comes out in ’79, and we realize that we can be MCs. We could actually make a living doing it. So I leave home, I tell my moms, “I’m going to be a philosopher and a MC.” Neither of which I had the talent nor the credentials to be. But I left home, and became a runaway, living on the streets of New York, living in Brooklyn, trying to take care of myself. It was a crazy life, but here I am.

Went into the men’s shelter, on a fluke actually, looking for food in Manhattan. I ran up on East Third Street men’s shelter and signed up for a bed, and I wind up going up to the 166th Street Boston Road men’s shelter in the Bronx. And there’s where I met my social worker, Scott Sterling, who turned out to be DJ Scott La Rock. I’m the client, he’s a social worker. But in hip-hop he’s the DJ, I’m the MC. So he would write me late passes so I could go rock the mic with him and then he’d go home and I’d go back to the shelter and that was all through Criminal Minded.

 

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In 1985, we get a deal with a company called, Sequia Records (sp?). Sequia Records had Cutmaster DC, Scott La Rock and the Celebrity Three — which was myself, Jerry Lee, and Quality MC, a female. We were the early Fugees, two guys and a chick. At the end of the day, it was Scott La Rock and the Celebrity Three…. The record comes out, it’s called “Advance.” I was talking about nuclear war; that didn’t work in 1985. Back then, that educated rap was not poppin’. Cats wanted big gold chains, Kangols and muscles. And here I come talking about, “We gotta get the black man together” and it didn’t work. But nonetheless we were so arrogant and so ego[tistical], we were so into ourselves that we didn’t care that nobody else really liked what we were doing, we just kept doing it.

There was an arrogance about early hip-hop. If you were a Five Percenter, there was an arrogance about you. If you were a Muslim, there was an arrogance — Christians were standing on the corner of 42nd Street with a Bible in their hand pointing people out saying, “You’re going to hell, [laughing] you’re going to hell, you’re going to hell.”… After Sequia Records, we run into B-boy Records. Really Rock Candy Records … I made the label, B-boy Records; I drew the label. The first record we put out was called “Crack Attack” because the crack scene was big, or becoming big, and I did “Crack Attack,” which again shows you the style in which were coming.

But during that time, Salt N’ Pepa had answered Doug E. Fresh with a record called “The Show Stopper.” MC Shan — who you just saw here — was going after LL Cool J for biting his style. Um, UTFO had just got assaulted by Roxanne Shante. And there was a lot of other little records floating around as well.

I answered MC Shan.

MC Shan really never claimed that hip-hop started in the Queensbridge, the issue was that was the only way to get on at the time. Answer a hot record. MC Shan put out a record, “The Bridge.” That was the biggest record in New York, probably the nation, but in New York it was huge. That was the record I chose to answer. We answered a record, MC Shan, true to the art of MCing says, “Who are these people?” Let me answer, “’South Bronx,’ killa kill that noise” — using the KC and the Sunshine Band break, which they were the first, before Biggie.

I answered back with, “The Bridge is Over,” which gave me a chance to flash this reggae style, because I had written “The Bridge is Over” first, then I wrote “South Bronx” as a backup. But when Scott La Rock heard both routines he said, “Do ‘South Bronx’ first.” So “South Bronx” came out first but I already had “The Bridge is Over.” And the beat is the beat we used to do on the bathroom wall, “Boom boom, bap, bap, boom, bap/Boom boom, bap, bap, boom, bap.” I don’t know one hood that didn’t have that beat and didn’t do that on the wall at as your man or whoever was spittin’.

At the end of the day, this gave us a chance to really get on, we never looked at MC Shan, Marley Marl, Shante, or any of them — we never looked at them as enemies or rivals. This is important to point out, because this was a season of battles. When you would battle on Friday, lose, and come back again next Friday and win, then lose again! And when you really battling your man on top of that, you don’t battle people outside your crew, you don’t battle people that are really gonna have problem with you, if say something. You really only battled people you respected and they respected you, it was MC etiquette. You knew when a dude was going at you for real, and you knew when he was being like lightweight. You and him was just in battles for 2-3 months in different clubs and the same club. There’s a respect, when a certain MC grabs the mic, other MC’s go, “That’s my man right there.”…

I mention all this to say, MC Shan, the whole Juice Crew, was the last of that era. Boogie Down Productions and the Juice Crew were operating in MC etiquette. This is how KRS-One started. Because MC Shan could have easily said, “Ah man forget it, we got this, let’s go on tour.”

