Hip-hop heads were first introduced to KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone) in 1986 with Boogie Down Productions' national underground hit "South Bronx." Ever since, KRS-One (a.k.a. Kris Parker) has helped transform hip-hop into a culture and advanced its music on such albums as By All Means Necessary, Ghetto Music and Edutainment. More than a decade after "South Bronx," he continues to play a key role in rap, combining street poetry and a hard-core style that eclipse the genre's usual gun-toting gangsta themes. Not for nothing has he been nicknamed "The Teacher."
New Times: What has kept you in the forefront for the past decade?
KRS-One: Wow! Let me start off by saying that everything that has happened in my life happened in two ways. One by skill, and the other by total supernatural means. When I say supernatural means, this means that I rely heavily on a spiritual sense. I recognize the fact that I am a co-creator within the universe. So half of my longevity is due to me knowing that I am co-creating with the universe. It means you always have fresh material and something to say. The other half of it is what I bring to the table, which is the skill. This is what separates a successful person from someone who is still just dreaming. A lot of people dream and are getting ideas from the universe--ideas are in their heads--but they're not working on them. They're talking about them, but they're not really visualizing them and seeing them. So to answer your question, those are the two ways.
NT: What exactly made you leave home at 14?
KRS-One: I had this burning desire to be a rap artist. I mean, to be honest with you, I know it sounds corny. But my mother bought [the Sugar Hill Gang's] "Rapper's Delight" in 1979. Once I listened to it, I really wanted to be a rap artist.
NT: But why did you have to leave home to pursue your goals?
KRS-One: My mother was like every other parent. I said, "I wanna be a rap artist, Mom."
And she said, "Okay, cool, but you need to get an education."
And I was like, nah, this education is not what's gonna make me a rapper. Talking to a woman who has a college degree, had two jobs at the time, and then here I come wanting to be a rapper. She didn't want to hear it. My mom's thinking was: First of all, rap is not gonna last but two more years; what are you talking about? It's only gonna get to '81 and then stop. So it was all of that and, I guess, the friction in the house is what made me decide to leave. My mother was a loving mother, but I had a burning desire to do this.
NT: What does your mom say when she looks at you now?
KRS-One: Oh, she still doesn't really understand what time it is. I'll tell you something real funny. I saw my mother in 1991 after not seeing her for about 10 or 12 years. We went to a restaurant, and I'm sitting and talking and people are coming up to me asking me for my autograph. And she said, "What's wrong with these people? Why do they keep asking you for your autograph?" I told her that these people have bought my records, and there's a certain degree of respect here. I have to sign these papers. They are saying that they like what I do. And my mom says, "Well, what is it that you do, boy?" And I say, "Mom, I'm a rap artist. I've got four gold albums. I'm KRS-One." And she says, "KRS who?"
NT: Some listeners and journalists say you come off as egotistical at times. Would you consider yourself to have a messiah complex?
KRS-One: Ouch! Hmmmm, yes and no. No, KRS-One is probably the most humble artist in this universe. Ego gets in the way of everything. However, people do mistake my confidence for ego. I am very confident about what I do. I know what I'm gonna do. I know when you hear KRS-One is gonna perform live at a concert, you should rest assured that when you get there, you're gonna leave sweaty, going, "Oh my God! He put me through 15 years of my life, and I'm with him!" You're gonna feel good. I know what I can do. People that aren't used to hearing people speak with confidence label it as ego.
But let me say this on the messiah-complex part: I wouldn't call myself a messiah. But I do believe I am one of the people who believes they can save the world. I am one of the people that says, "Yes, I am a role model." I will take the responsibility to educate, or what I call "edutain," the masses of people. Some people might ask, "Well, what is the point, and what do you want?" And the point is the whole reason why I entered into rap altogether. I entered in with my first record, "South Bronx," as the teacher. This is not to be taken lightly. I come from an era in hip-hop culture where if you call yourself something, then you act that out in society. But most people are not looking at hip-hop as a culture. They're looking at rap, which is the expression of the culture. So they take these things very lightly. This is how professors and deans of schools get caught out there. They come to debate me. The host will read my bio and say I lectured at Yale and Columbia. The professors expect a rapper to speak with what they call Ebonics. But I open my mouth and begin to expound on all kinds of theology, mythology and sociology.
NT: What's the difference between hip-hop as opposed to rap?
