"In these cynical times," wrote Rolling Stone's Alan Light in 1991, "KRS-One is an inspiring example of the role pop music can play in social discourse." A self-described teacher whose Boogie Down Productions (BDP) has been an important influence on hardcore rap, KRS-One has survived street life, prison, homelessness, the murder of a close friend, and negative criticism to emerge as one of rap's most powerful figures. While many of his contemporaries have confined their raps to boasting and glorifying gunplay, KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions' MC, has always considered his time on the mike as an opportunity to enlighten his listeners both politically and socially. His booming voice and skillful rhyming have helped him achieve huge sales, and he has used his earnings to influence and finance projects that stress dignity, self-worth, the acquisition of knowledge, and otherwise advance his humanistic views.
The advent of Boogie Down Productions in the late 1980s has been responsible, in part, for giving rap music visibility as a viable teaching medium and for pioneering the hardcore sound that is characterized by graphic depictions of the downside of life on the streets. The success of BDP's first record fueled a string of smash releases, guest appearances by KRS-One on other musicians' albums, and an editorial by the rapper in the New York Times. Despite conflicts with some other rap groups over credibilityotably a skirmish with P.M. Dawnnd a move towards more politically oriented lyrics, KRS-One triumphed again in 1992 with Sex and Violence, a return to the hardcore rhymes and heavy beats of his early days.
On the Streets From Age 13
KRS-One was born around 1965 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jacqueline Jones, a real estate secretary, and Sheffield Brown, a Trinidadian handyman whoccording to Peopleas deported the year of Kris's birth. Though given the name Lawrence at birth, the child's name was changed to Kris, a shortened version of Krishna. In 1970 Jacqueline remarried, and Kris and his brother Kenny received her husband's last name, Parker. Mr. Parker United Nations bodyguardas given to violence, however, and Jacqueline and the boys fled in 1972. Jacqueline had a daughter by another man in 1975, but this relationship also collapsed within a couple years.
Kris remains "in constant contact," with his mother, according to The Source, and he described her to People's Steve Dougherty as "an education fanatic," though he admits he was interested only in rap music from a young age. Indeed, his brother Kenny recalled to Jon Schechter of The Source that when he and Kris were 12 and 13 years old respectivelynd dirt poorhey imagined what they'd do with a thousand dollars. "Kris was like, 'I'd make a record.' I was like, 'Are you out of your mind? We have nothing!' I thought he was crazy. But now it looks like I was crazy, actually."
Kris matured early; six-foot-two by the time he was in ninth grade at New York City's Grady High School, Kris admitted to The Source that he was "vicious" in school. At age 13 he left home. "No one told me leave, and I wasn't going to [go] back whining," he recalled to Dougherty. "I was going to stick it out until I got what I wanted." He lived on the streets and in homeless shelters, taking odd jobs, hanging out, and reading in public libraries. Independent reading formed the basis of his doctrine of self-education. In the meantime he was living hand to mouth; he served some jail time at age 19 for selling marijuana.
Formed BDP With Scott LaRock
After his release, while staying at the Bronx's Franklin Armory Shelter, Kris met Scott Sterling, a 22-year-old social worker and part-time DJ. Kris had been writing poems and raps for some timeI beat out my songs on the bathroom wall," he remarked in People. He and Sterling formed a powerful bond. Sterling, who worked under the DJ name Scott LaRock, exercised a tremendous influence on Kris. The two began working together, calling their rap duo Boogie Down Productions in honor of the "Boogie Down" Bronx. Criminal Minded, their trailblazing hardcore album detailing street life and violence, came out on B Boy Records in 1986 and sold impressively, attracting the attention of several major labels.
Kris's nickname, KRS-One, which had begun as graffiti he sprayed in his neighborhood and initially meant "Kris, Number One," became the acronym for "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone," as he explained in the track "Elementary" on Criminal Minded. The album also featured hardcore jams like "9 mm Goes Bang" and "South Bronx." The twosome eventually signed on with Jive/RCA Records and was at work on a second album when Scott was killed while trying to break up a fight. Devastated, Kris nonetheless decided to keep BDP alive: "If I was to quit, Scott would really be dead," he explained to Dougherty.
