Now Hear This: KRS-One's Guide to Hip Hop

Posted: Tuesday 5 July 2016

'Rap is something we do, hip hop is something we live.'

A budding hiphoppa? Get up to speed with an old school education in the culture of rap and hip hop courtesy of the one, the only, KRS-One.

For the uneducated tell us where it all started for you?

In the South Bronx, the South, South Bronx! Although I was born in Brooklyn, New York, my hip hop birth begins in 1973 at 1600 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, which is the building just across from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue where Kool DJ Herc started focusing his mix on playing the musical breaks of certain songs like 'Apache' and 'Funky Drummer'.

I was about 8 years of age when all this began. Later I moved back to Brooklyn around 1975 and left home around 1981 to wander the streets of New York pursuing God, philosophy and hip hop. Around 1985 I met DJ Scott La Rock at a homeless shelter in the Bronx and we formed the rap group Boogie Down Productions that released the song South Bronx—and the rest is history.

Anger, angst, heartbreak all make engaging subject matter for songs. What do you think makes engaging subject matter in a hip hop track?

The same things, 'anger, angst, heartbreak', but I would also add courage, faith and passion. As I often teach, hip hop is the culture that rap music comes from. Like breakin', deejayin', beatboxin' and aerosol art, the art of emceein' (rap) is only one element of the total hip hop culture. Rap is something we do, while hip hop is something we live. Hip hop causes rap to occur.

So, when asking, 'what do you think makes engaging subject matter in a hip hop track?' The first answer is that hip hop is NOT music; it (hip hop) is the culture that produces not only emceein' (rap), but also deejayin', aerosol art, breakin, beatboxin' and more. Technically there really are no 'hip hop' tracks or 'hip hop' music, there are only rap tracks or rap music. Rap is the music; hip hop is the culture that produces rap music.

But to answer your question directly, the secret to writing 'engaging subject matter in a hip hop (rap) track' begins with rhyming or singing about what is already on the minds of hiphoppas. A good emcee engages the public with rhymes and rhyme styles that are already appreciated by that emcee’s audience. Sometimes an emcee can introduce a new topic to her/his audience, but this is risky, and only master emcees can really do this and be successful at it. Unfortunately, 'anger', 'angst' and 'heartbreak' are frequent emotions experienced by many people making 'anger', 'angst' and 'heartbreak' successful subject matters for any public orator.

But equally, courage, faith and passion are also experienced by just as many people and can also be expressed as engaging subject matter. Rap music has many of these kinds of tracks and songs to choose from. 

DJs, producers. Who is your all-time favourite and is there anyone out there you love to work with?

This may sound crazy or arrogant, but my experience with DJs and producers is a bit different than most people. I created much of the sounds and music styles that today’s rap produces. Most people don’t know this, or they choose to ignore this, but factually speaking, much of today’s rap music and production styles are influenced or directly taken from my work in the 1980s and 1990s; a style of rap music production I called 'Boom Bap'.

It started on the Criminal Minded album (1987) with 'The Bridge Is Over' and we updated it on the Return of the Boom Bap album produced by DJ Premier, DJ Kenny Parker, DJ Kid Capri and myself (1993). In fact, if you listen to the heavy bass sounds of today’s trap music, dance music and rap music, all of these can be traced back to a song I did called 'Love’s Gonna Getcha', produced by Pal Joey. This was the first time the 808 kick drum sound was ever used in such a way.

I will humbly say that I don’t really have a 'favourite' DJ or producer because I influenced most of the DJs and/or producers whose musical styles I enjoy today. Even well-respected producers still sample my kicks and snares from the 1980s and I respect that, but my favourite DJ/producer today would be my son DJ Predator Prime who produced much of the music on my latest album Now Hear This and is the DJ for KRS-One at this time.

Your favourite MC/lyricist/wordsmith? Ok, that’s tricky! Favourite five?

'I’m not sayin’ I’m number one, oh sorry I lied, I’m number one, two, three, four and five!' Again, I say humbly here that I don’t really have a 'favourite five' or a 'top five'. Sometimes emcees spit rhymes that I admire and other times they don’t.

But I do respect real emcees like the Lox, Ras Kass, Big Daddy Kane, Supernatural, Rakim, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli, Rah Digga, Wise Intelligent, Dilated Peoples, Buckshot, Fat Joe, Joell Ortiz, Cassidy (The Hustla), Naughty By Nature, and so on.   

It’s come a long way. Where do you think hip hop is at presently and who do you see as the next group of ‘torch bearers’ to take hip hop forward?

Hip hop is great at this present moment! We are still learning about ourselves, but we have also learned much about ourselves over the last few years. There are still too many people however, claiming to be 'hip hop' but have no real loyalty to the culture or to the culture’s founders. Too many people today still regard hip hop as simply a music genre, and not the global urban culture that it is. And this is because, most people are only out to use hip hop for all that they can get from it.

