wax Poetics
KRS-One at Jive Records, London, 1988. Photo by David Corio/Redferns.jpg

The Teacher

KRS-One Preaches the Hip-Hop Gospel

published online
Originally published in Issue 41, 2010
By Travis Atria

He was born from the nozzle of a spray-paint can. His hip-hop cradle was a homeless shelter. At age thirteen, he ran away from home and lived on streets that could have easily crushed a man twice his age. 

It was the South Bronx, 1978—the borough crawled with pimps, hustlers, hookers, pushers, and addicts. But Kris Parker spent most of his time studying philosophy and religion at the public library. When he wasn’t there, he was spraying graffiti on crumbling walls in grimy alleys. As the paint left the can, Parker erased his given name and created a new one, a tag written in defiant colors for the police, the dope fiends, and the gangbangers all to see: KRS-One. 

In ten years’ time, he would be lecturing at Harvard and Yale. It was a rise that only hip-hop could make possible, although, to be fair, KRS-One is as important to the rise of hip-hop as hip-hop is to the rise of KRS-One. After he and DJ Scott La Rock started Boogie Down Productions, releasing “Say No Brother (Crack Attack Don’t Do It)” in 1986, they released Criminal Minded in 1987, which prefigured gangsta rap and established KRS-One as a player. In August ’87, however, La Rock was shot and killed.

After the murder, KRS-One’s music increasingly focused on “edutainment”—the name he gave his brand of socially and politically conscious rap. He is largely credited with introducing reggae into hip-hop as well. He continued to release albums through the ’90s, most successfully with 1997’s I Got Next, but as hip-hop became more interested in the club than the street, KRS-One went underground.

Since then, his music career has never reclaimed the same height, but KRS-One has evolved beyond all that. He is now on a crusade to prove that music is only part—and not even the most important part—of hip-hop. Recently, he wrote The Gospel of Hip Hop: First Instrument (powerHouse, 2009), a voluminous work intended to establish hip-hop as a culture.

The book is by turns incendiary and profound, and the fact that he wrote it in the style of a gospel is important. Every other form of Black music in the twentieth century came, directly or indirectly, from the church. But hip-hop came from the street. Its progenitors didn’t have the same background in the gospel tradition. Which is why you can’t just turn up your nose at The Gospel of Hip-Hop. KRS-One is, in essence, saying that while other Black music came from the church, hip-hop is the church. He might be right. He might be crazy. Either way, he can’t be ignored.

This is a heavy book, so let’s get right into it. I want to know when, where, and how it was written.

Wow. [laughs] This book started in 1994. We were at the Schomburg Center for Black Studies [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture] in Harlem on 135th Street—myself, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool DJ Herc, Crazy Legs, Grand Wizard Theodore, X-Men, a whole host of people in the room. And we all got together, and we started to call hip-hop a culture. We presented our ideas toward the preservation of hip-hop, which is really where this book comes from. It wasn’t written for my generation. We know of a time when there was no hip-hop. We know of a time where we had to struggle to get records on the airwaves, and Source magazine didn’t exist, and MTV wasn’t playing videos from Black folk in general. These kids today, hip-hop is just part of their background. The good news about hip-hop is that it actually is divine. And this is going to be the next phase of the teaching over the next ten years that hip-hop is going to have to learn, that it has a divinity to it. It doesn’t exist outside of God. It doesn’t exist outside of the order of the universe. It doesn’t exist outside of physics. It doesn’t exist outside of politics, or law, or any of this stuff. So, why are we discussing hip-hop as just music?

In the book, you write about hip-hop being the “promised land” described by Martin Luther King. But I’ve always felt hip-hop came from the death of the civil rights movement. Like, the ’60s and ’70s were about striving for equality, and hip-hop was about, after all that striving, here’s the reality. Is that accurate?