Developed Personal Philosophy
Unfortunately, Jive/RCA wanted to drop the deal after Scott's death; only an extensive effort by Kris kept BDP signed. In 1988 Kris had a new deal with Jive and released his second record, By All Means Necessary. Dougherty noted that the album "uses the bold rhythms and raw rhymes of rap and hip-hop to call for social justice." Featuring raps that would become trademarks for Kris, most notably "My Philosophy," the album was another hit, combining the intellectual probing of Kris's lyrics with relentless beats and a militant stancen the cover Kris emulated a famous picture of Malcolm X at a window holding a gun. The record also contained the landmark track "Stop the Violence," one of the earliest rap songs to address black-on-black killing. In "My Philosophy," KRS-One announced, "Rap is like a setup / A lotta games / A lotta suckers with colorful names." Unlike the "suckers," this MC promised to focus upon the reality of the "intelligent brown man" while espousing vegetarianism, community activism, "what we call hiphop / And what it meant to DJ Scott LaRock."
The death of a young fan resulting from a fight during a 1988 BDP show with fellow rappers Public Enemy in Long Island, New York, led to widespread calls for censorship of rap and resulted in far fewer rap concerts around New York City. To repair some of the damage, Kris and several other rap heavyweights got together to form the Stop the Violence movement, recording a single called "Self-Destruction." The success of this record helped raise half a million dollars for the National Urban League, an organization dedicated to broadening opportunities for minorities and solving community problems of low literacy rates and substandard education. KRS-One, however, would later wonder, in an interview with Rap Pages, what had been done with the money.
In 1989 Kris took a new approach to BDP's sound, crafting a spare, intensely politicized album called Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop. The BDP crew now consisted of Kris's wife, Ms. Melodie, born Ramona Scott, whom Kris had married in 1987; D-Nice; Scottie Morris; Harmony, Ms. Melodie's sister; and eight others. KRS-One's goal, as quoted in Light's Rolling Stone profile, was "making intelligence the fad." Ghetto Music included raps like "Why is That?," Kris's lecture on black history traced through the Bible, and "Jack of Spades," the theme from the Blaxploitation parody film I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. David Fricke of Rolling Stone praised both the album and its creator: "KRS-One is actually a man of remarkable patience. By advocating higher learning and communal faith to rebuild the black spirit, he's embarked on the long road to change. But Ghetto Music shows that KRS-One has the mind and muscle to last the trip." KRS-One's liner notes to the album, in which he refers to himself as a "Metaphysician," declare the record's intention to "return to our rootsThe Ghetto'o insure purity, talent and intelligence often lost in trying to keep up with the Joneses."
Lecturer and Rap Spokesperson
Ghetto Music's intellectual focus caught the attention of the mainstream community, and in 1989 the New York Times asked Kris to write an editorial on education; he complied and explained his belief that "Rap music, stigmatized by many as mindless music having no artistic or socially redeeming value, can be a means to change." He also expressed that "it's no longer acceptable to strut around with big gold chains, boasting. That stereotype, that lifestyle, must be crushed." Soon thereafter constituents at Harvard and Yale universities asked him to lecture; his speaking tour spanned 40 U.S. cities. He also participated in a number of political causes and rallies, including an appearance at an Earth Day event in Washington, D.C.
KRS-One managed to release a new BDP album in 1990, Edutainment, featuring the hit single "Love's Gonna Get'cha (Material Love)." As the title of the album suggests, Edutainment combined Kris's teachingore explicitly humanitarian in focus this timeith the irresistible BDP sound, which Light described as "a stripped-down beat, a throbbing bass line, maybe a dash of keyboards, with occasional forays into reggae stylings." Like all the preceeding efforts, the album was a smash.
KRS-One also put together a new organization in 1990, which he named H.E.A.L., or Human Education Against Lies. H.E.A.L.'s pro-education focus spawned an album, Civilization vs. Technology, on Kris's Edutainer label, featuring such rappers as Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, L.L. Cool J., along with pop performers like Billy Bragg, Ziggy Marley and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme shot the video. H.E.A.L. published and distributed a free book at schools, shows, and by mail. "The H.E.A.L. project," Kris noted in Rap Pages, "simply says that before you are a race, a religion or an occupation you are a human being. Once we begin to act human, we can act African correctly. If you're thinking African and not human, you're not a correct African."
In 1991 Kris contributed a rap to "Radio Song" on Out of Time, the hit record by rockers R.E.M., and appeared on the little-known rock album Cereal Killers by Too Much Joy. He remarked of such appearances that they make "rap look a little better. It's not that separatist, racist solo attitude that people think rap is abouthich is an image rap has lived up to." The same year saw the release of Live Hardcore Worldwide, one of the first live rap albums ever, andccording to many criticshe most ambitious. Steven Volk of Rolling Stone noted that "Nonstop booty shakin'" is one option as BDP runs through 21 tracks in around 50 minutes, but listening to the words pays too. Parker has taken rap lyrics to a whole 'nother level of complexity." The live album contained a number of tracks from the hard-to-find Criminal Minded, as part of a royalty settlement with B Boy. He also produced other acts, including Queen Latifah and the Neville Brothers.
