KRS-One is inarguably one of THE most significant and influential artists from hip hop’s original old school; a true pioneer who along with the scene’s other heavy hitters, helped to build the genre from a niche scene out of the ghettos of black America, to the global phenomenon it is today. Boasting a list of releases and production credits to his name so immense, you do wonder where he ever finds the time to do anything else? Perhaps that’s why his mantra of “rap is something we do, hip hop is something we live” is so significant when applied to his own philosophy.
Making his mark on the scene with Boogie Down Production’s seminal 1987 recording ‘Criminal Minded’, KRS-One and the late DJ Scott Le Rock would foreshadow the gangster rap genre, with KRS’ uncompromising yet compelling street commentary encompassing topics such as gun crime and drug addiction, amongst the usual bravado which has always been part and parcel of any hip hop artist’s repertoire. Even at this early stage of his career, KRS-One’s lyrics carried more of a social message and militant edge than many of his peers (Chuck D aside), displaying a worldly knowledge and political savvy way beyond his years and earning him the moniker of “The Teacha” and “The Philosopher”, amongst others. No surprise then that KRS-One stands for “knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone”.
After signing to a major label in 1988, KRS-One never diluted his music or compromised his political ideologies and for this, he has always enjoyed universal respect from the global hip hop community. No acting career for KRS, he chose instead to spit out release after release of real hip hop like a one man vinyl pressing plant. The next six Boogie Down Productions albums would take KRS-One into 1992, encompassing numerous anthems along the way (try “South Bronx”, “Poetry”, “My Philosophy”, “Jack of Spades”, “I’m Still #1” and “Stop The Violence” and “You Must Learn” for starters), not to mention hundreds of production credits and masses of collaborations with his hip hop peers as well as guest appearances with more mainstream artists like R.E.M, Shabba Ranks and Sly & Robbie.
In 1993 it was time for KRS-One to cut loose as a solo artist, and over the next few years he would go on to release further hip hop anthems (and future staples) such as “Sound Of Da Police”, “Return Of The Boom Bap”, “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know” and “Step Into A World (Rapture)”, in amongst further production credits and collaborations galore. Cut to 2017 and KRS-One has just dropped his 13th solo album proper (not including the six collaboration albums which bring the tally to 19) and while he might not sell in the millions like hip hop’s mass-marketed new school of Kanye, Eminem, Jay-Z et al, he is still very much a part of the scene which he helped to create all those years ago. Indeed, coming up with new material is no problem for the man who always has something profound to say, not just on the state of the hip hop industry or the music industry as a whole, but also on the state of the world we live in.
A chance to see the New York giant play live at Exeter’s Phoenix on a Friday night could simply not be turned down for any self-respecting hip hop connoisseur, so off I headed to Exeter’s premier live music venue to see if he would live up to my high expectations, having never heard him live, despite owning most of his albums and a fuckton of 12”s (an industry-recognized term meaning slightly more than a shitload).
Opening for the Blastmaster was Southwest-based Emcee Jman, who definitely surpassed expectations for a warm-up act. With four breakdancing b-boys in tow, Jman really worked overtime to warm up the crowd ready for the main event. Kicking off by spinning some reggae covers of hip hop staples like “Insane in the Brain” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, Jman proceeded to rap freestyle whilst jumping about at the front of the stage to hype up the audience, in between hopping back to the decks to keep the music flowing. If he could have juggled some oranges at the same time, I reckon he probably would have.
Jman showed that he had more to his game than just hyping the crowd as he treated the Phoenix (which was now filling up to near to its 450 standing capacity) to a selection of his own material from his forthcoming album. I didn’t get the title as by then it was impossible to take notes when you have a half dozen homeboys jumping on your feet, in between trying to dodge a constant flow of partygoers ferrying pints of lager to and fro in plastic cups, some of which they would get to drink, in between spilling most of it on my suede Adidas. All for the love of hip hop this you know.
Back to Jman’s set and he had the ever-increasing Phoenix massive jamming along to his busy reggae-tinged vocal delivery. I didn’t get the names of the songs but the word Babylon was mentioned. A lot. “Babylon is Dead” may well have been one of the song titles. I will say that it was refreshing to hear a UK emcee who doesn’t sound like an identikit grime artist and who wasn’t just talking about the acquisition of material goods or money. Not only that, but he really is a natural showman, oozing charisma on stage and working the audience like a natural.
