I Am Hiphop
Divine Speaker, Philosopher, and Thinker KRS-One
By Andy Langer
SEPTEMBER 11, 2000: LL Cool J's upcoming album may be titled G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time), but KRS-One did Mr. Smith one better back in 1994 when he told The Source, "I am Hiphop." It was the boast that launched 1,000 debates, most notably: What is Hiphop? How can one MC be Hiphop? Is being Hiphop as simple as claiming it? And, if KRS-One truly is Hiphop, then what about everyone else?
"It's the job of the philosopher to offer for discussion ideas that aren't popular," says the legendary Bronx-born rapper. "I got hit over the head for saying it back then. Of course, now, nobody says they're doing Hiphop. They all say they are Hiphop."
Advising journalists to utilize the spelling "Hiphop" instead of "hip-hop," saying the latter "undermines cultural unity" by inferring that hip, defined as trendy, and hop, defined as dance treats, makes "hip-hop" trendy dance music, KRS-One calls himself a philosopher and says his "I Am Hiphop" philosophy is in keeping with what he says has become his calling -- to "establish health, love, awareness, and wealth in the lives of all that claim Hiphop as their lifestyle."
To that end, he launched the Temple of Hiphop Kulture in 1998 as a Hiphop preservation society: a full-service political movement and educational center he hopes will raise a generation of responsible Hiphoppers. Claiming 25,000 members, KRS-One says the Temple will eventually have a school in New Jersey with a nine-tiered curriculum of emceeing, beatboxing, breaking, graffiti art, DJing, fashion, language, knowledge, and trade. More immediately, the Temple is preparing a campaign that asks hiphop radio, TV, and print outlets to acknowledge 2001 as "The Year of Conscious Hiphop."
"The idea is in direct response to Joe Lieberman and Tipper Gore's campaign against immoral music, or as Al Gore called it, 'Music with too much meanness and not enough meaning.' Our response is, 'You're right! But what are we gonna do about it?'"
In KRS-One, the Temple not only has a confident lobbyist capable of rallying troops politically, but a leader with an established voice. Since the release of Boogie Down Productions' groundbreaking debut Criminal Minded in 1987, KRS-One -- short for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone -- has played the role of "The Teacher" on 10 albums, giving him a record of longevity and consistency rivaled only by Rakim, Chuck D, Ice-T, Run-DMC, and yes, LL Cool J.
As an influence, the social and political commentary of tracks like "Why Is That," "You Must Learn" and "Sound of Da Police," plus his decade-old Stop the Violence movement, are credited as primary catalysts for the creation and rise of conscious rap. Meanwhile, he's been voted the best live MC of all time by readers of The Source, Ego Trip, and Blaze.
In 1998, he went from artist to executive by becoming a vice president of A&R at Warner Bros./Reprise, a job he left only after spending $5 million signing legends like Kool Moe Dee and DJ Kool Herc. While the recent release of KRS-One: A Retrospective (Jive) has put him back in nightclubs, he spends much of his time touring the college lecture circuit with dozens of high-paying speeches a year.
Onstage, at the lectern, and through the Temple, KRS-One campaigns that "Rap is something you live, Hiphop is something you do." The Teacher's official biography, meanwhile, warns that he's a "divine speaker, philosopher, and thinker" and "not someone who'll give you a 15-minute interview filled with incomplete sentences."
No kidding. In an interview to discuss his first Austin appearance since 1988, a 50-minute monologue preceded the first question. Then, after two and a half hours, he presented not only a preview of his live set (itself a doozy), but a view inside Temple philosophy that wound up tying together a half-dozen issues with one clear thread: KRS-One is Hiphop.
On the Religion of Hiphop"The Temple of Hiphop has declared Hiphop its own religion. We believe Hiphop is divine. Hiphop proves the existence of God. When you talk to Hiphop pioneers like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, and Grandmaster Flash they will tell you about being overcome by a certain kind of spirit. They were overcome by something different; Herc calls it a spirit, Bam calls it a order or destiny, and Flash just calls it inspiration. Herc was part of the vibe of the early Seventies -- people who were against the Vietnam War and [were] shut out of the church because they didn't dress or look right.
"We believe Hiphop was God's answer to that forgotten youth of the Seventies. A lot of youth -- black, white, and Latino alike -- were left for dead. When the Reagan era came and was followed by Bush, we were forgotten. I was there when the crack being sold by the cops and black youth were being locked up for no reason. That system is what I came out of, and I realized that there was another system; it was Hiphop. It was in the lifestyle we were leading and this idea of self-creation."
On the Mythology of Hiphop"When God seeks a chosen people, it's always the ones that are forgotten. It's always the ones you think ain't gonna make it. I find it fascinating how Hiphop as a culture mirrors every mythology from the beginning of mythology. The concept of the single mother and child -- the Madonna concept. Hiphoppers were raised in that.
