KRS-One, one of the most important and influential rappers in the industry, was homeless as a teenager. His ascent from street kid to rap revolutionary to acclaimed lecturer and intellectual is the stuff of hip-hop legend. With Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One played a crucial role in bringing a social and political conscience to hip-hop, through such groundbreaking albums as By All Means Necessary, Criminal Minded, Edutainment, and Ghetto Music: The Blueprint Of Hip Hop. As a solo artist, he has continued to expand the genre's thematic and musical boundaries, rapping on albums from artists as diverse as R.E.M. and Shabba Ranks and lecturing regularly at college campuses nationwide. After a late-'90s hiatus, KRS-One has returned with The Sneak Attack, his first record in five years and first solo album not to be released by rap/teen-pop powerhouse Jive. The blunt, outspoken rapper, intellectual, and activist recently spoke with The Onion A.V. Club from the road—where he's touring with opening act Afu-Ra—about industry politics, respect, and the linguistics of hip-hop.
The Onion: Do you think recent artists like Dead Prez, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, who are socially conscious and clearly influenced by your work, are bringing more of a sense of balance to rap music?
KRS-One: Well, yeah, on the surface of it. Yes, they're bringing a great balance to hip-hop as a culture and to rap music. But it's more accurate to think that the people of hip-hop, those that participate in the culture, are growing up and seeing Mos Def. They are reaching for Talib Kweli and Jill Scott and Common and these people. They're reaching for them more readily now because of their own maturity. It's not gonna last. It's not gonna stay this way. But, while it's here, artists like myself are enjoying it.
O: Why do you say that it's not going to last?
KRS: Because hip-hop as a culture itself goes through stages. It grows—it's breathing, living. I've noticed that we usually start off conscious, then we wind up very highly sexual, and then we thug it out. Then things get a little funny again, with comedy and that kind of thing. Don't be surprised if you see a "Parents Just Don't Understand" coming out. That kind of rap may all of a sudden become very prevalent. People might wonder why that's going to be, but usually when the conscious rap comes about, comedy comes about, too, and usually when the gangster rap is out, just to use that phrase or term, the sex comes out, too. We're getting ready to leave the sex and violence—which, by the way, won't disappear. It's just that the community of hip-hoppers is going to look at something different. This will now spur on a whole lot of artists to start thinking more consciously, and making music that pertains to their self-worth.
O: You left Jive after I Got Next. What was the cause of that?
KRS: We went in two different directions. I'm a staunch critic of Jive Records, as you know, but I'm also very respectful, because Jive supported me for 13 years, through some very controversial times. The guns on the covers of albums, the Malcolm X thing. And the head of Jive is a devout Jew. He's allowed me my freedom of speech, even when it went against Judaism and had a pinch of anti-Semitism in it, even though I'm not anti-Semitic. But when you're an intellectual and you're questioning religion, it can get pretty controversial, like "Why Is That?" for instance. Jive Records gets my respect, but we went in two different directions. They started putting out Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync on the same label as me. They knew it, I knew it, we all knew that this was a disaster, the fact that they got Britney Spears on the same label with KRS-One. It was an issue. Not so much that Britney… In no way to demean her art or anything, because I think she's very talented, but you can see where I'm coming from and see where she's coming from, or where 'N Sync or Backstreet are coming from. We went in two different directions and decided that it was time for KRS to go. What happened was, first I went to Warner Brothers' A&R and I took an A&R gig there, because I wanted to study philosophy full-time with an emphasis on metaphysics. I thought that getting a job that was 9 to 5, or something like that, would somehow help me out, give me the freedom I needed to study. But I learned that there were other things involved with that, as well. First of all, I'm not an executive. I learned that. I didn't know that before, and I now know it. I also know that I'm freer as a hip-hopper than as an executive. Even as a black man, I enjoy more freedom as a hip-hopper than as