They care nothing for the life of hip hop itself, and it is these people that we must rid our culture of! If you are truly a citizen of the hip hop civilisation, then be loyal to that. Get yourself a copy of the Gospel of Hip Hop and live by that! Peace, love, unity and joy must lead your every action and thought regarding hip hop. Corporations and government agencies of all sorts are actively trying to exploit 'hip hop' and discredit hip hop’s leadership and legacy, and only the ignorant and the immature fall for these kinds of attacks; but not the wise.

We as Hiphoppas must stick together no matter what! So, 'the next group of torch-bearers to take hip hop forward' may not be emcees, deejays or B-girls/B-boys at all; it may indeed be a new sect of young thinkers, young attorneys, young doctors, young architects, young inventors and business entrepreneurs, young authors and teachers. These types of professionals may indeed be 'the next group of torch-bearers to take hip hop forward'.


You're an international artist. What's been your most memorable show and why?

It was August 2007. I was performing in Brooklyn, and it was there that I confirmed my metaphysical/spiritual training - I gained enlightenment. Back in 1981 to about 1983 I was living as a homeless man in Brooklyn. Like I said, I was searching for God and hip hop, or rather God in hip hop. One of the places that I found shelter at was Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Whenever it was raining or snowing I would go to an abandoned band-shell performance area in the park; a huge stage area with a concrete semi-dome over the stage. But all of this was torn-up, broken, cracked and had been abandoned for years. Rats, birds, dogs and other homeless people shared this same space as well.

Living on the literal street, God and spiritual living as well as hip hop itself had to become real for me or I was literally going to die, or be seriously injured. So, I began praying and visualising my future better than where I was at that moment. Hungry, thirsty, cold and afraid I would find my spot under this band-shell, and using the broken-down and corroded environment that it was at the time, I would visualise myself performing for thousands of people. I begged God to make this reality for me, and if She did I would know for sure that God was indeed REAL, and the mind is indeed a reality maker. As a man thinketh; so he is.

Some 20-something years later in 2007 I found myself in Brooklyn performing at this same band-shell which was now re-done, renovated and beautiful! As I proceeded to rock Brooklyn, I stopped the entire to show to acknowledge my childhood affirmation and the fact that God was indeed REAL! As I told the crowd about the significance of me being at this very place, I saw people literally crying with joy and amazement. With about 9,000 people watching me perform at this free concert in the park, I then went to the very spot in the band-shell that I slept and visualised at in the 1980s and confirmed to my past-self that I had arrived at my future (present) self. I realised right there that not only is God real, but so is the power of one’s own mind!

Do you listen to UK hip hop? Who do you rate?

I listen to 'hip hop' (i.e. rap), I don’t really differentiate between UK and US rappers, or UK and European rappers; I just look for skills no matter who’s spittin’.

How do UK crowds stand-up to home crowds?

There’s no comparison. Hip hop is much more appreciated in the UK as well as throughout Europe than it is in the United States; especially my style of emceein'. The 'conscious' rapper can actually live in peace, raise a family, and get money as well as respect in the UK and Europe. Yes, Americans of all backgrounds do respect the 'conscious' rapper, but very few Americans back that respect up with real money and real opportunities. Having said that, I must shout-out Rock the Bells festival, which doesn’t happen anymore, and Made in America festival, as well as Roots Picnic festival, which I had to reluctantly cancel my appearances at this year due to my European tour being extended from July to November.

These festivals, along with venues like SOB's in New York, Whisky a Go Go and the Roxy in Los Angeles, the Middle East in Boston and Yoshi’s in Oakland, California have, among others, all shown KRS-One real respect and real financial opportunities in the United States.

Live shows are made of many elements, but also the supporting acts. Who's your dream support act?

Well again, you are talking to an emcee that has had every major rap group and rapper open up for him at some point in their careers. I don’t really have a favourite here either, but I presented two new artists on my recent tour. One, MC G Santana, is an emcee, and the other, King Spacely is a beat-boxer. They opened for me as well as perform with me. G. Simone also presented some of her songs on that tour as well.

Recently, R.A. the Rugged Man, Mr. Green and A-F-R-O opened for me throughout Spain and it was wonderful! Even DJ Premiere even opened for me in London recently. What more can a true hip hop head like me ask for?

Favourite track for opening? Favourite encore track?

'Step Into A World' opens, and tracks off of my new album Now Hear This closes. Hip hop forever!

See KRS-One live at Arts Club Liverpool on Thursday 22 September.

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KRS-One's latest album, Now Here This, is out now. Find out more at