Whether he's still "number one" is immaterial. What matters is that, after over two decades in hip-hop, KRS-One is here to say the culture is still alive. And that sound in his voice? That's pure joy.
This ain't no bullsh*t game and I ain't changed.
I'm just thinking long range.
People died so I can rhyme,
You think I'm gonna grab the mic and waste my nation's time?
-- Boogie Down Productions/KRS-One, "We In There", Sex & Violence (1992)
Question: Are you really all that fresh?
Answer: Yes... yes... yes!
-- Boogie Down Productions/KRS-One, "Questions & Answers", Sex & Violence (1992)
In the Boogie Down Productions song "Questions & Answers", from the album Sex & Violence, KRS-One interviewed himself in rhyme form. In honor of that song and in appreciation of KRS-One's 20-plus years as a hip-hop performer, the following review of Hip Hop Lives is structured as an interview.
Question: With Hip Hop Lives, it seems KRS-One and Marley Marl set out to craft a response to Nas' Hip Hop Is Dead LP. Do you think a response is necessary? If so, do you think Hip Hop Lives succeeds in that response?
Answer: Actually, I don't think Hip Hop Lives is an answer to Hip Hop Is Dead. Like KRS-One himself said in Sex & Violence's "The Real Holy Place", "If you don't know the history of the author, you don't know what you've read." And so it is with KRS-One. It might seem like KRS-One is riding Nas' coattails if you don't know that KRS-One's been pumping out classic records since 1986's Criminal Minded or that he's written three hip-hop-related books or that he's founded three grassroots organizations designed to promote community awareness and renewal. Just like there are people who've been saying hip-hop is destructive and degrading. But if you knew that KRS-One, through his skills as an emcee and his mission to make his listeners think critically, went from being poor and homeless to being one of the most respected performers in the world, it would be harder for you to make a blanket statement about the "evils" of rap music.
To me, it makes sense that KRS-One would record an album called Hip Hop Lives. Everybody's jumping on the "hip-hop is dead" bandwagon now, having panel discussions and organizing marches and so forth, but KRS-One's been doing this sort of "edutainment" -- rapping about pride, empowerment, education, and respect -- for years. That's probably why, in the song "I Was There", KRS goes through a laundry list of stuff he was "there" for -- the start of various hip-hop magazines and labels, altercations between Death Row and Bad Boy, the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict, to name a few. He asks the "rap historians" and critics, "And where were you?" There's a historical side to the album, but it's not as fleshed out as it could be. You kind of have to take this album and listen to it along with KRS-One's previous releases to round it out.
Question: Well, the album's opening skit is set at a funeral, with a preacher performing a eulogy for Hip Hop, and then someone starts screaming, "It's alive! I've seen it!" You don't think that skit plays on Hip Hop is Dead?
Answer: I suppose it does, since "hip-hop is dead" seems to be the main point of discussion right now. But I really don't think that's what Hip Hop Lives is about. I will, however, applaud Marley and KRS for keeping the skits and interludes to a minimum. And the skits are tracked, rather than randomly tacked onto songs like the skits were on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I'm still a little mad about those. On Hip Hop Lives, we've got the intro you mentioned, and also "M.A.R.L.E.Y.", a skit with (who else?) Marley Marl talking to Red about Red's hip-hop experiences, like the spots he used to rock in the Bronx with Afrika Bambaataa and other legendary figures. The acronym in the skit stands for "Marley And Red Living Everyday Youthfully".
KRS-One is fond of acronyms, isn't he? His name stands for "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody" and he founded H.E.A.L., which means "Human Education Against Lies". He also did a song called "R.E.A.L.I.T.Y.", with the explanatory chorus, "Rhymes Equal Actual Life In The Youth". Did I tell you I recently turned my name -- Quentin -- into an acronym? I'm going to be "Quietly, Under Everyone's Noses, Taking Information Nationwide". That's hot, ain't it, son? That's John Blaze, kid. Admit it!
Question: Uh, yeah, okay. Well, what about in "The Teacha's Back" when KRS-One claims he and Marley Marl are bringing it back to the "Golden Age"? That also seems like a reaction to the times. Don't you think a lot of people would like to get back to the "good ol' days" in rap?