a black man. That, too, is controversial to say, but it's the truth. We all realized that it was time to go our separate ways. Jive was not pleased with me being over at Warner Brothers, and they were also kind of shocked and embarrassed. That wasn't my intent, but at the same time, I had to think about myself and my family. When I got to Warner Brothers, I realized, well, first of all, I'm not an executive. I can do it, I have the mind for it, but there's a life that you have to lead, and you have to give up your creative freedom. That's what I didn't want to give up. So I ran out of there, ran back to New York. By the way, my two-year stay at Warner Brothers was the best time of my life. Excellent company to work for. Time-Warner is the ultimate, and I was treated with high respect there. Just even thinking about it now makes me think about all the things I could have done there. But I would have had to give up rap. I would have had to give up hip-hop as a culture. Time-Warner would have become my culture, and it is a culture unto itself. It's like being Italian or Jamaican. Going back to the question, though, we just realized we had to go our separate routes. I also, creatively, was going in a different direction than Jive, because here I am wanting to save the world and uplift hip-hop. Jive was just interested in booty music and going platinum. That, too, was a dividing line. All of that led me to pursue my own label. I didn't want to sign with another record label. What's the sense? Fifteen years of industry, and I'm going to sign another contract with Sony or MCA or RCA? It makes sense for me. My wife had, and has, a label called Front Page Records, which we used to do breakbeat albums on. So we simply took that label imprint, went over to Koch Distribution, and did a joint-venture deal with them.
O: What did your A&R work for Warner Brothers teach you?
KRS: The single most important lesson I learned is that black people are the cause of black people's demise. I learned that at Time-Warner. Though I was treated with the highest respect from the owners of the company, which is obviously white people… Not obviously, but… [Laughs.] White ownership. This is not a black-owned company. This is a white-owned company in so many racial terms. All the white executives there treated me as if they were my son and I was their father, not the other way around. But, then, when I met with my black brothers, I say to you today, very reluctantly, it was a disappointment. The attitude that I was confronted with on that level was ridiculous. They didn't want to speak to me. There were heads of A&R who didn't even want to speak to me. For the two years I was there, they never called a meeting with me to discuss things. I called many meetings that were ignored. Our head of publicity couldn't get it together with the artists I was signing. I had about a $5 million budget. They couldn't understand why I would sign Kool Herc, who was the father of hip-hop culture. They couldn't understand why I was talking to Chuck D and Public Enemy about signing to Warner Brothers. They couldn't understand why I signed Kool Moe Dee, why I signed Mad Lion on the reggae side. All of that, they couldn't understand it. They wanted artists who basically thugged it out and pimped it out, and it was a disappointment to me on that side. But I never again will join in on the rhetoric that the white man is the reason people can't get ahead in corporate America. That's bullshit now, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe it was like that. Maybe in some corporations, it still is. But I know that at Time-Warner it ain't, and I was there from the highest level to the lowest level. And the problem is, black people are just constantly immature in their thinking, undisciplined, and we suffer as a people. You know, this is not about race in the sense that black people got to get something better than whites or Latinos or Asians. This is just basically that we keep complaining about what we don't have and what we can't do, and then, when we get in positions to do stuff, we fight amongst ourselves like savages. That was the single most important lesson I learned. It also opened my eyes to the reason black music looks the way it does on television and radio. It's always baffled me why BET looks the way it does. This is Black Entertainment Television. Why are we up there, then, looking like idiots? It's because black people are marketing black people like that. I commend the deal with Viacom purchasing BET. I hope Viacom cleans up and does some work. Viacom is a Time-Warner company, by the way.
O: Do you feel like people have a bias against older rappers?
