Hip-hop, rap make a stand on eclectic bill


March 18, 2005


"The Hip-Hop Generation brings together time and race, place and polyculturalism, hot beats and hybridity," Jeff Chang writes in the prelude to his fascinating new book, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.

Rapper KRS-One has been making a similar point for years, in somewhat more lyrical language. "Rap is something we do," he is fond of saying. "Hip-hop is something we live."

One of the shortcomings of hip-hop culture is that it often fails to honor its heritage. Sure, rappers are fond of giving shout-outs to departed heroes such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, and plenty of lip service is paid to "the old school." But the music's pioneers are too often treated as dusty relics instead of vibrant forces that can still add to the current music scene and inform its direction.

Chief among the icons who shouldn't be counted out: KRS-One, who comes to Metro tonight as part of a historically minded bill dubbed "Return of the Boom Baps," which also features hip-hop innovators Brand Nubian. Born in the Bronx as Lawrence Parker, he acquired the nickname 'Kris' thanks to his interest in the Hare Krishna religion. That led to his rap moniker KRS-One, sometimes cited as an acronym for "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone."


With KRS-One, Brand Nubian, Masta Ace, Mass Hysteria, Longshot and Diverse

  • 9 tonight
  • Metro, 3730 N. Clark
  • Tickets, $23-$25
  • Call (773) 549-4140

  • After leaving home at age 14, the rapper lived on the streets and spent time in New York City's homeless shelters. There he met the counselor who became his first DJ, Scott La Rock, and the two formed Boogie Down Productions in the mid-'80s.

    KRS-One's experiences in the criminal underground have always been a big part of his music, from BDP's hugely influential 1987 debut, "Criminal Minded," through his last solo album, 2004's "Keep Right." But in contrast to the legions of gangstas who followed in his footsteps, rather than bragging about the thug life or holding it up as something to emulate, he mined his misadventures for cautionary tales, and he used them to drive home a bigger political point about this country's continuing subjugation of young African-American men.

    This earned him another nickname: "The Teacher."

    KRS-One realized the ramifications of hip-hop's senseless glorification of violence when La Rock was shot to death shortly after BDP's debut. Afterwards, he became one of hip-hop's most inspired activists, launching the "Stop the Violence" movement and other positive initiatives, though he didn't always practice what he preached: His pointless bum-rushing of a show by psychedelic rappers P.M. Dawn -- a threat to no one, least of all "real hip-hop values"-- stands as a black mark on an otherwise righteous career.

    Many younger rappers dismissed KRS-One as "too soft" following his 1990 album "Edutainment" and his embrace by alternative rockers such as Too Much Joy and R.E.M. (he added guest vocals to 1991's "Radio Song"). But his passionate rapping never lost its edge, and from his killer 1993 solo album, "Return of the Boom Bap," through "Keep Right," he has continued to call for a return to the idealism and political values that have been lost as hip-hop has evolved and become one of the dominant forces in popular music.

    "How many MC's must get dissed / How many young men must get frisked," he asks on "I Been There," one of the strongest tracks on "Keep Right." "How much ice can really go on one wrist / How many shots get fired at a target and just miss / We gonna live like this?"

    Sharing the stage with KRS-One at Metro and only slightly less outspoken and influential is the New York group Brand Nubian. The crew became a center of controversy circa its 1990 debut "All for One" because it lauded some of the more extreme Afrocentric teachings of the Nation of Islam, but its biggest legacy has been sonic rather than philosophical, and its smooth productions and easy flow retain a timeless power.

    Brand Nubian's last release, the 2004 reunion disc "Fire in the Hole," isn't nearly as strong as KRS-One's latest: It's a little too heavy on the "aren't you glad we're back" self-congratulatory hype. But original members Lord Jamar, Sadat X and Grand Puba remain potent musical forces.

    Witness the track "Young Son," which is built on a loop from Cat Steven's "The Hurt." It may seem an unlikely choice for a sample musically, but it makes perfect sense spiritually -- given that the Nubians and Yusef Islam share the same Muslim faith -- and thematically, as the lyrics join KRS-One in condemning the glorification of street violence.

    "Now don't get caught up by the corner / You know these blocks be hotter than a sauna," Puba raps. "Don't let them peers put the pressure on ya / And when you make moves, make moves cause you wanna."

    Rounding out the bill at Metro is another hip-hop veteran, Masta Ace; Mass Hysteria and Longshot, and stellar young rappers who shares the politically conscious values of the headliners, Chicago's own Diverse.

    Reasons for living

    The most important new genre of the last quarter-century finally has a sweeping historical overview as powerful as the music with Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin's, $27.95) by California music writer Jeff Chang.

    Chang digs much deeper than the toasting at parties in playgrounds in the Bronx in the late '70s and early '80s to uncover hip-hop's roots in Jamaica and Africa, placing it in context with political and social happenings from gang warfare in Los Angeles and New York to race riots, "white flight," and the rise of Black Nationalism.

    It's hard to argue with the artists the author cites as "the trinity of hip-hop music" -- Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, who pens the introduction -- and if he slights innovators like KRS-One and stumbles a bit with less political but musically significant rappers such as De La Soul, he can be forgiven for emphasizing the grand historical sweep of the music's development at the expense of specific high points that didn't quite fit his thesis. The overall impact of the book is as the best-argued, most thoroughly researched case for hip-hop as a complete and truly American culture that has yet to hit the shelves.