Answer: I knew that would come up. That's what I get for ranting about the so-called "Golden Age of Rap" theory. Basically, I just get nervous when we start romanticizing a time period, like when you read stuff like, "Black families in the U.S. had stronger bonds during slavery than they do now," and I'm like, "Hmm…but do we want to go back to that time period to find out? I'm gonna have to cast my Black-Dude-Vote for 'Let's move forward' on that issue." No matter the topic, there will always be some good things going on and some not-so-good things going on. Everyone seems to remember the time period of the late '80s and early '90s as a fountain of positive hip-hop, perfect and idyllic, which basically lasted until "gangsta" rap killed it. I'm not so sure about "gangsta" rap messing everything up. It definitely helped me get through law school -- that was me late at night, chanting, "Straight outta Torts class, crazy ass jurist named Learned Hand…", so maybe I'm biased or whatever.
But my concern is that when our memories get selective about the time period, it means we'll champion groups like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest, which we absolutely should, but we'll pretend Kid 'N' Play and MC Hammer didn't exist or that they weren't as "serious" in their artistry as Poor Righteous Teachers or Brand Nubian. I have yet to hear someone say, "You know, I wish hip-hop would go back to the way it used to be. That 'U Can't Touch This' joint was the bomb!"
KRS-One namedrops "Golden Age" cats on Hip Hop Lives -- Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, Kool G. Rap, MC Shan, and rightly so. Just like we shouldn't forget Digital Underground or Tone Loc. At the same time, we act like everything in the "Golden Age" was really golden. I remember some wack songs back then. And I can't be the only one, since the lyrics back then about emcees "sellin' out" and "bein' commercial" and "frontin' like they're hardcore" sound eerily similar to the criticisms we hear today.
Question: So, if Hip Hop Lives isn't an answer record, what's the point?
Answer: I'm not saying KRS can't make an answer record. I mean, he built his career on that in the '80s when he answered MC Shan's "Queensbridge" record with "South Bronx" (the south, south Bronx!). He rhymes about this in detail on "Rising to the Top", giving respect to Marley and the Juice Crew for putting him on and allowing the battle rhymes to take place between the two camps. I can't stand the sing-songy chorus, though, with KRS singing, "We keep rising to the top", followed by a Jodeci-like "Gimme all you got, gimme all you got". I don't like it when KRS-One sings, even when he's only belting out a line or two. It always reminds me of Biz Markie's "Just a Friend". [Shiver]. But anyway, it's also worth remembering that this album isn't just credited to KRS-One; it's KRS-One and Marley Marl. You've got two minds at work here, not just the KRS-One agenda.
If Nas hadn't released Hip Hop Is Dead, KRS-One could have still recorded this album, or an album with similar themes. It's a celebration of hip-hop ("If you're thinking that hip-hop is alive, hold up your lighters", he says in the title track). At the same time, it's also a celebration of KRS-One's many years in the business. As he said long ago in "De Automatic", 1986 to 1996 completed his "first cycle". So I would assume the "second cycle" -- whatever these cycles are -- commenced from 1996 to the 2006 release, Life. That means this is the first year of his "third cycle", and he's kicking it off with this album.
I suppose KRS-One's controversial "I Am Hip Hop" slogan could also account for this album's intermingling of the culture with his career. If KRS-One equals Hip-Hop, then you could substitute KRS-One into the title and it would be "KRS-One Lives". And it goes both ways. When KRS-One catalogues the events he's witnessed in "I Was There", you could substitute "Hip Hop" for "I" and look at it like, "Hip Hop was there". Well, maybe not the part about helping to rewrite record company contracts -- I haven't seen a major label record contract that I would take credit for -- but you get what I'm saying.
In terms of the celebration, you've got the title track, where he's breaking down the various meanings of "hip" and "hop". Here, let me play it:
'Hip' means 'to know'
It's a form of intelligence.
To be 'Hip' is to be update and relevant.
'Hop' is a form of movement;
You can't just observe a hop,
You gotta hop up and do it.
'Hip' and 'Hop' is more than music;
'Hip' is the knowledge, 'Hop' is the movement.
