Fifteen years ago, I was a fifth grader living in Brooklyn, New York. I had grown up listening to hip-hop, but I was just starting to discover classic rock. I may have been the only black kid in my class who wore Africa medallions around his neck and listened to the Beatles, and didn’t think this juxtaposition was the least bit weird. During my daily after-school walk, I would stop at a record store on the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Cortelyou Road that, depending on how sharp my memory is, might have been called “J & J’s.” Every once in a while I’d have enough allowance money saved up to buy a record, but most of the time I’d just spend a half-hour there doing nothing but staring at album covers and watching DJs do their thing. They had a copy of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation there, but I was so clueless about them that I thought they were a reggae band. I just thought the cover was pretty.
One day I was at J & J’s when I saw none other than KRS-ONE walk in. I couldn’t believe my eyes! At the time, his group Boogie Down Productions had just released their Edutainment album (which is still my hands-down favorite of theirs). At the time, BDP was second only to Public Enemy in my hierarchy of favorite hip-hop groups. When I wanted to listen to socially conscious music that didn’t sound like it was being recorded in the middle of an air raid, I put on BDP and got lost in the Teacher’s rhymes. To me, he looked like he was about 10 feet tall, but he had a smile on his face so big and wide that he didn’t seem imposing or intimidating at all. When he walked up to the cash register to greet one of the DJs, I tugged at his jacket and asked for an autograph. I told him that “Ya Strugglin’” was my favorite song from Edutainment, and he seemed shocked that this little guy would cite a deep album cut as his favorite. He gave me an autograph and a pound, thanked me for saying hello and told me to keep listening. I ran home with my autograph in hand, excited about telling my mother what had just happened.
Unfortunately, I didn’t follow KRS’ command to keep listening. I started losing track of his solo work after 1997’s I Got Next (which boasted a couple of great songs, like “Friend” and “The MC”). None of his work after that album seemed to register with me, let alone reach the heights of his BDP material. Not only that, but his subsequent embrace of Christianity on albums like Spiritual Minded struck me as corny and contradictory. Although I was glad that he accepted Christ into his life, his attempts to sanitize his lyrics only ended up diluting them, and his insistence on starting feuds with artists like Nelly seemed to directly conflict the faith he espoused. Nonetheless, when a KVRX DJ announced one fateful Tuesday morning that she was giving a free ticket to KRS’ upcoming concert at Antone’s to the first caller, I knew to grab my cell phone and seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
When I got to Antone’s that Sunday night, I was surprised to see that there wasn’t much of a line for the show. Even after the doors opened, the venue was less than a third full. The first act on the bill was an Asian dude named DJ Tats. He did a good job making medleys of various old-school and newer hip-hop songs, and his scratching was absolutely ridiculous. During his set, a quintet of local break-dancers called B-Boy City did routines to the music. I found it unfortunate that the two cute Hispanic girls were the weakest breakers, but I still envied their abilities. I found it even worse, though, that B-Boy City started letting audience members get on stage, most of whom were drunk and rhythm-less. I’m sorry, but almost every time I see a random white girl dancing at a non-rock concert, she’s always doing the same dance. You know what dance I’m talking about: the one in which it looks like she’s grinding around an invisible stripper pole. I have to give props to the one white girl who actually demonstrated some breaking ability, because she represented well. One really drunk guy jumped on stage and just started flailing around, as if he were making fun of the professional breakers. He tried to stage-dive on top of me; I got out of the way and let him fall to the floor with a giant thud. I got many high-fives from the audience for that, because he’d been annoying people left and right all evening. One girl punched him in the jaw because he kept bumping into her and pinching her butt. These things tend to happen when hip-hop shows take place in a city that’s only nine percent black.
The next act to grace the stage was a trio of local MCs called Mirage, who were above average. Two things stopped me from really getting into them. One is that they didn’t seem to have a grasp on what they really wanted to sound like. Some songs imitated grimy East Coast backpacker rap, whereas others imitated Southern bounce. They did each individual style well, but didn’t fully inhabit any of them. Another drawback is that while all three MCs could spit, one of them was clearly more skilled than the other two, and it quickly showed. They all got outclassed, though, when they invited another Austin MC named Tee Double on stage. He was recently inducted as a member of the infamous LA collective Project Blowed, and during the couple of songs he performed, he demonstrated a flow that could rival almost any nationally known MC you could name. I’ve definitely stored Tee Double’s name in my mental Rolodex, as I expect to hear great things from him in the future.
After another long set from DJ Tats, KRS-ONE finally ran on stage with nothing by a microphone and DJ. He was his own hype man, filling every nook and cranny of the music with chants of “Somebody say HOOOOO!!!” and “The real hip-hop is OVER HERE!!!” Unlike the audience at the Dizzee Rascal show I attended a couple of weeks ago, this crowd received an instant boost of energy as soon as they saw KRS’ face. KRS’ set consisted of highlights from both his classic Boogie Down Productions material and his subsequent solo work, and I was surprised by the consistency of it all. Everyone knew the newer stuff just as well as they did the older stuff, shutting down the myth that KRS is anywhere past his prime. Granted, his newer stuff still sounds like it could’ve been made in the early ‘90s “boom-bap” era, but the messages in his lyrics are just as potent and relevant as ever.
Between songs, KRS would often shout “I feel the spirit in this building,” as if Antone’s, just for that one night, really was his own Temple of Hip-Hop. Behind him on stage was a flag displaying “The Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace,” which was approved by the United Nations in 2001 as official recognition of hip-hop as an international culture. On the borders of said flag were images of figureheads from the entire history of hip-hop, from Kool Herc and Crazy Legs to Biggie and Tupac. KRS did a lengthy freestyle in which he enumerated each person’s contribution to the culture. Come to think of it, a large portion of his set was freestyled. At one point, he defied the club security (who normally don’t allow the usage of cameras or camera phones) by demanding that everyone take out their cameras and cell phones. He told everyone to take pictures of him, and to call somebody so that they could listen to him freestyle. He then spent the next 10 minutes grabbing people’s cell phones and spitting lyrics directly into the receivers. He allowed B-Boy City to return to the stage, and dropped a freestyle about each
member as they did their various routines.
He stopped his set for a brief rant about the difference between one’s “job” (what you do to make money) and one’s “work” (what your higher purpose in life is). It was just the thing I needed to hear at this point in my life. People still accuse KRS of being preachy, and while moments like this certainly his accusers more than enough ammunition, they also reminded me of the simultaneously imposing yet accessible man I met when I was in fifth grade. Hands down, it was the best hip-hop show I’d ever seen…and what made it even sweeter was that after KRS closed his set with a snippet of BDP’s “My Philosophy,” none other than BUSHWICK BILL OF THE GETO BOYS himself walked on stage to do a surprise set!!! The set was little more than Bill dropping classic Geto Boys verses on top of whatever beats DJ Tats played, but the audience hung on to every word, and Bill himself looked like he was having an amazing time.
I was so hyped up from the concert that when I finally got home at 1 a.m., I couldn’t go to sleep! When I got to work the next morning, I felt like an utter zombie. The only other black guy in the building looked just as worn-out as I did. He nodded at me and said, “Hey, I saw you last night at KRS…”