With KRS-One’s entrance imminent, it was the turn of his DJ Predator Prime to work the room further into a frenzy in preparation for the main event. This was achieved with minimal effort, by relying on a relentless procession of 90s hip hop anthems from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, House of Pain, Gang Starr, Black Sheep and more. Predator Prime created an urgency to his set by playing each track for about a minute or two at the most, before furiously cutting into the next dancefloor banger. I was surprised to see that he was playing off a pair of Pioneer CD decks, normally the preserve of house DJs. I’m not saying you can’t mix hip hop on a CD deck, but I do think scratching sounds waaay better and is much more controlled on a vinyl deck. Potato tomato I hear you cry… Lack of technical masterclass aside, the DJ did the job and kept the tunes flowing without dropping a beat, stirring up the crowd on the mic at the same time (no mean feat). This went on for maybe 30 minutes until the main man entered the stage.
KRS-One rocked up on stage to a rapturous Southwest reception. As is customary at a concert these days, we had to spend the next 10 minutes to allow most of the audience an opportunity to take a plethora of (more than likely) blurry and poorly lit photos of the back of other people’s heads, as well as some inevitably shaky as fuck movie clips (in the wrong ratio) on their unfeasibly large smartphones / tablets. Once this box was well and truly ticked, we could get on with the business of actually listening to the headline act.
Opening with a freestyle soundcheck, we were treated to a short rendition of his 1986 classic “South Bronx” (the chorus of which was “borrowed” by J Lo in 2002 sample spotters), giving way to subsequent crowd pleaser “Step Into A World (Rapture)”. At this point it was time for the man in charge to launch into a diatribe against wireless microphones while he swapped for a corded mic (which wouldn’t feed back every 20 seconds). Fair point, well made! All said, this technical niggle aside (probably made more apparent as KRS cranked up his levels to the max), the sound at the Phoenix was well up to the job all night and dealt well with the mid-range of the MCs and the deep bass of the hip hop beats, without making you feel like your fillings were going to fall out – difficult to get around the government’s anti noise legislation these days, so most local gigs will always be subject to sound limiting, but the Phoenix manages to do this without making you feel like you’ve been shortchanged in the audio department.
The classics kept coming now, with the Phoenix faithful treated to renditions of“You Must Learn”, “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know”, “The Bridge is Over”, “9mm Goes Bang” and “Boom Bap”. Once the established classics were well and truly dished up, KRS-One showcased a number of tracks from his 13th solo album entitled “The World is Mind”, which we were told is but a few days old! Production-wise, the new tracks have a raw, hard underground sound, quite far removed from the funky sample-based and dancehall reggae-infused hip hop with which the artist made his name (sampling laws have a lot to do with this I imagine). Perhaps less instantly infectious then some of the older BDP or KRS-One tracks of old (hip hop has changed over the years, deal with it…), what was apparent was that his lyrics are still full of profound meaning and politically relevant messages which makes KRS stand out from the glut of modern day emcees who are only really concerned with telling the World how great they are, or how much money they make. The Teacha was here to entertain us and entertain us he did, but he was also on a mission to educate too, as he did with new tracks such as “My Dreams” (an inspirational message for people to never stop following their dreams), “Show Respect” and “Hip Hop Speaks From Heaven” (both tributes to hip hop’s ever increasing roster of departed legends).
Throughout his energetic and engaging performance, KRS was determined to hit home the message (aided by some giant on stage props) that hip hop should be about peace, love unity and having fun. Not only that, but Kris made the valid point that if you want to master any of the four disciplines of hip hop; namely breakdancing, emceeing, graffiti writing or deejaying, then it has to come from the love of the craft and not for money. Something that some of today’s generation of hip hop artists seem to have forgotten - but not Kris!
As the gig drew to a climax, the man like KRS began to get bombarded with items of clothing, which he dutifully signed with a marker pen before throwing them back into the crowd and continuing to freestyle all the while. At one point, he stopped to sign someone’s prosthetic leg like it was just another day at the office: “what is this, someone’s leg? Oh, OK then, here you go…” As the show finally drew to a close, we were treated to some rhyming over a Vivaldi track, which worked big time, even though it shouldn’t do on paper. Kris didn’t forget to plug his new CD at the closing stages of his set, but it was interesting to hear his thoughts on the state of the industry, musing on how back in the day, his label would have spent vast amounts of money on advertising space and promotion when as far as he’s concerned, none of it made any difference and the only way to sell albums is to press them yourself and sell them at gigs. Not sure Ed Sheeran would agree, but I saw a fair few CDs selling after the gig, including the one I bought which has been on rotation in the car since the journey home.
Three Listens in a row to his new album “The World is Mind” and it’s clear to me that KRS-One still has that ability to completely enthral you with his music, just like he did the very first time I heard “Criminal Minded” way back in 1987. He hasn’t lost his all-consuming passion for hip hop, nor has he lost his lyrical skills, combined with the hardcore underground sound that he has been synonymous with for the past 20 years. Massive big ups to Exeter Phoenix for having the vision to book this legendary hip hop artist and may there be many more gigs of this caliber at the Phoenix in the near future.
review by Joe Taylor
Photography by Rhodri Cooper