KRS-One: For me, hip-hop is the political weapon that black and Latino people have in this country. I say a weapon because hip-hop cuts through things like racism and sexism, to a certain extent. It is hip-hop that says God lives within. It is hip-hop that even says Jesus might be of African descent. It's hip-hop that gives power to women and to femininity. Look at our female rappers, and see where our women in the hip-hop environment have gone further in their own lives. You can't do that in the basic American society. Women and minorities are always kept down because of the mainstream white-male authority. This is the way the country is. But it is changing, and hip-hop is the catalyst for its change.
NT: Hip-hop itself has seen many changes. What are your views of the current trend of artists in character like Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim?
KRS-One: First of all, they are brilliant artists. They are great representations of rap music. As women, I think they are beautiful women and very intelligent women, at that. I know Kim and little Foxy. Me and Foxy did our albums at the same time in the same studio in New York. She's a very intelligent woman. She knows exactly what she is doing. I would say on the more intellectual level that we should look at Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown as a woman's liberation in this society. Listen to what they're saying. Never before in the history of America have women been given the power and authority to come out and say the things that Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown are saying. A bunch of other inner-city women are saying, "Word! That represents me! They represent what I am about."
But there is something to be said here about maturity. About how you are growing up. I think that all music or television and entertainment should be guided by the parent. Or at least the parent should tell the children what music they think is slamming. The child may say, "I don't agree, Mom. I'm with this Lil' Kim over here." But at least you're having a cultural conversation about why you are listening to Queen Latifah and why your children are listening to Lil' Kim. I think Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown's music are for children.
NT: What are you talking about!? Your lyrics to "Brown Skin Woman" are an excellent ode to the African-American woman. What would you say to young girls coming up who are in love with Foxy's and Lil' Kim's harsh and sexually vulgar lyrics?
KRS-One: You can't say anything to those young girls. It's actually wrong to insinuate that you can say anything to them. That you or they have a responsibility toward what we might call civilization is wrong. That is reserved for the higher-thinking people. That is reserved for the intellectually minded people. That is not reserved to those that only listen to Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. Foxy Brown's lyrics cannot be the extent of your life. But to be fair, KRS-One's lyrics cannot be the extent of your life, either. You have to look at these songs and lyrics in context. The Foxy Browns do music strictly for the clubs, strictly for the moment. For everyone reading this, we all know that there is a time in your life when you're coming from the club, it's Friday night, you've got money in your pockets. If you're a guy, you've got a girl next to you in your car, you've got mad game and her game is happening, too. Y'all are out and you throw in Lil' Kim and you get it on and you have fun. It's for the moment. That is not a time to play KRS-One. That's not the time to play "Brown Skin Woman" ["You're a queen, not a hoe"]. No, you're gonna want to get it on. So you have to listen to these songs in the context of the situation.
But say if you're driving on the way to work, or you're coming home from work, well, now KRS-One is appropriate music. Because my music is designed not only to motivate you through your day, but to also calm you down from stress at the end of the day. This is what edutainment is all about. It's about showing you reality so you can see your situation a little clearer through the music that you listen to. I am not to be played all the time. You're supposed to have everybody's music in perspective. So I would say that Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim's music is good for a certain type of person and for a certain-aged person and at a certain time of day.
NT: Does it bother you that although you are highly respected within hip-hop culture, you still may never receive a Grammy?
KRS-One: Not really. It's so funny you ask that, because I had to take my wife, Simone, to the Grammy ceremony. Visualize the picture of the wife with her hair tied up with a frying pan in her hand and slippers, screaming, "I wanna go to the Grammys! And you better take me!" So I had to go to the Grammy ceremony. The Grammys are the Grammys, and it is so plastic in there. I've been only twice, and the first time I went, I didn't like it. This second time, I still didn't like it. But Simone wanted to go, so I went. To be honest with you, I don't do music for the Grammys. If someone were to offer me a Grammy, I'd take it, but I'd probably donate it to some cause. It doesn't impress me. But what does impress me is the respect you get from people once you have one. I think the Fugees got a real Grammy this year. They did their job, they sold the records and they tried to stay true to the culture, and they stayed together as a group. But for KRS-One, nah. I do music for you to come straight to the club and sweat. That's it! That's the extent of it. I am the MC.
NT: You've worked with everything from reggae to R.E.M. When are you going to break into R&B?
KRS-One: I am surrounded by R&B artists constantly. You never know, you may be calling my future into play here. I did a jungle record this year. I don't know if y'all out there know about that type of music, but it's really big in Europe.