Although it reminds me of something a kid might hear on Blue's Clues or Sesame Street, his points are well taken. The celebration is also evident in the upbeat "This Is What It Is" and the Latin-tinged "Musika", featuring Magic Juan and a seriously well-placed horn loop that shrieks happily into outer space. In terms of the career-oriented tracks, the album gives us songs like "Rising to the Top", "I Was There", and "The Teacha's Back".
Question: So Hip Hop Lives is nothing more than the same ol' thing for KRS-One?
Answer: I wouldn't phrase it that way, but yeah. The album has a classic KRS-One structure. It’s got the hard beats we’re accustomed to hearing in KRS-One songs, courtesy of Marley Marl, plus that booming voice of his blasting out lyrics for days about hip hop culture, or as the phrase has been spelled on KRS-One’s Temple of Hip-Hop website, "Hip Hop Kulture". Speaking of voices, rappers like KRS-One and Chuck D are to hip-hop what James Earl Jones and Sean Connery are to acting -- their voices are commanding and instantly recognizable.
I'm inclined to think KRS has already made this album a few times before, under the Boogie Down Productions umbrella with Sex and Violence (1992), and under his own name with Return of the Boom Bap (1993), KRS-One (1995), and I Got Next (1997). I happen to like those releases better than this one. In the past, he's covered more lyrical ground. On Sex & Violence alone he dropped rhymes about religion ("The Real Holy Place"), critics ("Questions & Answers"), paying taxes ("Who Are the Pimps?"), and surviving in the music business ("How Not to Get Jerked"). There's even a song that says, "Look, if you're going to sell drugs in spite of what everybody says, why don't you take your money and invest it in something positive for the community?" ("Drug Dealer").
Question: Doesn't that sound like "money laundering"?
Answer: Luckily, that's not the point. The point is that he covered more ground on his previous albums. Here, the topics are more limited and the ones he's covering aren't as imaginative as I would've expected.
Question: You mentioned the old battles between Marley Marl and KRS-One. Some articles have suggested that a reunion between the two is not a big deal anymore or, worse, that it's a case of two over-the-hill performers coming together for a project they should have made 20 years ago. What do you make of that?
Answer: Well, it certainly explains KRS-One's lyrical disses to "critics" and "rap historians" on Hip Hop Lives. In "Nothing New", for example, he talks about having fun with the critics and how critics "wanna debate every line / but tryin' to get into my concerts, same time". And he mentions his age a couple of times too, like in "Over 30", when he says, over the snappy, jingling percussion, "I'm already 40, some say I need to stop it".
Question: You don't think that's a little old to try to "rock the party"?
Answer: Not at all. KRS-One does rock parties, and hip-hop is better with KRS-One releasing albums than not releasing albums. Plus, it's not like he's toting a "gangsta" persona or a "playa image", both of which seem like they'd be less believable after a rapper hits a certain age. If 50 Cent is still "In Da Club" or still taking bullets when he's 50 years old, he might have a hard time making that work. Then again, I know people who watched Rocky Balboa and were actually able to take the leap of faith that 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone could stay in the ring with real life boxer Antonio Tarver for more than a round. I was like, "Tarver, who in the world sent you that script? And who told you it was a good idea to say 'yes'? Didn't you see what happened to Apollo Creed and Mr. T.? Brothas don't tend to do well in Rocky flicks."
Question: What? You didn't like Rocky?! What kind of critic are you?
Answer: Hey, if that's your thing, more power to you. But if we can give something as improbable as Rocky Balboa a chance, then certainly we can suspend our skepticism enough to let KRS-One be a "rapper" after age 40. Especially since he's been honing his image as a "Teacha", not a "gangsta". More appropriately, in "This Is What It Is", he says, "Now it's time to hear from the philosophers". "Philosopher" works better for him, as someone who tries to get the audience to see things from different perspectives. The "Teacha" and "Philosopher" images are more conducive to longevity.
Regarding the collaboration between Marley Marl and KRS-One, I guess it's been a long time coming, but that, to me, confirms the relevance of it. If you're into the history of rap at all, a collaboration between these two guys should at least raise an eyebrow like, "Hey, that might be interesting." It's like if LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee decided to do a record together. I'd be interested in hearing the result. I wouldn't miss the release date of a new Final Fantasy videogame to listen to it, but I'd get around to checking it out.
