In the matter of New York’s KRS-One, it’s difficult to separate the man from the myth. Raised in poverty by a single mother, Lawrence Krsna (Chris) Parker left home at a young age. The library-loving autodidact wound up living at a Bronx homeless shelter where he met social worker Scott Sterling. Taking the names Blastmaster KRS-One (a loose acronym for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Almost Every One) and DJ Scott LaRock, the duo formed Boogie Down Productions as an umbrella organization for various musical endeavors and cut the self-financed single “Crack Attack.” They hooked up with producer Ced Gee to cut “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over,” monumental records that toppled the Queens-based Juice Crew and cemented the boogie-down Bronx’s place in the history of hip-hop. These tracks, along with the sublime “Poetry” and the shocking “9mm Goes Bang,” formed the basis of Criminal Minded.
Hip-hop has always been about competition and leveling — thus its fascination with violent metaphor and its insistence that heroes be “real.” But because rap arose during a period of racial polarization and political reaction, it has also been looked to as an authentic source of social commentary. Dropped at a crucial moment, the lasting brilliance of Criminal Minded lies in the way it encapsulates these essentially divergent functions.
On 25 August 1987, shortly after the record took off (it went on to sell nearly a million copies), Scott LaRock was shot to death while coming to the aid of rapper D-Nice. (Man and His Music is an unessential posthumous collection of remixes and early demos, including a track by D-Nice.) All of 22 but worldly wise, KRS-One bounced back with By All Means Necessary, appearing on the cover toting an Uzi in a self-defense stance carefully echoing a famous photograph of Malcolm X. In his newly articulated roles as metaphysician and teacher, Parker condemns self- destruction in “Stop the Violence” and shows impatience for hypocritical outsiders on “Necessary.” BDP’s most coherent record musically and lyrically, each track resonates powerfully, from the far-ranging manifesto “My Philosophy” to the drug conspiracies of “Illegal Business” and the battle-ready rhymes of “I’m Still #1.” (“Stop the Violence” led to Self Destruction, an all-star benefit 12-inch produced by KRS-One and D-Nice and featuring an impressive cast: Kool Moe Dee, Just-Ice, MC Lyte, members of Stetsasonic and Public Enemy, plus Parker’s wife, Ramona “Ms. Melodie” Parker.)
Ghetto Music presents BDP as a full-fledged crew — including D-Nice, Willie D., Ms. Melodie and Harmony — while experimenting with a crossover dancehall/ hip-hop sound. KRS-One’s tendency toward humorless self-righteousness makes his knowledge go down like medicine, not music, and the album’s generally uninspiring and murky beats make his lessons even less inviting. Only the singles “Why Is That?,” “You Must Learn” and “Jack of Spades” pack real punch. The dubwise “Jah Rulez” showcases impassioned singing by Ms. Melodie’s younger sister, Pamela “Harmony” Scott.
Edutainment is indeed educational, but hardly as entertaining as previous BDP albums. The thirteen bare- bones tracks are interspersed with six excerpts from lectures by KRS-One and Kwame Touré (formerly Stokely Carmichael). Allowing some bitterness and sarcasm to mingle with his thoughtful commentary, KRS lashes out at meat-eaters, the music industry and “house niggas.” But few of the tracks have musical hooks as strong as their stories. The two most musically successful are “100 Guns,” a relentless account of driving across the country with a trunk full of weapons, and “The Homeless,” a bitter state-of-the-black-nation address (“Not fully American / We’re getting there slowly”) set to an African-styled rhythm. (The CD and cassette contain three bonus tracks, including “7 Dee Jays,” a nine-minute reggae number that features various posse members.)
Ya Know The Rules includes three mixes of the Edutainment track for which it’s named plus live versions (all from Live Hardcore Worldwide) of “Criminal Minded” and “The Bridge Is Over” (from the debut) and the second album’s “Jimmy.”
Although losing out to the 2 Live Crew as the first group to release a live rap album, BDP proves even more explosive on stage than in the studio. The Live Hardcore Worldwide collection of concert performances is an excellent document, both in terms of the group’s onstage power and as a retrospective, but seemed like a holding action against the inevitable. Likewise, Sex and Violence did nothing to quell fears that the mighty was falling. Most of the album sounds as if it had been better done before; “13 and Good” is a one-note joke that isn’t very funny.
Finally, KRS-One jettisoned the crew, went solo to cut the amazing single “Black Cop” and the self- analytical “Outta Here,” and then turned in his most memorable record since By All Means Necessary. The title track of Return of the Boom Bap strips the sound (“It’s the return of the real hard beats and real rap”) and his attitude (“I’m an around the way guy with a baseball cap”) back to basic elements. DJ Premier’s propulsive production is a revelation, a perfect fit with KRS-One’s aggressive rhyming. Catching a second creative wind, KRS has since produced records for members of the new BDP posse, including Channel Live and Mad Lion, and released an excellent B-side, “Hip Hop Vs. Rap.” The eponymous follow-up maintains Boom Bap‘s high standards, particularly on the irrepressibly funky “Rappaz R.N. Dainja,” in which Premier styles a hip-hop march for KRS-One to tear the roof off like a bayou hurricane.
Besides his solo career and doing the lecture circuit, KRS-One has become an in-demand producer, working with both hip-hop and reggae artists, including Sly and Robbie, Ziggy Marley and Mikey Dread. He’s also taken an active role in BDP’s expanding roster, producing albums for both Ms. Melodie and Harmony. While the former’s Diva is simply mediocre, Let There Be Harmony is an intriguing, if erratic, effort. Harmony alternately applies her rich gospelly voice to mushy love songs and raps about tough revolutionary politics — and Christian piety.
Displaying more production skills than lyrical depth, D-Nice (Derrick Jones) steps out on Call Me D-Nice, a great-sounding mix of hip-hop, soul and reggae that — with the positive edutainment exceptions of “A Few Dollars More” and “Glory” — stays pretty close to kiss/dis clichés. KRS-One makes an avuncular guest appearance on “The TR 808 Is Coming.”
In yet another facet of BDP’s business, toaster/rapper Jamal-ski is featured on one side of a 1990 12-inch, speeding his way through “Let’s Do It.”