Since his introduction in the mid-‘80s as part of the Boogie Down Productions crew, the Bronx-born KRS-One has become a living embodiment of hip-hop music and culture. Powered by a distinctive New York brogue and his patented brand of edutainment, the Blastmaster has notched more than three decades of work, all of which upholds the music’s welfare while ignoring (and often openly critiquing) fly-by-night trends. When KRS-One speaks, you listen.
The Teacha’s latest album, The World is MIND, feels like a modern primer on classic KRS: Over pared-down, rugged boom-bap, self-aggrandizing lyrics sit next to sermons on politics and the state of the world. The MC’s graffiti roots are reasserted on an update of his ‘90s spray can anthem “Out For Fame,” and he even takes a South African detour to drop science on the Xhosa language with “Keep Clicking.”
In the middle of a break from his latest world tour, we spoke to KRS-One about the overarching concept behind his newest album, the makeup of a “wack Twitter rapper,” and how he sees parallels between Nazi Germany and modern American neighborhoods.
First up, what lesson do you want people to take away from listening to The World is MIND?
It’s an old message and it’s one taught by many sages and learned people: The world we all live in is only a reflection of our own thinking, and if we are to change the world we must begin with the way in which we collectively think. We need less competition and more cooperation. We need less revenge and more forgiveness. Less gossip and more factual information. Less selfishness and more charity.
As an album project, The World Is MIND was written and produced for those that appreciate hip-hop’s original sound—hard beats and real street rhymes. To my peers and to other MCs, the message is: instead of complaining about the state of hip-hop’s music today, let us write and produce the music and lyrics we want to hear. We know what real hip-hop is and what it sounds like, so let’s present it in the way that we know it is to be presented.
And finally, The World Is MIND proves KRS-One’s skills as an MC, and the fact that just because you are considered old school doesn’t mean that you cannot still entertain your fan base and rock the so-called new school. Stick to the blueprint!
Talking about specific songs, on ‘Same Shit,’ you say, ‘Nazi Germany and your block is the same.’ What did you want to convey with that line?
In Nazi Germany—or when Germany was under the political rule of the Nazi party—the Nazi police were constantly intimidating not only Jewish families in Germany, but black Germans and those called gypsies or Sinti people as well. It is not well-documented or even acknowledged, but negroes and gypsies suffered and died in Auschwitz as well as other Nazi work-camps right along with millions of Jewish families. Before the mass deportation, torture, and eventual extermination of these people, both negroes and gypsies, along with Jews and other non-conforming Germans, were all criminalized in Nazi propaganda programs and systematically locked-up for no other reason than being an African, a gypsy, a Jew, or a German fighting against such social injustice.
So on ‘Same Shit’ when I say, ‘Nazi Germany and your block is the same,’ I am saying that the way in which blacks, Mexicans, and poor whites are being criminalized today in mass media, and the way in which we are all being systematically kidnapped and locked-up, shot down in the streets of America by racist police with such police officers being repeatedly acquitted or found not guilty, is shockingly similar to the streets of Nazi Germany just before the openly blatant mass slaughter of all European Jews. The criminalizing and marginalizing of young black people in mass media today is precisely how Nazis portrayed Jews and others as a justification for locking them all up, not hiring them, and eventually marching them into Nazi death camps.
Another reference on this same song points to ‘The Klan and the cops are the same / Slave quarters, blocks and prison blocks are the same.’ Yes, these are indeed poetic comparisons, but nonetheless similar historically. This, of course, is the theme of the entire song: to show the similarities between certain socio-political events in history and society, and how such events play a role in our collective well-being today.
Other songs on the album—’You Ain’t Got Time’ and ‘You Like Me’—mention the present political situation in America. What does it mean to you to be American in 2017?
The short answer can be found in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ decree. I think Dr. King was the most authentic American in America’s total history! But a longer answer points to the protection and promotion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For me, to be an American, one must be willing to place life above all else, one must be willing to place liberty and freedom above all else, and one must be willing to place happiness and joy above all else. This includes our approach to those that are not legal citizens of our nation—our laws and principles should extend to foreign nations as well. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be our national character and foreign policy.
Everyone—the whole of humanity—should know that there is at least one place in this earth that upholds and protects life, liberty, and happiness above all else. Everywhere the word American appears or is spoken in the earth, everyone should understand that this word is synonymous with the protection and promotion of life, liberty, and happiness. For me, a government committed to these principles is a true American government. A people committed to these principles are true American citizens. Racism, sexism, classism, and hate in any form is authentically un-American. Fear is also un-American, and a government that governs through fear is un-American.
