As hip-hop enters its senior years-turning 50, to be exact-quite a few folks can say they have witnessed our beloved culture from its inception. But how many can say they've witnessed, participated in, and moved hip-hop forward-and into futurity-in significant ways over the span of its existence?
The Blast-master KRS-One can check off each of those boxes and then some. Having grown up within a few footsteps of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue-the historical birthplace of hip-hop, KRS saw the culture unfold. He jumped into lyricism during his teen years and flipped the rap game on its head with hard-hitting battle rap verses and songs of caution. When it comes to hip-hop, its foundation, bones, and flesh, KRS has been a student and teacher, a scholar and historian, a practitioner, and a humble servant. Recently, the hip-hop god sat down with BLACK ENTERPRISE to discuss the rudiment of the culture; its seedbed during the civil rights movement, how it traversed the Black Arts Movement, and how it finds its way back not only to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue but also to its modern-day essence.
BLACK ENTERPRISE: I must let you know that the bridge has never been over, OK?
KRS-One: Yeah, Nas lets me know that every day.
This is coming from a Queens native and a child of hip-hop. Please share what it means to witness hip-hop in its 50th year.
You know there's a key word that you put in there; you said witness.
Yep. That was intentional.
That's a key word, "witness," because not many have actually witnessed hip-hop over 50 years. I didn't realize this until I spoke to DJ Hollywood a couple of months ago. We were talking about DJs; a lot of DJs are celebrating 50 years, but they haven't worked for 50 years. And I thought about that, you know, I've actually worked for 50 years.
Speak on it.Even Kool Herc starts out in 1973, '74, and then he drops off in the early 80's for about 6-7 years. Others who we claim as our legends have also dropped out. There are gaps in their careers. I thought about that, and I applied it to myself.
Wow, that tracks. You were active the entire span.
I say this because- if you're celebrating 50 years of hip-hop, that means you're starting in '73.
If you're starting in '73, you're starting at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx; you're starting with the story of Kool Herc, his sister Cindy, the breakbeats, and all of this type of stuff. So, I was there, In 1973, August. I couldn't attend Kool Herc's parties, but Kool Herc lived in 1520 Sedgwick, I lived in 1600 Sedgwick. I was eight years old. This is before River Park Towers was built. We were watching the Trade Center be built, all of this stuff. This was the early 70's. I'll start there.
Coming back to that word "witness." The work is witnessing.
Part of the work, at least, is witnessing that you were there, and I was able to. Keep in mind a lot of people were there, but over the years, very few have articulated their experience over this 50-year period.
So, coming back to the word witness, this is what creates hip-hop. This is why I'm interested in this word. What have I witnessed over 50 years? Let us separate hip-hop from rap music, or let us say that hip-hop is break dancing, emceeing, graffiti art.
It's performance art in all forms.
Say it again!
There's the performance and the performative.
Yes, it is.
Portrait of American rapper KRS-One (born Lawrence Parker) as he poses against a white background, New York, March 29, 1990. (Photo by Rita Barros/Getty Images)
Then there's also the fashion.
And the language. All of it. It constitutes culture. And this is what we've always had our eye on, the culture of hip-hop, the community of hip-hop.
How Bruce Lee made us feel when Enter The Dragon came out in '73. How did this affect us?
Roe v Wade came out in '73, approximately 50 years later, it's gone.
The Endangered Species Act- a lot went on in '73. You know, Nixon, the Vietnam War, the whole heroin era, and when you say witness ... we just lost Dr. King in 1968. Not to veer off too far, but 2023 is also the 60th anniversary of the "I Have A Dream" speech.
The "I Have A Dream Speech was given Aug. 28, 1963. So right after hip-hop has its celebration on Aug. 11, on Aug. 28 is the "I Have a Dream" 60th anniversary, and hip-hop has a lot to do with this. These are our parents, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Kwame Ture-Stokley Carmichael, Leroy Jones-Amiri Baraka; these are our fathers and mothers. These are the people who started this.
Coming back to the witness. In '63, these kids grow up with the "I Have A Dream" speech. Dr. King, in that speech, is talking directly to us, he's talking to the future.
He's actually even talking to his kids. He says, "I want my kids to not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." This is Dr. King's words to his children. Well, hip-hop was his direct child. The very next generation to be born was us-Generation X.
This is interesting ... fascinating. I've never heard anyone correlate hip-hop with the Black arts movement. I think about the two as parallel, but never one and the same or intersecting in any way. So I appreciate the perspective and lesson you've given me.
