“DIGGIN’ IN THE FILES: KRS-ONE” – BY BILL ADLER
Thirty years ago, when I first started collecting smart newspaper and magazine articles about rap and hip-hop, I was motivated by the twinned beliefs that journalism is the first rough draft of history (as the old saying goes) and that hip-hop was indeed making history.
As time passed, I began to value this trove not only for its documentary value – who, what, when, where, and why something happened – but as evidence that there’s always been a vigorous discussion within the culture itself of hip-hop’s fairly ceaseless violations of so-called political correctness.
This might not seem so very remarkable except that there’s never been a time when various self-appointed guardians of public decency – most of whom otherwise care nothing about hip-hop or hip-hoppers – weren’t loudly baying about hip-hop’s misogyny, homophobia, materialism, anti-Semitism, glorification of violence, etc., etc.
All of which brings us to KRS-One. No stranger to controversy throughout his career, Kris tripped up especially badly on January 13, 1992, when he responded to a published “diss” by PM Dawn’s Prince Be by showing up at a live PMD show with a large posse, bumrushing the stage, punching Prince Be repeatedly in the head, grabbing the offender’s mike, booting him and his deejay offstage, and performing several of his own songs. (The illustration at the top of this column, documenting this event, was created by Andre LeRoy Davis.)
The crux of the problem, to many folks, was its bald hypocrisy. Bad enough that he’d behaved violently, but this was KRS-One, The Teacher. How could the same rapper who invented the Stop the Violence Movement decide that violence was the proper way to avenge Prince Be’s insult? It is exactly this question that is asked and answered by the writers below…and by Kris himself. But before we get into the details, it’s worth recounting Kris’s career to that point.
By most measures, the man is a genius. Starting at the age of 13, he was homeless for half-a-dozen years, during which time he began to educate himself. It was while living at a homeless shelter in The Bronx that he came under the mentorship of a social worker named Scott Sterling, who deejayed on the side under the name Scott LaRock. As the rapping half of Boogie Down Productions, Kris showed himself to be a major talent from the very start, with the ability to write, a big personality, a booming voice, and a thirst for social justice.
It didn’t hurt that Kris also had a talent for drama. BDP’s first single, an anti-crack anthem, failed to attract much notice. The second time around Kris decided – like many a rapper before him – that he might have a better chance of making a name for himself if he picked a fight with a better-known rapper. In this case, it was MC Shan, an MC from Queens who in 1986 wrote and recorded a song in praise of Queens and the Queensbridge Projects entitled “The Bridge.”
This was the B-side of a record whose A-side, “Beat Biter,” featured Shan’s attack on the much better known LL Cool J, who had allegedly committed the sin of “biting” the beat underlying “Rock the Bells.” Nobody – including LL — paid much attention to “Beat Biter,” but KRS decided that “The Bridge” couldn’t be a song in praise of Queens without also dissing the South Bronx. So he wrote and recorded “South Bronx.”
And sure enough it worked. Shan wrote a record in reply, and just like that “the ‘Bridge’ Wars” were in effect and BDP was a force to be reckoned with.
In March of 1987 the duo dropped their first album. Entitled Criminal Minded, it included songs like the title track and “9mm Goes Bang.” It also a boasted a cover photo of KRS and Scott brandishing guns.
In effect, Criminal Minded was one of the very first “hardcore” or “gangsta rap” albums. Five months later, in August of ’87, Scott LaRock was shot to death during an attempt to stop some other folks from fighting.
By All Means Necessary, BDP’s second album, was released on May 31, 1988. Once again, KRS is cradling a gun on the cover, but this time he’s modeling himself on Malcolm X, who was photographed in a similar pose 25 years earlier.
Presumably, KRS – who had begun referring to himself as The Teacher – was endorsing organized violence, not random violence. Even “Stop the Violence,” one of the album tracks, wasn’t decrying all violence, no matter what its title appeared to mean. Rather it condemned black-on-black violence – the kind that ended the life of Scott LaRock.
A year later, “Stop the Violence” led to the Stop the Violence Movement, an all-star project led by Kris that included Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, and MC Lyte among others. This troupe teamed up to record an earnest educational effort entitled “Self-Destruction,” the proceeds of which benefited the National Urban League.
The summer of ’89 saw the release of BDP’s third album, Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of HipHop. That fall the New York Times invited Kris to write an op-ed piece about how to improve inner-city schools, which led directly to Kris’s extensive lecture tour of the country’s elite colleges, starting with Harvard and Yale.
Edutainment, BDP’s fourth album in as many years, came out in 1990.
In ’91, Kris created a pro-education organization called H.E.A.L., an acronym for Human Education Against Lies. This was followed by another all-star album. Entitled H.E.A.L. – Civilization Vs. Technology, it featured rappers like Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane, and Queen Latifah, reggae stars like Ziggy Marley, and rockers like R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. All things considered, Kris was starting to look more and more like hip-hop’s answer to Bono.
But setting yourself up as a saint is always a pretty risky business, and other rappers began taking potshots at Kris. Ice Cube clowned the no-money-earning do-goodism of “Self-Destruction” on “Rollin’ Wit the Lench Mob” – which made Cube and his crew appear to be more “street” than Kris. X-Clan pissed on Kris’s color-blind humanism on “A Day of Outrage, Operation Snatchback” — which made X-Clan appear to be blacker than Kris.
And then – insult to injury – up jumped PM Dawn’s Prince Be. A brother-brother team from Jersey City, PM Dawn weren’t trying to be street or black. In fact, they were hardly trying to be rappers. Loosely roped in with De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, PM Dawn were basically late-arriving hippies. William Shaw, who wrote the story (for Details magazine) in which Be mouths off, took note of his interviewee’s beads, tie-dyed clothing, and granny classes, and decided the young black man looked “something like the Maharishi Yogi of rap.”