I don’t have much to say on the political situation in America at the moment—it is what it is. But I do think that what is being called mainstream media has indeed lost its way. When I look at CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, BBC, Al Jazeera, RT, and the like, it is clear that these so-called news agencies have become the exclusive mouthpieces of particular political parties and political agendas. You can see the biased and often disrespectful reporting expressed by all of today’s news media. It is an insult to the American people and actually holds our nation back from its true meaning and purpose—life, liberty, and happiness.
Your music has always had a political dimension. Would you ever run for political office yourself? What would your platform be?
I was told to never say never, so I won’t say that I will never run for political office. But honestly, I have no desire at the moment to immerse myself into such a corrupted and woefully backward political environment. It is clear that those in so-called power are really all about their own financial success. It is clear that the term public servant in public office is a joke. The electoral college makes voting a joke. Unchecked capitalism and blatant racism makes true democracy a joke, along with blatant police misconduct against African Americans and an openly discriminatory judicial system. These are all jokes for jokers and I am not Batman!
However, in the strictly hypothetical, my political platform if I were to run for President—which would be the only public office I would run for—would begin with the protection and global promotion of life. Meaning that I would start with life itself which would begin with an overall restructuring of America’s healthcare system as well as America’s educational system. For me, these two go together. Not only would basic health care be free to all living beings regardless of whether you were an American citizen or not—or even human or not—but so would a basic education be offered to all living beings according to their capacity to learn.
In my presidency, knowledge would reign supreme! We would teach our people how to eat, how to drink and how to think properly for a full and rewarding life. American citizens would be financially encouraged to exercise and eat healthy—not just told to. The idea that good and healthy foods cost more than unhealthy foods, for me, is criminal. The idea that an average person cannot grow their own food, for me, is criminal. Childhood obesity largely promoted by corporate financial interests, for me, is criminal. The fact that we must buy clean drinkable water as opposed to such clean drinkable water coming out of our faucets, for me, is criminal and points to the inefficiency of today’s American government to protect the life of its people. Cigarettes would be outlawed and marijuana would be legalized. Heroin would not even enter our country and if it did, it would be as scarce as ayahuasca and peyote are in most American cities today.
Then I would move over to liberty. I would abolish the American prison system or the prison industrial complex and replace it with a more advanced psychiatric/mental health system. There would be no more criminals in our society because we would not recognize any American citizen as a criminal. Americans that broke the law in one way or another would be hospitalized not imprisoned. Rehabilitation would be our normal course for justice. The death penalty would be outlawed. As a result, the concept of a police officer would be abolished. Instead, trained doctors and social workers would patrol the streets with the power to arrest and detain those that deliberately broke the laws of our country. But in truth, only those with serious mental challenges would violate our laws because my government would promote and empower true citizenship. As a government, we would constantly promote the idea of good citizenship and the purpose for our social structure.
Then I would move over to happiness. Nothing that made you happy would be illegal unless your happiness caused others to be unhappy. As a government, we would help you pursue your happiness, whatever that happiness may be. Beginning with the pursuit of your life purpose, we would teach our children at very young ages how to be happy and avoid depression. Our goal as a government would be to eradicate sickness, hatred, ignorance and poverty from our nation and ultimately from all other nations of the earth—unless they were truly happy with their condition.
Of course, I can go on with this, from public school teachers being the highest paid in our society by law to the creation of a new American city dedicated to the arts stimulating our economy and offering millions of new jobs to our citizenry… But these are just some of the reasons as to why I could never run for any public office.
Moving back to hip-hop music, on ‘Show Respect’ you mention a ‘wack Twitter rapper.’ How would you describe one?
[Raps] ‘They are not us! / They will pull-out their gat, but they will not bust! / They will witness injustice, but they will not fuss!’ A wack Twitter rapper is someone who feels as though their success through social media is more important than their loyalty to hip-hop’s actual culture. A wack Twitter rapper is more interested in how many likes or hits they may get as opposed to their actual skill as an MC. They use the artistic elements of hip-hop, but disregard hip-hop’s real culture and artistic traditions in an attempt to secure their own careers or create some form of artificial success through artificial intelligence—or social media. And don’t get it twisted! There are many authentic MCs and DJs that have become very popular through social media. But it must always be remembered that artificial intelligence is not organic intelligence, and therefore success through social media will never be as real or as long-lasting as one’s earned respect and popularity amongst real people. Presenting one’s self through social media is nowhere near as powerful as showing up at a real club and earning one’s real respect and popularity through real skills on a real mic in front of real people paying real money. As I often teach: Don’t let technology steal your humanity!
How do you feel about the way the hip-hop industry has evolved over the 30 or so years you’ve been recording?