KRS: Just black people do. Just black executives have a bias against older artists. We don't respect our elders. Besides artists, we don't respect Frederick Douglass. We don't respect Martin Luther King. You look at every Martin Luther King Boulevard out here, and it's a crack block. That's not because of white people. That's because of black leadership. We just have that problem, and it's something that I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to conquer. So, yeah, when it comes to the artists themselves, you look at someone like myself. It's these black DJs that are like, "Aww, man, KRS. He always preaching. Aww, man." But you go to the white DJs, and they can rattle off my songs. It's so funny that, when Public Enemy was out, their whole audience was white. And they're like, "Farrakhan, don't say you understand until you hear the man," and "Fight The Power," or "Don't Believe The Hype," and it's white kids that are chanting the lyrics and benefiting from that kind of thinking. And black folk look at Public Enemy, and the best thing we could do is say of Public Enemy's last album, "Oh, his beats was wack." Regardless of the message, regardless of anything else, "Oh, Chuck could've came with a better beat. He should've got [DJ] Premier. He should've went to Dr. Dre." This is the extent of our respect for our older artists, and I think it's a shame. I think it's appalling, and I think it's one of the cancers of our race.
O: How do you think the Internet and Napster will affect the way people use and listen to music?
KRS: Let me say, first and foremost, that you're talking to a biased person in that sense, because I'm all for Napster. I think that Napster is the greatest invention since sliced bread. Napster, to me, is liberation and freedom for artists. Yes, it directly goes against copyright laws. It is copyright infringement and it does, I think, dip into the sales of record companies. I think, in that sense, that it's a destructive force for corporate America. But, then again, that's what I stand for. Not to totally destroy corporate America, since I'm a product of it, but I think Napster puts capitalism in check, and that, to me, is a great service. If we're going to operate in a capitalist system, then let's uphold Napster, because that's the balance, where people can go and download albums or singles or whatever. To me, that's great. I think music should be free. I think all communication should be free. I think people should respect artists, and there should be a certain respect for artists who give their music away for free. If your music winds up on Napster and you approve of it, then the person downloading your music should at least go to your concert, should at least purchase your songs. Like, if they want a CD or cassette or the mastered copy of your album, they should go out and buy it, but you should not have to buy a song. You buy records, which present songs. But you shouldn't have to buy songs. Songs are things that you get around a campfire and listen to and enjoy. So, again, I think Napster is a step forward. I think it will affect music in this country, or the world, really, and force record companies to concentrate on their packaging more.
O: Why do you think artists like Dr. Dre and Metallica spoke out against Napster?
KRS: Because it directly goes against their sales. It damages their ability to make money. The bottom line is, "Are you in this for money, or are you in this for art?" And Dr. Dre is my man, straight up, he gets all the respect. We've worked together, and to this day he's a supporter of KRS, and I'm a supporter of him. But he has his philosophy, and I have mine. I don't even know if Dre even thought it out that much: He may have been put up to it because of his record company. Same thing with Metallica. I don't know that they really thought about this, because if you really think about it, it would tell you to step up the packaging of the products, so Napster will become an advertising vehicle, as opposed to the end-all-be-all, "I got your record for free and that's it." No, it should be, "I got your record for free, I got your album for free, but your packaging is also worth money, and so I'm gonna go purchase your material, because I want to read the booklet that you have. I want to see the rare pictures you're putting in. I want to see the packaging." So, again, Dre, Metallica, and everyone else who speaks out against Napster, I think it's a balanced argument. I think they're correct in their argument, but it comes down to, "What are you in this for?" I'm in this for the art and the culture of it, and I've always made that clear and stood by that. Not that I'm against making money on a record, but that's not my end-all-be-all. That's not my bottom line. My bottom line is respect. Other people's bottom line is money. I think both arguments are correct.
O: What do you think is the biggest problem with hip-hop today?
KRS: The fact that everyone believes that all of hip-hop is rap music, and that, when you say "hip-hop," it's synonymous with rap. That when you say "hip-hop," you should be thinking about breakdancing, graffiti art, or MCing—which is the proper name for rap—DJing, beat-boxing, language, fashion, knowledge, trade. You should be thinking about a culture when you say, "hip-hop." I think that hip-hop should be spelled with a capital "H," and as one word. It's the name of our culture, and it's the name of our identity and consciousness. I think hip-hop is not a product, but a culture. I think rap is a product, but when hip-hop becomes a product, that's slavery, because you're talking about people's souls. To me, that's the biggest problem.