It’s both, really. You’re totally accurate. Hip-hop—and let’s clarify; when we say hip-hop, we’re not discussing rap, we’re discussing hip-hop, the consciousness, the behavior, the culture, the social movement—is born out of both the death and birth, or should I say rebirth, of the civil rights movement. Civil rights says: “We’re fighting for equality.” Hip-hop comes: “Here’s the way it is.” Civil rights says: “I have a dream; we all gon’ get together.” Hip-hop comes with bitches, hos, and niggas. In a lot of ways, hip-hop gets its cue from the fact that we had no fathers. The civil rights movement swallowed up the fathers—heroin, Vietnam War, or just plain old irresponsibility. We were born out of that. The other side is that when the civil rights movement comes to an end, it means that it won. And we are the heirs of what the civil rights movement won. Okay, put that to the side, and come over here to hip-hop is the “promised land.” In The Gospel of Hip Hop, we talk of the promised land literally and figuratively. Literally, we’re saying that we don’t see the promised land that Dr. King discussed nowhere else on earth but in hip-hop, that place where you are “judged by the content of your character and not the color of your skin.” 

Hip-hop is the only place, the only culture, the only environment that really the rule is that we don’t care what your skin color is. Can you bring it? Can you DJ? Can you MC? Of course, hip-hop’s voice is huge when it comes to ethnic pride. But, you can’t be a race and be in hip-hop. Don’t nobody respect it. Don’t nobody care. So that leads me to the conclusion that the Christian faith is created around this idea that Jesus Christ came and fulfilled everything that the history books said the messiah would fulfill. The same thing begins now with us. We’re saying Dr. King was the Messiah for this age. And I really believe that, straight up. We’re still waiting for Armageddon, but actually Armageddon is going on right now in our faces. World War III is going on right now in our faces.

In what way?

Afghanistan. Iraq. Iran, eventually. China, eventually. Korea, eventually. The world is at war. And, if that be the case, the Messiah is already on the earth. If you look at it literally, Dr. King is the closest thing that this age had to a messiah. I can’t give that to Malcolm X. I can’t give that to Marcus Garvey. Those men were great leaders, but they were not preaching what Dr. King was preaching, and they did not achieve the laws being changed. So now hip-hop is saying, when Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech, he said he wants his four little children to grow up in this kind of a world. Well, his four little children is hip-hop. That’s my generation. That’s Kool Herc’s generation. In fact, [King’s] daughter Bernice just ascended to the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She said her goal is to unite the civil rights generation with the hip-hop generation.

So you see the first rappers as both the literal and figurative children of Dr. King?

Absolutely. He was speaking to us when he said, “I have a dream that one day...” We are the day. Or actually, should I say today is the day that he was talking about.

There is a lot of strong religious imagery in the book. How do you think that will be perceived? Whenever you appropriate the style of the Christian gospels, some people will be offended.

I can do nothing with that last part, that people may feel offended. Of course, they’re going to feel offended, and I welcome the offense. I try to be as respectful as I can in the writing of The Gospel. We’re not here to offend anyone. We’re not here to disrespect nobody’s faith. But there are those who will feel threatened by a new gospel in the world. The only thing I would offer is a hand of peace, a hand of understanding. People involved in their religions so much that The Gospel of Hip Hop would offend them, I think they should use it as an opportunity to get deeper into their own faith. That would be the motivation—that you say, “Oh, KRS-One is crazy. He’s completely lost his mind. This is the ultimate act of ego and arrogance. I’m going to go and pray harder at my church for him.” 

Another interesting part is the section on graffiti. You say graffiti is an expression of “peace, love, unity, and joy.” I was a kid when graffiti became popular, and I remember that back then, many saw it as an act of vandalism or destruction. I found it interesting that you would put it in a positive light.