As I see it, the so-called hip-hop industry has always been about the further exploitation of our sacred street arts for the exclusive benefit of a few music executives. It is the so-called hip-hop industry that has always denied the cultural existence of hip-hop and its principles in an effort to exploit hip-hop for its vast wealth. As a result, over the past 30 years, hip-hop has deteriorated into a music genre where anyone and anything that raps or presents rap music is considered hip-hop [the culture]. It is the so-called hip-hop industry that has always presented black and Latino people as criminals and prostitutes. Even when black and Latino rappers present poetic themes other than crime, drug-selling and prostitution on their albums, these themes are deliberately ignored for the sake of perpetuating whatever fantasy sells to the song-buying public. It is the so-called hip-hop industry through its written publications that keep our people ignorant of themselves and their true potential as a global culture.
But on a more positive note, it is the so-called hip-hop industry that has also made it possible for many unemployed young people and street entrepreneurs alike to become financially successful and thus able to escape the hardships of urban life. It is the so-called hip-hop industry that has given a voice to the voiceless and has made the opinions of such voices politically valid. Years ago, if you had any talent as a rapper or DJ and you were pursuing a career at these, you were advised to get a college degree to fall back on in the case that your rapping or DJing was not successful. Thirty years later, with college graduates driving for Uber or waiting tables, the new advice is to make sure that you can rap or DJ or break or produce graphic art in the event that your college degree is not successful. This new power is a direct result of the so-called hip-hop industry. At the least, hip-hop has an industry, some sort of global trade, that we hip-hoppers can rely upon to eat and be heard, so there is a balance here.
Are there any modern rappers who you see a bit of KRS-One in?
I can name a few, but I respect the individuality of today’s rappers. Even though I may have influenced some MCs, I don’t look for my style in theirs. Just because they may rap about social issues or freestyle live or try to inspire their communities through thought-provoking lyrics, it does not mean that I see myself in them. But to answer your question, off the top of my head I’d say Joey Bada$$ and Ab-Soul come very close. But these MCs are greatly talented in their own right, they don’t need to be compared to me at all—I can just relate to their approach to hip-hop. Of course, there are others.
Your new album mentions the problem of violence within hip-hop on a few occasions. Back in the late ‘80s you founded the Stop The Violence Movement. Do you think there’s any chance of something like a modern Stop The Violence Movement starting?
Maybe. The mind state of today’s rapper seems to be only about competition not cooperation. Principles like cultural unity are far from the minds of many of today’s popular rappers, DJs, and music executives. Most of the popular rappers of today despise culture keepers and conscious rappers. Most of the popular rappers today deliberately ignore the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Ture, and the like. Their music and lyrics ignore the messages promoted in movies like The Birth Of A Nation, 12 Years a Slave, Roots, Rosewood, and the like. And keep in mind that when I put together the Stop The Violence Movement, Human Education Against Lies, and even the Temple of Hip-Hop, most of my peers were against these ideas. They felt as though I was trying to stifle hip-hop by putting a cultural structure to it.
But I also say maybe to the idea of a 2017/2018 Stop The Violence Movement because people do grow up; people do eventually see the truth and correct the mistakes of their youth. Yes, it is possible to start a modern day Stop The Violence Movement, but today this would require the global unity of our hip-hop culture as well as a corporate commitment to the existence of such a movement. Remember, the original Stop The Violence Movement of 1989 was actually started by concerned music executives, responsible music journalists, and rappers. In 2009, I produced a follow-up song to the 1989 song ‘Self Destruction.’ This song was called ‘Self Construction’ and it featured an impressive line-up of artists, but still no real support from the so-called hip-hop industry. 2019 will be the 30th anniversary of the Stop The Violence Movement… let’s see what happens.
The song ‘Put Ya Ones Up’ includes you reminiscing about rhyming over the Jimmy Castor Bunch break. What’s your all-time favorite break to rhyme over?
I don’t really have a favorite break—as an MC you are trained to rhyme over any break. In fact, it is your MCing that actually brings life to the break itself. Many of the classic hip-hop breaks that we love so much today were made not by the break itself but by the MC performance over such breaks. But breaks like ‘Big Beat,’ ‘Impeach The President,’ ‘Another One Bites The Dust,’ ‘Funky Drummer,’ ‘Get Up And Dance,’ ‘Sing-Sing,’ ‘Super Sperm,’ ‘Good Times,’ and ‘Apache’ are indeed favorites. These songs and their amazing breaks are what set the tone as to what hip-hop’s music was to sound like—simple boom-bap drums and clever rhyme styles. This was hip-hop’s original sound, its original blueprint.