KRS One is dressed in all black — wearing a black beanie on his head and a black ‘Stop The Violence’ graffiti t-shirt. He is dripping sweat from his enthusiastic performance at City Limits in Delray Beach, Florida, which has just ended about ten minutes ago.
He is wide eyed and excited, ready to get to the interview — he grabs a white towel and wipes his face as he sits down on the lazy boy in the small green room.
Listen to the interview:
The tiny room is stacked with his entourage and other select individuals. I wade through the bodies and extend my hand in introduction to my man KRS One. As a fan of underground hip-hop for as many years as I have been listening to music, to meet a performer of such stature and influence is a great honor. He is immediately engaging and ready to dialogue right there with all twenty or so people looking on. “You know there is no me without you. I know it sounds corny but it’s the truth.” A video camera is aimed at us, I sit on the couch next to him and prop my microphone about a foot and half from our faces. The Closer staff photographer flashes photos as we talk about music, religion, politics and the economy.
KRS One is not just a performer; he is a poet and a guide. His positive message of hope has been the defining theme throughout his body of work. Now ready to embark on his seventeenth album he is one of the most prolific rappers in the history of hip-hop music. Growing up in the South Bronx he experienced the hard realities of street life but did not give in to it. When many rappers go and glorify the violence of the streets he takes a different tact — he offers his listeners an alternative. A path lined with opportunity — of knowing yourself and creating success. The urban strife and the frustration of the people inspired him to make music. As if channeling their voice he is driven to rhyme. He details what drives him, “Most of my work especially now has to do with becoming the people, the consciousness of the people I’m speaking to.” Hip-hop certainly began as the populist voice even if it has drifted into the realm of ego and selfish glorification. But in it’s purest form it was the voice of the streets. KRS goes further, “For some reason when it comes to hip-hop and especially when it comes to the emcee it’s scarcely about you. It’s about what the people think and if you can say what the people think, they are inspired.
The degradation of hip-hop music is something that KRS highlights in a lot of his lyrics. He rightly points out the negative forces in the industry that have conspired to strangle the true spirit of the music. An outspoken critic of commercial hip-hop KRS makes his argument, “The state of hip-hop is great. The state of rap is terrible. If we talk about lowercase h-i-p-h-o-p, as in product, as in rap music product, that is falling apart.” He sees commercial rap as a commodity that lacks artistic merit.
Conscious rap has been relegated to the underground as commercial rap has risen to dominance. He feels that this commoditization is a result of the complacency that grew during the time of plenty, “In the 90s when the stock market was going crazy every one was getting money. These companies were winning — no one wanted to hear the conscious message.” There is credence to that argument; hip-hop is the most popular and best selling music genre at the moment and it is arguably putting out the lowest quality output in its history. The economic down turn gives people a chance to step away and reflect. “Now is the best time to practice hip-hop”, he says, “now is the time, the country is falling apart, the economy is circling the toilet bowl. When you lose your job you find your work.” That work is the passion to create something that really matters instead of just making money.
So how did we get here? KRS believes that the American spirit is broken. He points out, “There used to be a time when the American people believed in their country. You still believed the president was an upstanding dude.” The dejected American people are now at a desperate point but he is still positive about the future. “The bottom line is we are gonna get better. I am very optimistic about this. First of all I’ve lived long enough to know this, I’ve been through it. When I was young I was here. I went through the gas thing and the Shah of Iran.”
The American people have lost faith in their leaders in government and in the church. KRS has become disillusioned with the incumbent Christian leadership and he points out that many others have as well. “I would call myself more a Christ-tian than a Christian and that’s what real Christian’s are today. There’s an underground church, there’s a church community across the board that’s sick of their own church, tired of the nonsense that’s going on Christianity.” It’s this widespread disaffection that KRS believes will encourage people to make positive change and choose the righteous path. He is there to usher that new world in with his positive rhymes and lyrical wisdom.
He leaves me with some words of wisdom as he articulates his core message “Our message is constant. Live a simple life. Live within your means. This is the discipline. If you can get more don’t. Okay you can turn your volume up a little bit. But if they’re at 10 and you’re at 5 go to 6, squeeze yourself to 7. But it’s balance, it really is.”
Read the full transcript here:
Words: Shaun Flagg