"I find it fascinating that graffiti art was practiced by prehistoric humans. We always called our graffiti art modern hieroglyphics, but when you really get into the anthropology, you find that they used to put paint or berry juice into their mouths and blow it onto the wall. Today, we've just replaced it with the spray can. This idea of aerosol art was one of the first human expressions.
"Look at the importance and spirituality of dance through the ages. All of this I believe is a divine story of inspiration that came out of an invisible place. We don't look at God as a he or she. For us, God is an event. It's a system. It's something you participate in and perform. It's not something you worship, it's something within you and without you. It is air itself. You are swimming in God, and are a part of the great event. We teach at the Temple to be in harmony with the great event. And the great event is life persevering itself through self-love. Life loves itself so much it preserves itself. And if you can align yourself with that event, then you see yourself in all life."
On Radio"We've already asked the core Temple members to constantly and consistently call radio stations demanding more balanced programming. The way Hiphop is being defamed on the radio intrudes on my freedom of speech. It defames my character. I can get shot dead in the street or locked up for no reason for the way Hiphop is being portrayed by radio.
"They're not teaching as they're putting on the pimps, players, hustlers, and thugs. Sure, you have to play that because Americans want to see more sex, violence, and scandal. Okay, Hiphop can offer that too. But Hiphop is not just that. It's the equivalent of saying all Italians are part of the Mafia. It's just basic stupidity. It's not true. Or saying that all Italians eat spaghetti and meatballs or that their whole culture is to be defined by tomato sauce.
"Our whole culture is being defined by kids rapping on the corner about how much drugs they sold. True, there are drug dealers in Hiphop culture. Some of them we're even proud of, but that's not the whole culture. There are also philosophers and ministers that have devoted their whole church to Hiphop culture. I've spoken to many rabbis that speak openly about Hiphop in synagogues, and some of them use rap to teach the Torah.
"None of these stories are being heard. To many, these are still the unusual, off-to-the-side stories, but I'm dealing with these people every day. I'm in the universities every day where students are writing dissertations and theses on Hiphop culture and getting degrees on this. If the average kid on the street knew you could go to college and keep Hiphop, a lot more kids would be in college."
On Campaign 2000"The Gore-Lieberman campaign has the most criticism towards popular culture. It's an integrated part of their campaign. In that breath, I'm hoping they win because I want to see what they're going to do to clean up popular culture. Are they gonna upgrade education and art in school? Are you gonna declare Hiphop culture an American-born culture that should be supported and taught in every public institution in the United States? Are they gonna do that?
"Then again, there's Bush. He's totally ignored us, and on that level, it could be a good thing. If Bush continues to ignore us, conscious rap will rise to the forefront. He'll just look at us and say, 'That's just a bunch of Negroes and the stupid whites that want to be down with them, and we're not talking to or targeting them anyway.' It will create the same thing his father created.
"When Bush was president, Hiphop culture was thriving because people felt threatened. When Clinton got into office, people no longer felt threatened, so we went into the bling-bling age. So in a political science opinion, if Bush wins, our campaign for the celebration of conscious rap in 2001 will be a success. The political climate will make Hiphoppers feel threatened. If Gore wins, we get more lies, posturing, and bullshit, but in that we have a solid argument that they said they'd clean up popular culture. And how do they expect to do it? That's what we'll get to ask."
On Eminem"The Temple believes that in your rap music presentation you can say or be whoever you want. But in your Hiphop cultural presentation, you should be offering balance. Take Eminem. As far as emceeing goes, he has a pretty good album. As far as cultural meaning goes, it's a matter of debate. I believe Eminem speaks everything that all the white kids that listen to Hiphop have always wanted to say. They've always wanted to say, 'Fuck Will Smith!'
"At the same time, I think it's wrong in Hiphop culture for any new MC to come up and dis one of the elders. It's also racially kind of weird. I use the word weird, because I don't know what it is when a white MC disses a black MC that has contributed as much as Will Smith has. On the other hand, he's speaking on behalf of the people. And I must admit that Will Smith probably hasn't done enough for his image to be embraced by the core audience of Hiphop culture today. Eminem speaks to that. Overall, I for one -- one who critiques MCs and battles those I think are corny -- give him my blessing."
On Action"For 13 years, I've witnessed how every conscious and righteous deed is supported by an invisible force of justice. Maybe it's just with me. Maybe I'm the prophet of Hiphop for real. Maybe I do come with some kind of divine principle behind me, because I know that every battle I've ever had I've always won. I know that any debate I've ever had was backed by the people. I only speak on behalf of what the people really think.
"So, if I feel compelled to go to a station like Hot 97 and say, 'The people are sick of you, and they really believe you're destroying the minds of their children because they can't turn on the radio with out hearing bitches and ho's.' They could say, 'Fuck you, Kris,' or 'What do you want us to do, we'll appease you.' They can try to brush me off or pacify me, but if they don't really make a change, they themselves will fall.
