So what you getting into tonight? "I'm thinking about checking out KRS-One at the Red Devil Lounge," the Inspector replied. "You know, paying my respects."
Not long thereafter, the Inspector rolled up in his Wagoneer, the red chrome and wood side panels gleaming against a jet-black sky as we headed out into the heart of Saturday night. I'd seen KRS many times over the years -- beginning with a 1988 show at Berkeley Community Theatre with the Jungle Brothers and Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. -- and I couldn't recall him ever doing a wack show. Another good omen: Earlier that afternoon, I was perusing Brian Coleman's Rakim Told Me, an insightful look at the backstories behind 21 classic hip-hop albums. The final chapter details the events leading up to KRS' 1987 classic Criminal Minded, which established the "Blastmaster" as one of the lyrical leaders of the new school of hip-hop, ushering in innovative offbeat cadences, knowledge-laced rhymes, and a then-novel reggae-rap fusion. And the beats? Ridiculous. Stripped down to a raw-boned, minimalist sheen, and laced with Trouble Funk, James Brown, Michigan & Smiley, and AC/DC (!) samples, the album's production was simply dope.
In addition to telling the story behind KRS' odd moniker -- it's short for "Krishna" (he used to hang out with the Hare variety), with the "One" added to distinguish himself from graff artists like Kress and KR -- Rakim also describes how the classic anthem "South Bronx" came to be, and what it came to be. KRS recalls that the first time the song played at NYC's Latin Quarter club, "The place erupted ... I've never felt a chill in my body like that. Everybody stopped dancing and just looked up at the DJ booth."
With the story of his rise from homeless zero to hip-hop hero fresh in my mind, I was stoked for Kris' live show. But first, the Inspector and I had to get in. Didn't look good at first; the show was sold-out, and security was super-tight. Yet somehow, it was meant to be: Our homie Shem was filming support act Rocker-T that evening, and via a backstage door, just like that we in there, sipping cold Heinekens with Rocker-T's DJ Irie Dole.
As we arrived, up-and-coming Oaklanders the Attik were onstage, moving the crowd. From the green room, we could feel the energy, already at fever pitch. Next, Rocker-T delivered roots ragamuffin reggae that raised the roof even higher. While Rocker was rockin', I glanced around the room and noticed a towering, dreadlocked figure stride through the door: KRS. For all his imposing presence (he's 6'4"), the rapper was very nonchalant, casually chatting about international politics with a bystander, then quietly edging to the stage door to watch the action.
When his turn came, time itself seemed to freeze. The club became a Temple of Hip-Hop Kulture, to name-check KRS' pseudo-religious organization. Everyone inside the house was transported to a Twilight Zone dimension where bling and grillz are irrelevant, where boom-bip not only returned but reigned supreme, and where a dope MC is a dope MC, as the full house shouted in unison during "Rapture's Delight."
Few of KRS' classics remained untouched that night. He drew from almost every phase of his nearly two-decade career, from such early bangers as "The Bridge Is Over" to recent singles like "Underground." He earned points with longtime fans with favorites from "Material Love" and "A Friend" to "MCs Act Like They Don't Know" and "I Can't Wake Up." He even gave Frisco a shout-out on "South Bronx," switching up the lyrics to If you pop that shit up in SF you might not live.
When KRS declared he was Roaming through the forest as the hardest lyrical artist on "Ah Yeah," it was hard to dispute -- the crowd was going more bananas than Gwen Stefani and Naomi Watts shopping for produce at the Berkeley Bowl. There were more hands in the air than at a U.N. food drop, especially after he dropped the next line: Black women you are not a bitch/You're a Goddess.
The elder emcee's energy was tireless, more appropriate for a teenager than a fortysomething dude. Scheduled to perform for an hour, his set rumbled on for far longer, with multiple encores that turned into rousing sing-alongs. Although he's been called egotistical by some, KRS shared the love by bringing out Rocker-T for a duet, and giving the Attik and opener Saukrates chances to shine in a heated freestyle exhibition. He signed posters and passed them out as souvenirs. And he interacted with the crowd like we were all his longtime friends -- something that never happens at big arena shows.
It's inevitable that rappers fall off over time, a topic KRS addresses on "Outta Here." Yet the Blastmaster has defied the odds. He's continued to release new records, and while his recent work may not be as celebrated as his classic material, he's kept the essence of hip-hop alive without reducing it to nostalgia or irony. Most impressively, he's every bit as awe-inspiring as ever onstage. It's hard to think of even one contemporary rap artist who's a better live performer; at the rate he's going, he'll still be performing "South Bronx" when the rest of us are in wheelchairs reading about it.
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