MC's keeping it real

Issue 

KRS ONE
By KRS One
Jive through BMG
Reviewed by Sujatha Fernandes
In 1988, KRS One had a powerful impact on the direction of hip hop with the release of the second album from his group, Boogie Down Productions, entitled By Any Means Necessary. In 1988, Public Enemy also released their second album, and the combined effect of Kris Parker and Chuck D's militant lyrics fuelled a surge in political hip hop that is still felt today. KRS and Public Enemy came to hip hop at a time when the crisis of Reaganomics was being felt hard. Through the Iran/Contra hearings rumours had leaked of the Rex 84 plan which was intended to incarcerate large numbers of people of colour and their sympathisers in case of civil unrest. The rage and frustration of young Black people was picked up by KRS and Public Enemy who took it one step further by pointing to the system as the cause. Today groups like Public Enemy and KRS are filling the gaping vacuum left by many Black leaders who have capitulated to the lure of reformism. In the song "Free Mumia", KRS uses the symbol of the Black Panther activist Mumia Abu Jamal, sentenced to death for political activity, to expose the bankruptcy of much of what passes officially for Black leadership. Referring to Black politicians such as Jesse Jackson, KRS raps about the "house negroes", a term coined by Malcolm X to describe those Black slaves who lived better than other slaves and therefore saw their interests as the same as their master, rather than that of other slaves. Co-opting the language of civil rights movement, today's "house negroes" preach equality, while practising policies completely at odds with that movement. In the face of an absence of leadership in the Black community, performers like KRS and Public Enemy have provided a force for mobilising the discontent of young Black people victimised by the system. KRS firmly locates himself within the current of Black resistance. In a powerful litany of Black power leaders from Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, KRS presents himself as the embodiment of these leaders as well as their successor: "Now I'm on the planet as the one called KRS". These kinds of self-proclamations appear throughout the album, as KRS repeatedly asserts his superior lyrical skill, the respect he commands and his adherence to the "true rap". This style, also very much a part of Public Enemy's music, comes from the oral traditions of street poetry where rhymers competed with each other to see who could use the most outrageous and absurd metaphors to describe their skills and wit. Yet this style was also developed as a defence mechanism. The dangers of selling out, of becoming a "house negro", of becoming a tool of the ruling class are very real for the politically conscious rapper and one way of breaking from conformism and asserting a radical identity is to proclaim one's missionary status. The pressures of the music industry on rappers to sell-out and go for big bucks rather than honesty concerns KRS in "Rappaz R. N. Dainja" and "Out for Fame". The dilemma of the political rapper is something that Michael Franti (of the Disposible Heroes of Hiphopcrisy and Spearhead) recognised when he said: "It's tough to make a living when you're an artist, it's even tougher when you're socially conscious. Careerism, opportunism can turn the politics into cartoonism." KRS wants to use rap to "wake up" and "uplift" Black people. In "Build ya skillz" he implores rappers to use lyrics to enlighten. On women's liberation, KRS denounces the terms of sexual exploitation used by many gangsta rappers. In "Ah yeah" he says "Black woman, you are not a bitch, you're a goddess". Yet KRS's references to goddesses and "earth mothers" projects a romanticised notion of Black womanhood that does not fundamentally challenge gender oppression either. KRS moves from orator to joker, and by parodying religion in "The Truth" he is making a comment on the way in which people blindly accept the way things are. The infectious refrain, "It's not natural, if it goes against God", is followed by KRS's mocking questions, "What did Cain and Abel do for sex — could it be that they were looking at each other? I thought that the church was not into that". Besides being lyrically powerful, KRS ONE is a catchy mix of funk and rhythm promising it popularity on the dance floor like KRS's previous albums. KRS ONE features guest artists on a range of tracks including Fat Joe, Channel Live, Mad Lion, Das EFX and Busta Rhymes as well as samples from "Time's up", "We Run Things (its like dat)" and "Mystique Blues". KRS's music has been described as a "freeway collision between Melle Mel and Miles" and this album with its pace, style and intense delivery is no exception.

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