O: What do you think is most encouraging about hip-hop today?
KRS: That it is the only place where Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech is visible. When Dr. Martin Luther King said, "I have a dream… Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain," in his time, Stone Mountain was the Klan headquarters. Today, with the help of hip-hop, they're all hip-hoppers up there. And when I say hip-hoppers, I mean black, white, Asian, Latino, Chicano, everybody. Everybody. Hip-hop has united all races. Hip-hop has formed a platform for all people, religions, and occupations to meet on something. We all have a platform to meet on now, due to hip-hop. That, to me, is beyond music. That is just a brilliant, brilliant thing.
O: Do you feel like people in general—and particularly the media—tend to focus on the negative aspects of hip-hop?
KRS: The question is a little unfair toward the media, only because if it bleeds, it leads in the media. That's how they make their money. Nobody's gonna buy a newspaper that says, "KRS does a mentorship program at the Riverside Church for young men 13 to 16." Nobody cares about that. On another level, you don't do those things for publicity, so the media, especially the print media, are in a very difficult position. They have to sell because they've got to make some money, they've got to feed themselves, and the way they sell is by constantly telling bad news. Bad news sells, so with that, it's a difficult position to be in. However, there is, I would say, a responsibility that's due. I think that all journalists, specifically print journalists, have a responsibility to educate the public. When you handle a culture's intellectual property, like journalists do, you have a responsibility not to tear it down, but to raise it up. The depiction of rap and of hip-hop culture in the media, I think, is one that needs more of a responsible approach from journalists. I think we're going to get there, but we have to grow up a little more—and not grow up in a slang sense, I mean grow up. We need more 30-year-old journalists. We need more journalists who have children, who have families and wives or husbands, those kinds of journalists. And then you'll get a different depiction of hip-hop and rap music. Really, you'll get a different depiction of the world, period.
O: Do you feel like the media pay too much attention to people like Eminem, Puff Daddy, and Jay-Z, who are seemingly in constant trouble?
KRS: Yes and no. Yes, they pay attention, because they have to print controversy to sell, but those people pay more attention to the media than I think a conscious rap artist does. Eminem's publicity agent is obviously aggressive about getting him out there, and getting controversial stories out there. In a way, Eminem benefits from all of this, especially with the image he's portraying. If you're an outlaw, you want the media to print the fact that you got arrested for gun possession. You want the media to print that you slapped up your girlfriend, that you smoked a blunt and ran down the block. You want that, and I think the media have done a great service to Eminem and Dr. Dre, and so on. The real problem is not so much what The New York Times or USA Today or any of the major news media do. The real problem is with The Source, which claims it's "the magazine of hip-hop music, culture, and politics." Yet when you open it, the culture and politics is all about pimps and hoes. To me, that's incredibly damaging, because if hip-hop's own publication is saying that all we're about is bitches and hoes and pimps and guns and drugs, what do you expect more intellectual, more mainstream, more academic writers and journalists to take from this culture? These writers are looking at Rap Pages and XXL, who claim they're hip-hop on a higher level, but at the same time, KRS-One will never be on the cover of XXL. KRS-One will never be on the cover of The Source—unless, of course, I sell a million records. Then, of course, I can be on the cover. To me, that's the real problem. Hip-hoppers are not interpreting what hip-hop is, and when we do interpret it, we interpret it as something immature, unorganized, and outlaw.
O: Do you feel like the police are targeting rappers?
