Lyrical Legend KRS-One Still Has Plenty to Say

Photo by Wade Grayson / Flickr
One could see KRS-One’s misstep last year as a sign the legendary New York rapper had fallen out of touch. On the song “Hip-Hop Speaks From Heaven,” he paid homage to a host of late MCs, from Tupac to Eazy-E, and gave a nod toward Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys. He rapped: “Like a late fog in the mist/I see King Ad-Rock and rest in peace Nate Dogg/Their names and their natures will last... When it comes to hip-hop.”

The tribute seemed heartfelt and all, but there was a problem: Ad-Rock is still alive.

Clearly, it was a mistake: KRS-One (who performs at Churchill's Pub on Saturday, March 3) meant to give props to Adam “MCA” Yauch, who died in 2012. But the slipup was embarrassing because it came to light after KRS-One's most recent album, last year’s The World Is Mind, had already been released. It was especially upsetting for KRS-One’s ardent fanbase — the hip-hop purists who champion him as a shining example of raw hip-hop based in the old school and still thriving outside of the mainstream. Apparently, he hadn't been paying much attention to his peers — the old-school rappers he was trying to commemorate.

To his credit, though, KRS-One pulled the song from the digital version of The World Is Mind and rerecorded it, amending the lyrics to: “Like a late fog in the mist/I see MCA and rest in peace Nate Dogg.” And in a written statement posted on Twitter, KRS-One explained that, rather being severely out of the loop, he had been too wrapped up in the moment.

“Those that know me and have recorded with me in the past are well aware as to how fast I record in the studio and how immediately my material is released after that,” he said. “These songs are fresh from studio sessions where lyrics are mostly freestyle and ‘off the top of the head.’”

It's worth taking a moment to recognize that KRS-One's decades-spanning career has been mostly a matter of flowing off the top of his head, and New Times is using the MC's March 3 Churchill’s show as an excuse to ruminate on his lyrical legacy.

KRS-One (real name Lawrence Parker) is also known as the Teacha. He identifies as a philosopher and, at 52, still likes to cause a ruckus. During interviews over the last several years, he’s called the ruling class of white people in our society psychopaths, threatened to sue mainstream radio stations for playing his music, and bagged on artists who sign traditional record deals. That last part is nothing new. On his 1997 track “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight),” he raps: “Yo, I’m strictly ’bout skills and dope lyrical coastin’/Relying on talent, not marketing and promotion.” Because, look: To him, a dope MC is a dope MC. All the other stuff is just noise.

And the antagonistic nature of KRS-One's comments isn't surprising. As an art form, hip-hop has always benefited from conflict — the lobbing of insults at other, presumably lesser rappers — and KRS-One was a central figure in one of the most intense rap rivalries of all time. Known as the Bridge Wars, the feud arose between Boogie Down Productions — a South Bronx group led by KRS-One — and Marley Marl's Juice Crew out of Queensbridge. Diss tracks flew back and forth between the two camps from the mid-1980s through the early ’90s, but it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill beef between chest-thumping rappers. No, it was really about a heady, existential question: What was the true birthplace of hip-hop?

Turns out KRS-One was on the right side of history, as hip-hop historians these days generally recognize the South Bronx as the mecca of rap. But during that period of conflict, he also helped pioneer the rap battle as we know it today. According to the 2003 documentary Beef, his onstage showdown with Marley Marl’s protege, MC Shan, was the first known instance of a battle consisting of rappers attacking each other (as famously demonstrated in Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile) rather than competing to pump up the crowd better.

KRS-One is an undeniably important figure in the history of rap, but considering an artist’s legacy usually implies they’re done making music worth listening to — that their life’s work is done — and that’s not the case here. The World Is Mind is a thought-provoking album tackling the issues of today, continuing KRS-One's long tradition of putting out socially conscious music. On “You Like Me,” he calls for unity in the face of government corruption and present-day imperialism. In his second verse, he raps: “U.S. foreign policy is simply just bomb ’em/Rebels against their own government, the U.S. arms ’em.”

The entire album is a reminder of KRS-One’s impact on the world of hip-hop, and all the rappers who followed in his footsteps by daring to discuss something outside of money, cars and clothes. So, yeah: KRS-One certainly opened himself up to criticism by biffing which Beastie Boy died. But he’s still one of the greatest rappers alive — even if he doesn’t know which of his peers are still around.

KRS-One. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at Churchill's Pub, 5501 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-757-1807; Tickets cost $30 to $85 via