KRS-One is an MC who will always be linked to the Bronx, New York. He was born in it, recorded classic songs about it and in many ways has come to embody it, to be a flag bearer and champion for the area’s vital role in the birth and development of hip hop. As half of Boogie Down Productions, as a solo artist, and as a writer, lecturer and elder statesman, the Blastmaster’s career has stretched from 1985 to the present, and he doesn’t show any sign of retiring yet.
Aspiring MC in the Bronx
Born Lawrence 'Krisna' Parker on August 20, 1965, in the Bronx, KRS-One was introduced to rap music in his teen years by his mother, but by 1981, at the age of 16, he had left home to become an MC and was sleeping on the rough streets of New York. He’d huddle in the Brooklyn Public Library by day, then sleep in parks at night, until he was eventually given refuge in a men’s shelter and then moved on to a group home, where he studied for his GED. By 20, the wannabe graffiti artist and rapper was in the Franklin Armory Men’s Shelter and was assigned to a caseworker named Scott Sterling, who also DJed part-time under the name DJ Scott La Rock.
Finding they had a love for hip hop in common, the two started to record together. Along with rappers MC Quality and Levi 167 they released "Advance" as Scott La Rock and the Celebrity Three on Street Beat Records in 1986 and, once MC Quality departed, "Success Is the Word" under the name 12:41 on Fresh Records. However, it wasn’t until they formed Boogie Down Productions — which, despite a shifting membership that also included D-Nice, was at its core Scott La Rock and KRS-One — that they had any real impact.
The Bridge Wars
Debuts don’t come much more strident than "South Bronx," released in 1986 and the first salvo in what came to be known as the Bridge Wars. Queensbridge rapper MC Shan had released a single called “The Bridge” which some interpreted as claiming that hip hop was started by Queens artists. The Boogie Down Productions response to it was a street hit, and led to further back-and-forth tracks including, notably, "The Bridge Is Over." KRS and his crew lined up with a New York radio DJ, Red Alert; the rival Juice Crew from Queens lined up with another, Mr. Magic. The battle would generally all be in good spirits, and didn’t detract from the hard-hitting impact of Boogie Down Productions’ debut album in 1987, Criminal Minded, on B-Boy records. Broadening their sample palette, this undeniably hardcore album leaned heavily on both dancehall and rock influences. Allmusic’s Steve Huey praises its impact and says that it “greatly expanded on the range of subject matter that could be put on a rap record.”
Sadly, Sterling was murdered while trying to mediate in an argument in 1987, and KRS decided to keep the Boogie Down Productions name going, claiming that Sterling was always by his side spiritually. He kept the name intact over albums from 1988’s By All Means Necessary and 1989’s Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop through to 1990’s Edutainment and, finally, 1992’s Sex and Violence. What marked all of these albums was a growing consciousness and political awareness in KRS’s lyrics, as he came to take on the "teacher" persona he then made his own.
Stop the Violence Movement
Having lived with and seen his career and output shaped by Sterling’s senseless death, it made sense that KRS would spearhead the founding of hip hop’s short-lived Stop the Violence Movement. Put together partly as a response to violence in African-American communities, and at rap shows in particular, KRS pulled together an all-star line-up — including Heavy D, Public Enemy, Doug E Fresh, MC Lyte and more — to record the single "Self-Destruction." KRS would also found the Heal (human education against lies) project, which would release an album in 1991.
Boogie Down Productions dissolved in 1992, around the same time as KRS’ marriage to BDP member Ms. Melodie ended (he remarried, to another former BDP alumni, Simone G.). He was also at pains to disassociate former members such as D-Nice and Harmony from the group as he launched a career under his own name. The first fruit of that was 1993’s Return of the Boom Bap on Jive Records. Largely a collaboration with Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, it fared well both commercially — peaking at 37 in the Billboard 200 — and critically. “His whole sound seems rejuvenated,” Atco wrote, reviewing it for The Source. The single "Sound of da Police" would go on to be a perennially popular anthem.
Living Legend: From 'I Got Next' to 'The Gospel of Hip Hop'
Parker has been tireless in releasing records ever since, even if they’ve often avoided mainstream recognition. I Got Next, released in 1997, was his best-selling album, largely thanks to the effervescent single "Step Into a World," and while subsequent albums have flown under the radar, he remains a potent live performer, and tours the world — often by boat, due to his fear of flying. He founded the Temple of Hip Hop — an "international hip hop preservation ministry," archive, school and society — did college lecture tours and even, in 2007, released an album, Hip-Hop Lives, with his old Bridge Wars adversary Marley Marl.
His 600-page The Gospel of Hip Hop, published in 2009, was an attempt to establish the music he’d worked in as a religion. While that may not come to fruition, KRS-One’s reputation as a barnstorming and important MC is secure. His lifetime achievement award at the BET Awards in 2007, and the number of legends and contemporaries who cite him as an influence or as one of the best to ever rock the mic — including Jay Z, Chuck D and Talib Kweli — are proof of that.
In May 2017 KRS released his latest studio album, The World Is Mind.
(Profile photo of KRS-One by Roger Kisby/Getty Images)
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