As a contributor and a scholar of hip-hop, you talk about what Dr. King was thinking about in the future. How do you see the future of the genre? How do you see it? How do you imagine it?
Oh, it's bright. It's wonderful. In fact, when we first began, we saw our future. Oh, this was wonderful. As a matter of fact, I'll give you both an abstract view of the future and a concrete, material view of the future.
Let's start with the material view. The material view of the future for hip-hop is we're winning elected offices. This is something to look at because if you're fighting a struggle, if you're an activist, if you're someone who cares about the rights of people-[you're hip-hop].
KRS-One at Jive Records, London, UK on April 16 1988. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)
The FBI is hip-hop. The CIA is hip-hop. Elected officials, government, mayors, governors, senators, are hip-hop. Now just take this in for a hot minute. In New York City when I was growing up, Mayor Koch planned a war on graffiti and it was brutal for us.
Forty-some odd years, Mayor Eric Adams, who not only is the top cop but is also siding with the power of hip-hop-you have Eric Adams, mayor, cutting a hip-hop birthday cake with KRS-One. KRS-One is "Sound Of The Police. "KRS One is "Black Cop."
Here is the "Black Cop" and "The Sound of The Police. "Here is the graffiti writer with the mayor of the city who spends trillions cleaning up grafitti. Here we are cutting cake together like brothers. This is the future of hip-hop. This is it.
We were never a music genre, we were always a culture. We were always a community. And a community deserves land, deserves sovereignty.
I love that!
We deserve self-governance. We have to prove to ourselves, and we thought about this early on, this is when we started the Stop The Violence movement back in 1989. We thought about this and we said, You know we have to figure out how to govern ourselves and again this is the material future of hip-hop. The material future of hip-hop is self-governance. We need a hip-hop city. And we may have it in Newark, New Jersey, under the guidance of Mayor Ras Baraka, another hip-hopper. He goes to work every day in Adidas. So we may have our portion of land over there in Newark. But the idea was always for hip-hop to have its own space. The future of hip-hop is to actually have a land mass, a land space that we call 'Hip-Hopia.'
For now, you have Chinatown, You have Little Italy.
Little Italy. Little Haiti
You got Little Caribbean in Flatbush. So I'm asking mayors to consider a Little Hip-hop.
Let me piggyback off that idea. Would you not say that what you're doing with the community at 1520 Sedgewick is some semblance of that?
Well, that's the proper word, some semblance of it. It's not really. 1520's a different beast. A different thing going on at 1520. 1520 has more to do with the perseveration of sacred spaces.
1520 is a historical landmark, a hip-hop historical landmark in the Bronx. But just real briefly on that, we're looking to secure hip-hop sacred spaces. This is the cultural part of it.
My friends over at UNESCO; we talk about this type of stuff all the time, about the perseveration of sacred spaces. That their not ran over, forgotten about, bulldozed, this kind of thing. If we had any power 10 years ago or even 20 years ago, we would still have the Latin Quarters, We would still have Union Square. We'd still have The Rooftop.
The Fever, what am I talking about? Start right there with The Fever, big up to Sal. But, no we didn't have the power. So, [with] 1520 we are declaring that our first sacred space. There are other sacred spaces, you know where Flash used to live and developed the peek-a-boo technique, the cutting and scratching of records.
There's a building, there's a home, there's a place where he did this at. Not to get off into that, but 1520 is a sacred space.
It's more for tourists, students, teachers. People who want to come through, feel the energy of where hip-hop began.
We're putting an exhibit there as well. August 11th, there'll be a full exhibit. 1520 exhibit, hip-hop 50 exhibit. In 1520, in the community center, you know right there. So that's 1520.
But Newark is jobs. Newark is-if we can have a section of Newark-which were looking at the Weequahic, section of Newark New Jersey, it's 9th ward it's called-but the old Indian name is Weequahic. We're looking at that.
We started something called The Temple of Hip-hop in Newark so that we could start training the people in the area as to how to be a citizen of this city.
There's crazy emcees all over Newark.
Newark, as far as hip-hop is concerned, this is the second Mecca. And I would even say the first because this is where we're actually able to organize.
I mean Naughty By Nature's coming out of Newark.
Queen Latifah's coming out of Newark. Even Whitney Houston's out of Newark.
Come on, how can I forget about Redman. I just got off the phone with Redman, as a matter of fact, he confirmed a concert date we're doing on August 12th. We're shutting down Sedgwick Avenue, we're doing our thing in the park.