KRS: Why, certainly. Certainly, just turn on the TV. I think BET and MTV are one of the main reasons why we have racial profiling in this country today, because police officers are human beings, as well. They themselves may disagree, they may think they're above that, but they're human. They go home, they have to buy their son or daughter the latest rap CD, they listen to it, and they listen to rappers confessing crimes, saying how they got away with murder. They listen to that. Any responsible man or woman with a family cannot respect that, and so if you watch BET and MTV, and then you put on your uniform and go out to patrol the street, you're like, "I know what you're all about. You're really only about shooting guns, smoking blunts, and promiscuous sex." It's just hypocrisy on hip-hop's part to cry racial profiling when your race is on TV acting like fools.
O: It seems like, because there's such an image of what a rapper should be, rappers who don't conform to that image have a hard time getting their message across.
KRS: That's because they want to play in an arena they're not supposed to be in. I've enjoyed much success. The IRS is always at my door, constantly. I just filed for an extension, by the way. It's not that you don't make any money doing conscious rap music. You make a lot of money doing this, but if you're greedy and you're not satisfied with $500,000 a year, and you want $2 million a year, then you will suffer as a conscious rap artist. But if you're true to the upliftment of people and the unity of people, raising the self-worth of people, then you live within your means. But the problem is that we're looking at the grass on the other side, saying, "That's greener. I want to be in the thug market, but I want to be a conscious rap artist." It doesn't work like that. You can't expect to be on MTV and critique George Bush. You can't expect to be on BET or the cover of The Source advocating Jesus Christ or Buddha or Hindu Krishna or Moses. As a conscious rap artist, you have to play in the arena that you're supposed to be in. What is that arena? That arena is the college market. The conscious rap artist woos the college market, even though the college market is the wildest, most sexed-out, drug-driven market in the country, possibly the world. The conscious rap artist still has a high place amongst the university system. Obviously, you must know of my university lectures, my years of doing that. I'm not saying something that I've read, I'm telling you something that I've lived as a conscious rap artist: It's the university system that you really want to be at. On top of that, in terms of getting your record played, it's the mix-show level where you really want to be. You want to woo the mix-show crowd. You don't care whether your record is played on the radio in daytime rotation or not. If you're a conscious rap artist and you're worried about Billboard charts, you're gonna have a problem. So, yeah, it's hard to push a conscious rap artist in a gangster market. Then again, as a conscious rap artist, you should not want to be in a gangster market. You should be trying to establish your own market, create a place where you can be yourself and make some money and feed your family.
O: Do you feel like that's starting to happen, like some companies are marketing to a conscious audience?
KRS: Oh, yeah. The whole world is conscious. It's just that we become conscious at times, and you become conscious when you lose a parent, or just a loved one, period—a wife, a brother, you know. You wake up and say, "Man, it's real. I don't need this pimp gangster stuff anymore, I need something with a little more substance." And there is marketing for that. Deepak Chopra, look at him. He's probably the most successful self-help guru in the world. I don't think he's struggling for any marketing or exposure. You've just got to know where your audience is, and I do think there's going to be a surge of it, especially again with the new administration, the presidency of George Bush. I think people are going to be reaching for this now.
O: What do you think has been your most important contribution to rap music and hip-hop culture?
KRS: The defining of it. At least, I hope it is. It's so funny, a question like that, because what you think your contribution is is never what's told in history. They'll probably say something that I'm not even thinking about. But what I'm thinking about is, if I were to critique myself—step out of KRS objectively and look at him—I would say that KRS has introduced the concept of being hip-hop, not just doing it. The concept of rap as something we do, while hip-hop is something we live. The concept of living a culture. Don't just look at hip-hop as rap music, see it as a culture. My songs, in terms of "You Must Learn" or "Why Is That?" or "Black Cop," those kinds of songs make people question their environment. I think that's the single most important contribution that I can offer, the strengthening of people's spirit and soul, the strengthening of families, the unity of a husband and a wife. To me, that's most important. Without that, we have nothing. If a son doesn't respect a father, if a child doesn't respect a parent, then we're lost. And I think what I bring to hip-hop is that. I make intelligence cool. I make spirituality cool. If we can make one's devotion to God cool, then I think I did a great thing. I can rest in peace.