"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
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
RETURN OF THE
Brand Nubian, Masta Ace, Mass Hysteria, Longshot and Diverse
Metro, 3730 N.
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.