Returned to Hardcore
Kris's lecture tours, mainstream appearances, and outspoken humanism left him vulnerable to criticism from within the rap community about his hardcore credibility. Black Nationalists and Muslims accused him of not following their path; the group X-Clan rapped on one of their records that they "got no time to be hangin' out with humanists"; and Prince Be from P.M. Dawn questioned KRS-One's status as a teacher. KRS-One and his crew responded by storming the stage during a 1992 P.M. Dawn concert, forcing the group off the stage and performing three BDP classics. "The crowd," noted Schecter, "was simultaneously shocked and rocked." Defending his motives to USA Today's James T. Jones IV, KRS-One remarked, "I answered his question. 'A teacher of what?' I'm a teacher of respect." He added that he had a "hit list. Whoever dissed me in the past is on it." His "hits," though, would be in rhyme.
KRS-One was serious, as evidenced on his next album, 1992's Sex and Violence, which returned to the hardcore sound of early BDP. Creem's Suzanne McElfresh declared that the record "delivers slamming beats and hooks galore, hit-hard lyrics and KRS-One's trademark execution, which varies between straight-on conversational, emphatic oratorical romping and a musical Jamaican lilt." Dimitri Ehrlich commented in Spin that "there is a sense of delight, confidence, creativity, and sheer pleasure that KRS-One has been unable to generate since By All Means Necessary. "Of the track "Like a Throttle" Ehrlich asserted that it "ranks among the best rap songs of all time." Among the other tracks on the album are "Duck Down," which contains a message to "Sucker MC's," "Build and Destroy," and the single "13 and Good." Entertainment Weekly took exception to the latter song, calling it "not only tacky but so inept you'd like to forget it's on the album at all," but otherwise deemed Sex and Violence "funky from beginning to end."
The BDP posse had changed again. Kris had divorced Ms. Melodie, and she and Harmony left the group, as did D-Nice. Kris's brother Kenny Parker, noted producer Prince Paul, Pal Joey, and D-Square were the crew for Sex and Violence, a record "my audience asked for," Kris told a New York Daily News correspondent. He explained that his core followers wanted him to reprise the hard-edged sound he had established on Criminal Minded. "So Sex and Violence for my audience is like, 'Here it is. He's given us what we want!' Now I can go back to raising consciousness for five more years. And I'm not contradicting myself. A TV set doesn't just have one channel, and neither do I."
His newfound contentiousness may have surprised journalists who knew only his "edutainer" side, but KRS-One's message has always been about fighting and taking unpopular stands. "World peace is the issue. I want to be remembered as the first ghetto kid to jump up for world peace, because the stereotype is that all ghetto kids want to do is sell drugs and rob each other, which isn't fact. I came from the heart of the ghettohere ain't no suburbia in me!," the rapper exclaimed in Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction. Though critics have confronted him with the contradictions of his violent raps in the context of the Stop the Violence movement, KRS-One refuses to be pinned down; as he told Schecter, "I got all kinda flavors. I got styles that I didn't even start doin' yet."
With Boogie Down Productions
Criminal Minded (includes "Elementary," "9 mm Goes Bang," and "South Bronx"), B Boy, 1986.
By All Means Necessary (includes "My Philosophy" and "Stop the Violence"), Jive, 1988.
Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop (includes "Why is That?" and "Jack of Spades"), Jive, 1989.
Edutainment(includes "Love's Gonna Get'cha [Material Love]"), Jive, 1990.
Live Hardcore Worldwide, Jive, 1991.
Sex and Violence (includes "Like a Throttle," "Duck Down," "Build and Destroy," and "13 and Good"), Jive, 1992.
Stop the Violence, "Self Destruction," MCA, 1989.
H.E.A.L., Civilization vs. Technology, Edutainer, 1991.
R.E.M., Out of Time (appears on "Radio Song"), Warner Bros., 1991.
Too Much Joy, Cereal Killers (appears on "Good Kill"), Warner Bros., 1991.
Creem, May 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, March 27, 1992.
Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop (liner notes), Jive, 1989.
New York Daily News, April 2, 1992.
People, February 27, 1989.
Pulse!, August 1992.
Rap Pages, April 1992.
Rolling Stone, October 5, 1989; May 30, 1991; June 27, 1991.
The Source, April 1992.
Spin, April 1992; May 1992.
USA Today, March 6, 1992.
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