Well, graffiti art is positive—unless you’re a mayor or a cop. And that is the battle of ideas. And another reason why The Gospel as a book exists: We are changing reality. We are putting a new universe forward. We’re putting a new reality forward. Other people’s views may be that graffiti is all about vandalism—and let me also be real with it and say that you look at some of these graffiti DVDs, and it is all about vandalism. The graffiti writer jumps on the screen and tells you, “Yo, I’m just out here to break shit up. I want to write on everything.” Well, I’m even looking at that as a graffiti writer myself and saying, “That’s a little immature.” But, some graffiti writer has to step up first and tell other graffiti writers that this is a positive art form. This right here goes way back to prehistoric humans and has a lot to do with your intelligence and how you view the world. I think the graffiti-art chapter is a clear view as to how to approach the depth of graffiti writing. Why are we doing it? Not how to do it, but why is it being done? Even if all we’re doing is just marketing ourselves as positive, this is good for a nation. Again, look at hip-hop as a nation. This is our gross domestic product, graffiti writing. We’re trying to sell that to the world. 

Hip-hop started as a countercultural movement, but now it has been the dominant form of music for almost thirty years. When it loses that “outsider” status, does that change its nature?

Yes. As a music genre, it dies. But only its musical nature dies. It doesn’t change its cultural nature. In fact, we get stronger, and this is why KRS-One exists, right here. If I did not exist, then hip-hop would be like rock and roll, for instance. It would be this bubbling subculture with its own rules and clothing fashions, and all of that, but none of that would go anywhere. We would abandon that and go into the American mainstream, which is what rock did. Jazz, same way. It never really made itself into an independent, unique reality. It never had self-consciousness, so it becomes only music, and it stays there. This is the first time, I would guess—I mean, it’s not in world history—it’s just that the last time this was done, it was called Judaism; it was called Christianity; it was called Islam; it was called America when Englishmen decide to make another nation, you know?

You don’t feel like that’s an overstatement? You feel like that could happen with hip-hop?

Oh, it is already. That is another reason why The Gospel exists. It’s actually a warning. Like, “Hey, y’all. Take a look at where we’re on our way to.” Kool Herc is our Abraham, and he’s still walkin’ around. And it shows us what it must have been like to be in the presence of Jesus or Moses. These guys were just as normal as you and I. Yes, it’s already happening. In the year 2050, hip-hop will have its own city. 

Where?

I would hope it’s in New Mexico. 

Why New Mexico?

Well, I could run for mayor of, say, New York. I’ll run, or Jay-Z will run, win a city, and name that city the hip-hop city. Change the street names, all of it.

New York would make sense, since that’s where hip-hop came from.

The Bronx makes sense. Transform the Bronx into a hip-hop borough. And it may go down like that. But wait a minute—let me go deeper. Why settle for a city or a state when I can go to Africa, I can go to Thailand? There are places in this world that would love to have hip-hop’s one-billion-dollar gross revenue yearly, even in a recession. But hip-hop hasn’t organized itself to where it can speak to another nation. We need trade, and we’re gonna get it. When the book comes out, and everyone reads it and has their arguments and finally realizes you either agree or you don’t... [You might say,] “I don’t agree. Hip-hop is no more than a good piece of music, and that’s it.” You may be absolutely correct on that level. But, there are some of us over here who say that we are philosophers. We are nation builders. We are civilization builders. We’ve been preaching this nonsense for twenty-three years. It’s time to shut up now, and put your money where your mouth is. The Gospel of Hip Hop forms the nation. And, let me tell you, this is a great revolution. It’s a silent one. It’s a bloodless one. It’s going to be the greatest revolution in all of world history, when hip-hop realizes that it is its own thing. Aw, man, when that day comes, this whole conversation is going to sound crazy when you’re playing it back in a hip-hop city. 

I think hip-hop is really the first American music where Black people invented it and also made money with it. With other forms, like blues and rock, White artists ended up making all the money. But hip-hop seems to be the first form where that didn’t happen. Do you see it that way?

You know, I never saw it that way. I’m’a take that view now, though, because I agree with it. This is the first time that inner-city youth, predominantly Black, have actually made money on their own creativity. That is a testament to the end of slavery. That is a testament to the United States. Even from a linguistic point of view, we’re making money on our own language for the first time. That word, “nigga”—that’s a very financially rewarding word to hip-hop. For us to stop saying that word cuts into our money.

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