In the fall of ’91, when the interview was conducted, PM Dawn were enjoying an international pop hit with a song called “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” which was recorded in England and duly sampled Spandau Ballet’s “True.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, here in America it charted higher on the Hot 100 (where it went to number one) than on the Hot R&B charts (#16).
Hardly the most aggressive guy in the world, Prince Be surely wasn’t looking to start a war with KRS-One…or with Public Enemy or Ice Cube, who he also mentions. But in their own ways, each of these acts was obsessed with race, a concept that struck Prince Be as so stupid and outdated that he attempted simply to wave it away. Amusingly enough, Kris felt the same way…or at least he had felt the same way, and not so long before. During the promotion of the “H.E.A.L.” project, he said, “Before you are a race, a religion or an occupation, you are a human being.” (The photo below was shot by Michael Benabib.)
But don’t take my word for it. Here (finally) is the interview that touched off the whole fracas…and a raft of the commentary that followed.
Kris attacked Prince Be in performance on the evening of Monday, January 13. The next day MTV’s “Day in Rock” newscast included an account of the incident.
Yours truly, who had worked as PM Dawn’s publicist the previous fall, transcribed the report and made it available to…whom? Island Records, who distributed PM Dawn’s records in America? I don’t remember. Anyway, the transcription is reproduced below. (You may note that I also seem to have forgot that it was then 1992, not 1991, which is why the thing is misdated.)
The next day reps for both PM Dawn and KRS-One faxed statements about the incident to the media. (Young people, in the days before the internet, faxes – slang for facsimiles — were a quick way to spread information.)
Two days later, The Source faxed out that week’s “Weekly Word,” a weekly supplement to the magazine itself, which was published monthly. The lead article quoted from the statements by each artist.
That same day, USA Today ran a paragraph and a photo about the “Rap Ruckus.” It is a measure of the extent to which rap and hip-hop had already become mainstream phenomena that USA Today — the country’s only true national newspaper and, consequently, a mass-circulation behemoth – paid any attention at all.
The Village Voice (below) then weighed in with a long, nuanced analysis for their “Rockbeat” column, which was devoted, week after week, to the nexus of music and politics.
Boasting a brilliant headline (“Start The Violence”), the piece was written by Joe Levy, who was then the paper’s music editor. He has since carved out a very distinguished career as a music journalist, writer, and editor, moving from the Voice to Rolling Stone to Blender to Maxim. For the last several years, Joe has been the editor-in-chief of Billboard.
Next up – speaking of Billboard – is the very first installment of “The Rap Column,” a weekly feature written for the music trade paper by Havelock Nelson.
A hardworking hiphop freelancer born in Guyana, Havelock had teamed up with Michael Gonzales to publish “Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture” only the year before. Here he condemns Kris’s “hoodlumish actions,” opining, “As the browning of America continues, all African-Americans should revel in the fact that their culture is becoming universal…instead of warring among themselves.”
The partisanship of the unsigned piece in Rock & Rap Confidential stands in stark contrast to Havelock’s hopeful peace-mongering.
RRC was the brainchild of Dave Marsh, one of a handful of America’s most prominent – and hardest-working – rock critics. I remember RRC in the early Nineties as a monthly newsletter, eight or twelve pages long, which married a fervent love of rock — including rap — to an equally fervent sense of progressive political activism. In this case, they compare Prince Be’s comments about race to those of Clarence Thomas, the black conservative jurist who had taken his seat on the Supreme Court – after extremely contentious confirmation hearings – only a few months earlier.
Very few publications were going to take this affair as seriously as The Source, a/k/a “the Bible of hip-hop,” which convened a four-person “Rap Session” to discuss it in their April ’92 issue (below).
The panelists included T-Money, the co-host of “Yo! MTV Raps” (and the person whose birthday party was being celebrated at the club on the night of the incident), Crazy Legs (of the pioneering breakdancers known as the Rock Steady Crew), Karen Mason (a product manager for Ruffhouse/Columbia Records), and Chris Wilder (managing editor of The Source, who was also in the club the night of the incident).
Rap Masters, a black teen monthly edited by Kate Ferguson, served up a one-two punch on the incident, comprising a lengthy feature story about an interview Kris gave to a group of journalists, and an editorial.
The editorial was written by Kate Ferguson, who had been editor-in-chief of Word Up! magazine, Rap Masters’s parent company, prior to moving on to Rap Masters. Eventually Kate became EIC of Today’s Black Woman. Currently she is the EIC of Real Health (“Your guide to black wellness”). After asserting that “this macho issue of being ‘disrespected’ hardly warranted a physical response,” Kate suggested that Kris’ attack was nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to promote BDP’s forthcoming album.
Whether or not Kris was capable of cynicism at that level, the title he’d bestowed on his next album did indeed seem to be a purely cynical reaction to the failure of his long-running campaign to make “intelligence the fad.”
As he told the New York Daily News, “So Sex and Violence for my audience is like, ‘Here it is! He’s given us what we want!’”
The last of our clips justifies KRS’s cynicism.
In a round-up of the notable events in hip-hop during 1992 (above), The Source’s January 1993 issue ran managing editor Chris Wilder’s fond reminiscence of KRS’s attack: “The whole Bronx was on stage and all of Brooklyn and Uptown was on the floor screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ and jumping as high as I’ve ever jumped at a party.”
Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of Bill’s “Diggin’ In The Files” posts on CrazyHood.com. Known to his friends as Ill Badler, Bill was the founding director of publicity for Def Jam Recordings and Rush Artist Management, a position he held from 1984 through 1990, during which time he promoted the careers of hip-hop legends Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, 3rd Bass, Slick Rick, and many others.