NT: Isn't it like house music and tribal music? If I said Tricky, would that come close?
KRS-One: It's faster than house music. Sure, it's similar to Tricky's style. I'm getting into the MC rhyming over any kind of beat. I'd love to do a country song that rocks the country audience. Then maybe move over to a little bit of opera. Reggae already took over some of the opera rhythms.
NT: What role do you see yourself playing in hip-hop when you're 40 [he's now in his early 30s]?
KRS-One: I am coming to the end of my recording contract with Jive Records. At the same time, I feel like I'm 18 years old. I just feel very energetic these days, which you'll see in the performance. Finally, for the first time in my life, I have the time and the money to be into philosophy and education full-time.
NT: What about your label, Frontpage?
KRS-One: That's still happening. We are getting ready to put out four or five different acts this summer, and some special records, as well. Frontpage as a label, that's a whole different conversation. We started that label because I wasn't getting adequate promotion from Jive Records. So I started pressing my own music and putting it out. Heads started buying the records and liking it. It was a total disrespect to my recording contract, but people liked the stuff. So I thought that it was a good thing, and then I thought about finding some acts and putting them out and just see what happens with that. Because that's how people really get rich. I would love to buy a fleet of 18 trucks and do distribution.
But listen, to answer your question, we are starting a private school called the Temple of Hip-Hop. We will be teaching graffiti art, DJ-ing, MC-ing, breaking and the philosophies that explain all that, including hip-hop history. We are putting together a curriculum as to how hip-hop as a culture can be taught in public schools and private schools. It is based in New York, but the curriculum is worldwide. We will translate in all cultures and countries. This is one of the concepts that I have been trying to do for years. I couldn't get it done because I was either too corporate or I depended too much on other rap artists to be as revolutionary as my thinking. Now, I am by myself, and I feel good, I feel strong, I know what I can do. So I am going to go out and do it.
NT: Your songs have heavy messages that reflect the beliefs of the 5% Nation of Islam. Is there any connection?
KRS-One: Yes, they do have reflections of the 5% Nation. But there isn't really any connection, except from the theological aspect. I studied Islam, but only from a theological point of view. I think it is a very beautiful religion. The beauty of the Koran is that it is very scientific and logical. That's what I like about it. But I myself, I don't call myself a Muslim. But I do think I am obedient to God.
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NT: Speaking of God, you view God as a woman. Why?
KRS-One: Because in mythology, the first form of deity was an animal, and then it moved to the form of a woman, the mother Earth. Man became a god as he rested on the throne of Isis. She is the power of Egypt. She is the power of the world. So he becomes empowered by sitting in her lap. This also is the mythology of the Madonna and Child, Isis and Osiris, which was later translated as Mary and Jesus. Which could also be Madonna and KRS-One if we ever did a picture together. However, I give credit to the mother concepts. Because I think that for 10,500 years, we have slowly transited from the feminine principles to the masculine, warrior, territorial, logical principles of God. I think that a society only acts the way its god acts. Also, in strategy, going into the 21st century, we need more feminine principles. We need to give more political and religious power to women. Why can't a woman be a priest in the Christian religion? That needs to be eradicated, and we must move forward. Christianity will never shed [its] cloak of sexism until [it bestows] authority to women.
NT: You pay a great deal of homage to women. Where's the crew from Boogie Down Productions like Miss Melodie and Harmony at today?
KRS-One: They were replaced by a higher woman. Miss Melodie was my first wife, and Harmony was my sister-in-law. If I could just get personal for a minute, there was no line drawn between me as KRS-One and me as Kris Parker. I am into family, and I am a one-woman guy who stays with his family. I had to meet Simone, who brought the light to my life. We have two children, and she is my goddess.
NT: Are you looking forward to coming to Phoenix?
KRS-One: I am looking so forward to coming to Phoenix and representing with the real hip-hop community. I know a lot of people are out in Phoenix and getting these wishy-washy shows coming to town, with people spending their money and artists doing 15 minutes and getting offstage. Phoenix is about to see a veteran. You are about to see something you have never seen before in your life. We are about to bring it to Phoenix's back. When you leave there, you are supposed to feel proud to be a part of the hip-hop culture and a part of the hip-hop nation. And all we ask is that you come in peace. You come prepared to be a part of a unified culture and let me take you from 1986 to 1997, and we can get it on for real. That's that!