“Bridge is Over” would have never come out, who knows what the Criminal Minded would have done, “South Bronx,” whatever, it would have not existed. The fact that they answered us, cultivated us, nurtured us, and we never forgot it. Criminal Minded, 1987.

But during that same time my social worker, Scott La Rock, goes to break up a fight with another member called D-Nice. D-Nice was having some beefs in the project area, and Scott La Rock went to squash the beef, and he got shot in the process. He then passes away, August 27th 1987. Scott La Rock passed. We’re all shocked, Boogie Down Productions is over. Connie Chung from New York walks up to me in an interview and says, “Now that your career has come to a close, what are you gonna do now? Where are you gonna go from here?” And that was the general premise: DJ got killed, you’re over now Kris, go back to the shelter now. That’s over for you. But I’m like, “Wait a minute, I got beats, rhymes. I got ideas. What’s up? Nobody really wanted to hear it, except for an obscure Jewish dude named Barry Weiss, who saw me rocking one day in Latin Quarters.

Three Jews conspired to produce KRS-One — like three wise men. The first one was Mike Goldberg from the Latin Quarters, he used to keep dollars in our pocket every week. I played Latin Quarters like every three weeks, I was at Latin Quarters. And he’s putting money in our pockets. I’m homeless, I play Latin Quarters and I go sleep on the train. I go get breakfast and I go get on the train and ride back and forth until the morning, and then go to the library and read. Or I’d go see Scott at the shelter or whatever. But I’d have like $500 or $600 dollars, maybe a grand or a little more than a grand, in my pocket but nowhere to live. Crazy. And I didn’t want to go to hotels, so I’d stay in the street. With money in my pocket, Mcing, parties and clubs, stayin’ in the street. Finally bought myself a bike, used to get around New York on a bike.

We did it like that for about a year. Scott was killed, I then had to graduate. I graduated, ran into Mike Goldberg who introduces me to Jay Cramer — my attorney to this day — who introduces me to Barry Weiss. Barry Weiss is the president of Jive Records, a new company that just got Whodini and a couple other people on their roster. They’re interested in KRS-One and this new record Criminal Minded. They didn’t care if my DJ was just killed, in fact that worked for them. I signed to Jive. Got $300 grand, signed it, I’m homeless. $300 grand. Signed to Jive Records. Half of it went to B-boy Records to get out of the deal.

[Distracted as MC Shan enters. Yells for MC Shan to come in and join him against Shan’s protests.]

 

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  • BACK TO THE BRIDGE AGAIN: KRS-One and MC Shan (right)

KRS-One: If it wasn’t for him, you’d see nothing, OK. We were just talking about “The Bridge,” the Bridge wars, the whole battle, everything, you know everybody wants to hear about that.

Shan: Yeah, but they didn’t know we did a lot of shows back in the days together. They didn’t know that. Everybody thinks we was like over here and, we was around the country doing a lot of things together, and they don’t know this and I think y’all need to know this right now.

KRS-One: Let me ask you this too. When “South Bronx” came out you could have easily said, “Man, I ain’t answering that.” What made you engage in the battle?

Shan: You already know what it is. It’s that gladiator spirit in us. That gladiator. Only reason why you got on and I didn’t come back is because Marley Marl said he’s gonna be famous [laughter ensues]. So that’s how, on record, how you got away with that one. But other than that we’d been doing this til’ now. My kids would be hunting your kids, and our grandkids and everything would be on each other, ya know what I mean.

KRS-One: Cause I don’t see a lot of MCs then or today, matter of fact LL, like you was calling LL out like, “Yo, you bit my style.” He never answered you.

Shan: He never did, they don’t know that. But see he wasn’t in the gladiator school like where we came from. [Laughter] He was too busy [begins sticking out tongue and licking lips]. He never answered. But you on the other hand are a gladiator, battle-ready, battle-scarred, and I’m still ready. We still got one more song to do.

KRS-One: We got one more song we still gotta do together.

Shan: We’ve been trying, we’ve been trying.

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