In what has come to be known as “Back To The Future Day” (October 21, 2015), the fictional date portrayed as “the future” in the sequel to Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film has actually arrived. The Michael J. Fox blockbuster franchise is still a cultural touchstone more than 30 years since the first installment hit theaters—a work that highlights the butterfly effect of every one’s individual decisions within our lives.
Back To The Future II fictionally forecast additional Jaws movies, a Chicago Cubs World Series berth, branding on everything, new Pepsi flavors, hover-boards and additional items that have, or are coming close to actualization by the proposed date (especially as the Cubs are currently approaching Game 5 in the NLCS against the New York Mets). It’s safe to say Hollywood was pretty accurate.
After two sequels, a famed Universal Studios attraction, and even the coveted Marty McFly sneakers, this film permeates pop art in the present. So in looking at Hip-Hop, what is our version of Back To The Future?
At 22 years old, Blastmasta KRS had fashioned himself a young career as one of Hip-Hop’s best lyricists. His 1987 LP Criminal Minded homogeneously blended clever “Poetry” with menacing battles and Gangsta Rap. On album two, after losing partner Scott La Rock to a fatal shooting, KRS-One honed in some of that message to uplift the people, and still maintain the competitive spirit.
“I’m Still #1? would be an iconic vehicle on not only By All Means Necessary, but a defining patch on B.D.P.’s quilt of messages. In the boom-bap single, KRS-One spoke his perception of what was true in 1988, and what may very well be true today.
Later in the verse, KRS touted “I’m not Superman / Because anybody can / Or should be able / To rock off of turntable / Grab the mic, plug it in / And begin / But there’s where the problem starts: / No heart / Because of that, a lot of groups fell apart / Rap is still an art / And no one’s from the old school / ‘Cause Rap is still a brand new tool / I say no one’s from the old school / ‘Cause Rap as a whole? / Isn’t even 20 years old.”
In the bars that are believed to be a line aimed at the pioneering class of MCs, KRS-One makes a broader point. He highlights Rap’s fundamentals and its tools of the trade. The lyricist known for his bravado basically says anybody can do this, if they have heart and skill—himself and others included.
As the debate raged about where the talent in Hip-Hop lay, and if it was appropriately represented in the generation of MCs at that time, 1988 KRS-One said “yes.” Those who weren’t there had themselves to blame—not ageism. The MC decried the “old school” label in the ’80s, saying “fifty years down the line, you can start this, ’cause we’ll be the Old School artists.” Nearly 30 years later, as KRS-One, Dr. Dre, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Too Short, and Erick Sermon make albums, are they “old school” or simply veterans? Dr. Dre arguably has the most-discussed Rap album of 2015 in Compton.
In the next verse, KRS-One showed his own twisting opinion on the subject. “I’m not a beginner, amateur, or local / My album is sellin’ because of my vocals / You know what you need to learn? / Old school artists don’t always burn / You’re just another rapper who’s had his turn / Now it’s my turn! /And I am concerned / About idiots posing as kings / What are we here to rule? I thought we were supposed to sing / And if we oughta’ sing, then us begin to teach / Many of you are educated, open your mouth to speak.”
While KRS decried old and new labels, he also charged that the guard had changed. Signifying that he had the culture’s ear and dismissing others’ misuse of the medium. In the last five years, as artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and others have dominated the charts and acclaim, is there not a parallel? Notably, KRS uses “sing” to describe MCs’ messages. That word is especially prophetic as Drake, Kanye West, Cole, and Fetty Wap have challenged Hip-Hop conventions with albums built heavily around sung vocals. This week alone, Drake has driven discussions surrounding his music video to “Hotline Bling.”
Moreover, the 1988 bars explain the commercial takeover of artists such as Lamar, Cole, or even Lecrae. Substance-driven music continues to grab #1 spots on the charts—in a fashion that even B.D.P. was never able to enjoy (having never charted in the Top 30).
As so much of Back To The Future‘s playful forecasts have come eerily true, is there a better example of similar prophecy in Hip-Hop than “I’m Still #1?? KRS-One’s one-part call for unity, another part line in the sand in 1988 still hold true today.
[Outro] Kool Moe Dee, he's down with us Eric B. and Rakim, they're down with us Stetsasonic, they're down with us Dana Dane, he's down with us Sleeping Bag Records, they're down with us My lawyer Jay, he's down with us Jive/RCA is down with us Makin' funky music is a must I'm number one