"They should think of me more as one of the angels that came to Lot in the Bible and said, 'Your city is about to be destroyed. You can get out now.' That's what this campaign is really all about. All the people making money on Hiphop culture right now will be stopped abruptly -- you can see it intellectually, you can feel it spiritually, because it's proven that as a culture it doesn't stay with any one theme for too long.
"You can predict the gangsta/thug backlash that's about to come. All it takes is one credible voice like mine to step up and not be afraid. These other rappers are afraid to say Hot 97 or The Source is wrong. They're afraid of biting the hand that feeds them, but it's not really those hands feeding them. The people are feeding them, but they don't realize that.
"People look at me and they say, 'You've been in the business 15 years and have 10 albums' like it's amazing. This is not spectacular. Ten albums? All you have to do is keep talking the minds of the people. It's just that rappers and DJs these day are desperate people. They were poor and uneducated people that became rich. And now that they have money, they're afraid of going back to being poor. They will do anything a corporation tells them to do to maintain their money."
On Artists"The artists aren't going to be the agents of change. They're workers. The issue is Steve Smith at Emmis Broadcasting or Dream Hampton [sic] at VIBE. These people's names should be printed, and it should be exposed that these people are the reason your kids are getting what they get. It's not a corporation or Time Warner. It's Dwight Bibbs, Warner Bros. Senior VP of Urban Music Promotion. We have to point them out and let the public drag them out and flog them.
"These people will see the mob coming, and have to stand up and defend themselves, saying, 'It's not me,' and point to who it is. In that pointing, the truth will come out. The truth will come out in the people's records -- not their recordings per se, but the accumulation of what their actions were. You can count back 20 Source magazines, look at the content, and prove that they helped story Hiphop. You can also look back at radio and say that the FCC has turned a blind eye to the community."
On the Big Lesson"The general lesson is everything is also something else. We ask, 'So what else is it?' We don't settle for the standard definitions of things. We look at every material object as also being something else. That first lesson frees your sight from seeing a telephone as a telephone or lamp as a lamp.
"We have members of the Temple now experimenting with blenders as music instruments. We detected that certain speeds of blender create a certain kind of tone when amplified. They can sound like guitars. You can also apply that to life's situations and circumstances. When something either bad or good happens to you, you can ask, 'What else is this?'
"That concept comes from Grandmaster Flash. That's what he was thinking when he was rummaging through the junkyards for old electronics and found a mike toggle switch. He used his knowledge of electronics and turned it into a right/left switch that became a mixer. He said, 'What else is this mike switch?' He was trying to find a way to keep the break consistently going and created the mixer in the process. He saw that everything could also be something else."
On KRS-One Live"When you see a KRS-One performance, you will then know the difference between Hiphop and rap. This is why I still perform. Believe it or not, I make most of my money lecturing -- I'm in the university system, and that's where I make money. But usually people who see me perform come away from the concert saying, 'Oh, now I know. Now I see that these guys that we're used to seeing perform were not Hiphoppers or MCs, but were rappers, and very poor rappers at that.'
"It's not to judge anybody's talents, but you will have perspective on skilled vs. the unskilled. When we come there, you're gonna see breaking, emceeing, DJing, graffiti, and beatboxing in its highest form.
"Keep in mind, our crew is a battling crew. We don't advocate battling and competition much anymore because of the mentalities of current Hiphop presentation, but we come out of that era where you had to be the best. You couldn't just say you were the best and have a hot video; you had to prove you actually were the best. We still keep that tradition going.
"I say to you now, I will prove at Antone's that I'm the best MC in the world. My battle will be with everybody that has come to Austin before me and everyone that will come there after me.
"The audiences in Austin will now have a criteria to judge what is skill and what is not skill. They will see what it means to be an MC, and as Rakim says, move the crowd. And they'll be moved, not by a hit record, but with a beat and some rhymes.
"What we do is excite crowds to the point where it seems like you have a platinum single to present to them. That's what Antone's is going to see. They'll see live emceeing in its natural state. I have a slew of classics spread over a three-hour show -- this isn't 15 minutes and leave. They're gonna get rocked crazily, because the vibe that we set down is designed for you to leave with a different consciousness of Hiphop.
"We have a different campaign than just to collect money and go -- it's a campaign about the preservation of Hiphop. I want people to come away from our show believing in the culture and having another sight; looking at the videos and saying, 'This is not what I saw from one of the originators, this is not what original emceeing is.'
"I think that's the biggest problem -- people don't know what original emceeing looked like. And if you don't go, you'll hear about it. Your best friend will go out and buy a gun and put a rag around his head, screaming, 'I'm part of the revolution.' You'll say, 'What happened to you?' He'll say, 'I saw KRS-One at Antone's.'"
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