If we pull this off and you know, Hip-Hopia becomes real and you have the police, you have the fire department, you have sanitation-these institutions really working for the people in the area, really rising to a level of excellence.
I want to pivot though for a minute and ask you about the Essence Festival. How does hip-hop culture and the Essence Festival align for you?
Well, I was just about to answer your question and then you said, "for you." Those are two different questions. How does hip-hop and the Essence Festival align-and I was ready to do you right there. And then you said, "for me." Well, that puts a tail on it. It puts a little tail on it.
You know, to be honest with you, I am honored. I will start there. I am honored. It's very difficult for me to be honored about things like this.
And I tell you the truth, because this is a corporate situation. I'm a cultural guy, I'll keep it really real with you. I turn down a lot of these gigs, and not a lot, it's not every day Essence is doing this. But you know, the Grammys and their afterparties, you know these types of award shows and magazine publications, I don't really mess with this type of stuff at all.
The problem is that Doug E. Fresh does. That's the problem. Doug E. messes with all of the stuff, Doug E and MC Lyte.
Yes. Absolutely. I'm seeing the connection here.
Right, you know what I'm saying? So Doug E. calls me up and he wants to get me, Kane, Rakim, together and have this blowout there at Essence. So in a lot of ways, I'm honored to be on that kind of platform-I'm there with my friends. Rakim is there, others. Kane, obviously others will be there as well. It's really a fun moment for me as well. Essence doing it is an eyebrow raiser, it's an eyebrow raiser. Hip-hop as a culture hasn't had such a tough time, I should say a great time with Essence or Ebony or Jet. These magazines kind of ignored hip-hop the whole time we were in existence.
But times are changing. Like I said, the old government ain't the old government no more. Even universities, these institutions, even police departments-nobody's the same anymore. People have-especially after COVID-you know, if you survived COVID there's a little bit of humility on you right now.
You know what I mean, you're a survivor right now, OK. And you're kind of looking at the world kind of grateful right now. Some of us have actually lost loved ones and you know, and this kind of thing. So it's like for Essence to do this now, I think they're finally living up to their name and the word Essence.
I think we're finally getting to the essence. And the essence is that-I see what's going on. It's the 50th anniversary, they got their shows going. You know, we're club promoters as well, we do festivals, we know what it is. This is a good thing. This is a good festival date. It's in New Orleans, it's a great place to have this. People will travel to New Orleans, the tourism there is great, you know it's wonderful. There's nothing you can say critical, negatively critical about this kind of an event. Essence is doing its thing, Doug E.Fresh has a stage, we're going to be on that stage. Were going to rip that stage too on another level. We're not pulling no punches, we're coming forward.
Oh my God.
But there is that cultural side of it where we say: Well look, let this be the beginning of a new relationship with the publishers of Essence and hip-hop's actual culture.
You know, we shouldn't have to meet on the 50th. There were 49 other years here.
But moving forward, right? This is the future.
That's right. We are.
This is the future of hip-hop.
You hit it on the nail. The future. We're moving forward. We're not dwelling on the past. I mentioned it to give some context, to give some depth.
But, no, for Essence to do this as well and their partners. For them to even want to do this is an honor.
And it does point in a-as a matter of fact, it does answer your other question about the future. How do I see the future of hip-hop in that way? I see it right here. I see it with real hip-hoppers that have grown up now and are becoming the executives and the CEOs of these companies that used to ignore us.
Instead of going backward and saying, "Oh well, you used to ignore us"; look there's nothing we can do about that. But what we can do is what you just mentioned. We can look to a bright, bright future.
We have Essence to thank for that part. We have you all to thank for bringing that together for us. It's going to be crazy. It's going to be crazy.
KRS: You know what. Absolutely. And let me underline, we have Essence to thank for that. This was my point. That this is the beginning of a bright future if you can see it. Meaning the people at Essence. If it's not just another gig for them. If you can see it, this is the beginning of a bright future.
Essence Festival runs June 30-July 3. The 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop is curated by Doug E. Fresh with Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, KRS-One, and Slick Rick. Other Hip-Hop acts include Salt-N-Pepa, Remy Ma, Eve, Trina, and Mia X, along with Jermaine Dupri's curated show with Southern rappers and Ice Cube, Yo-Yo, and a list of West Coast rappers.
Stay tuned for the second segment of BE's interview with KRS-One as part of the Hip-Hop Turns 50 series