When Robert De Niro and Al Pacino teamed up in the movie Heat, people were like, "Wow, this is such a historic event." De Niro and Pacino were both in The Godfather Part II, but they didn't share any scenes, so when Heat came around, it was a hot topic. It wasn't like, "Look at these old ass actors trying to milk some screen time together." But maybe that says more about us, as hip-hop fans, and how we don't take care of our legends and give our stars the leeway to try new things. Besides, anytime you can show people collaborating and working together, that's a powerful statement. I don't see how that can be irrelevant.
I was excited about how KRS-One would sound over Marley's beats, largely because Marley Marl is an experienced and damn good producer, and also because I never know what I'm going to get from KRS-One. He usually surprises me or comes up with a style I never expected. Like on his self-titled album, there's the song "Hold", where he found a way to end every line with the word "hold". Or on Sex & Violence, he interviewed himself in the song "Questions & Answers". Or how about his foray into rock rap on I Got Next's Just to Prove a Point? That's the same album where he dropped that bizarre-but-genius second verse in Over Your Head.
Question: Did you get what you wanted from the collaboration?
Answer: Yes and no. I enjoyed the production better than the lyrical execution, except for the carnival-sounding loop in "Rising to the Top". Some of KRS-One's similes, like emcees getting "chewed up like seafood platters" or having "no spears like Britney", sounded a little less precise than usual.
Question: You're one of those critics he was talking about, aren't you? The ones who try to debate every line!
Answer: I know. I've been working on reviewing the silences between the lyrics, but I haven't perfected it yet. But anyway, I expected the beats to be hard, and they were, particularly with the heavy drumbeats of the title track and the kick drum in "The Teacha's Back". I expected Marley's backdrops to complement KRS-One's voice, which they mostly did. My favorite productions were "Musika" (again, those horn loops are fantastic), "All Skool" (another jam with a hard beat), and "Victory" (with some cool jazzy club-style plucking). Those are probably the songs I like best, too, although I did like the way "Kill a Rapper" has a noise in the background that sounds like beer bottles clinking together. Since the song laments hip-hop's unsolved murders -- from KRS-One's pal Scott La Rock, to Tupac and Biggie, to Big L and Jam Master Jay -- that bottle sound gives the tune a pour-out-some-liquor-for-your-homies vibe. Very nice. Quite appropriate.
Question: I hear "Kill a Rapper" is one of the best cuts on the album. Is that true?
Answer: I heard that rumor too, but "Victory" worked better for me. Featuring Blaq Poet and, according to KRS-One's adlibs, DJ Premier, "Victory" is a sharper song that positively addresses KRS-One's artistry ("To uplift my people is the reason I came / If you believe in peace then we believe in the same") and the collaborative nature of the project, with Poet rhyming about "burying the hatchet" by being on the track with the guy who "dissed Queensbridge".
"Kill a Rapper", I think, makes an intriguing point; namely, that the police don't seem to solve murders involving rappers. My problem with the song is that Chris Rock already did a standup routine on this very topic, so the song seems less original and therefore less effective. When the chorus goes, "You wanna get away with murder, kill a rapper", I keep thinking of Chris saying:
The government hates rap. You know why I say that? 'Cause they don't arrest anybody that kills rappers. They don't got no clues, no suspects…they don't have sh*t when it's a dead rapper. They don't fill out a police report. They don't even have a chalk line when it's a dead rapper. If you wanna get away with murder, all you gotta do is shoot somebody in the head…and put a demo tape in their pocket.
Why does Chris Rock sometimes sound like Gilbert Gottfried? Anyway, I'm hoping KRS wrote "Kill a Rapper" before Chris Rock performed his material. Even still, with the lyrics being so similar to the jokes, I probably would have said, "Let's put a different song on the album." On the positive side, KRS does expand slightly on the core concept by suggesting that rap murders can turn into something symbolic, that the tragedies can be reduced to images with the effect of encouraging some listeners to emulate the hype. Similarly, "Rising to the Top" strikes me as a less effective version of "Outta Here", from Return of the Boom Bap.
But, in "Hip Hop Lives", I like the way he revisits his "We will be here forever" line from Boom Bap's intro track. Hopefully, he's talking about "hip-hop". And who knows? Hopefully, he's right and it really will be here forever. He's certainly cemented his place in it.