He doesn’t have a major label deal or a clothing line. And the only movie he appeared in was 1988’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, where he played himself. “I just come with the lyrical shit,” Kris Parker, aka the legendary rapper KRS-One, told the crowd at Berkeley’s Shattuck Down Low a few weeks ago.
And few would argue. Despite having last appeared on MTV at least a decade ago, or having a radio or club hit since, the 42-year-old rapper proved he’s still undeniably relevant. While he may not be played in a set next to Souljah Boy or the Pussycat Dolls, KRS has given the hip-hop world plenty of classics since starting his career in the mid-’80s; his older records can be found among any self-respecting hip-hop DJ’s Serato playlist. And it’s doubtful many contemporary rap artists will enjoy the same longevity. The only comparable rapper from his era who is still active is Too $hort.
So what has the self-proclaimed “philosopher” of rap been doing for the last ten years? Well, for one thing, he’s continued to put out albums while gradually moving into a more metaphysical direction. As Afrocentric hip-hop transformed into clichéd gangster rap, KRS has become Deepak Chopra with a microphone. After debuting (with deceased partner DJ Scott La Rock) as Boogie Down Productions with Criminal Minded in 1987, KRS released Spiritual Minded a few years ago — which, unfortunately, few people paid attention to. Last year, he answered Nas’ Hip Hop Is Dead with Hip Hop Lives, a collaboration with one-time rival Marley Marl. Again, not too many people heard it. But you can’t fault KRS for trying.
You wouldn’t have known that the emcee’s last hit album was 1997’s I Got Next by the excitement at the Down Low. The packed house seemed to indicate that the interest in “real” hip-hop these days is much greater than you would know from listening to KMEL or watching BET. Twentysomething hotties flirted with bartenders, and thirtysomething OGs caught up on old times. Outside, people were being turned away in droves. Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab, who almost didn’t make it through the door, was overheard declaring, “I’m just a fan tonight.”
The opening sets by Mavrik, Jahi, and Rocker-T were about as good as opening sets can be — especially Jahi, who could easily be a headliner. But the vibe lost a bit of momentum as an hour and a half came and went before KRS finally appeared. As midnight turned to 1 a.m., a few people were seen leaving. The majority of the crowd, however, stuck around until the South Bronx emcee finally appeared at 1:20 a.m. — dangerously close to MF Doom territory.
It’s unlikely most of the audience had ever seen KRS live before. Maybe some caught him at San Francisco nostalgia pavilion Red Devil Lounge in recent years. Even fewer had probably seen his 1989 Ghetto Music tour at the Berkeley Community Theatre with the Jungle Brothers, X-Clan, and Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.
Though not exactly ready for a lounge chair in Florida, the Blastmaster wasn’t quite as incendiary as in years past. Kris Parker has become hip-hop’s Chris Webber — still skilled, but not the force he was back in the day. He spent much of his hour onstage freestyling and vibing with the crowd, as if trying to catch his third or fourth wind.
Classics like “South Bronx” and “Material Love” still bang, which is more than you can say for most memory-evoking acts. His a cappella rendition of “Hip-Hop vs. Rap” was tight, and his newer material wasn’t horrible either — one song, which maintained the easiest way to get away with murder was to kill a rapper, got iller the more you thought about it.
The highlight of the show was the motivational sermon KRS delivered about two-thirds of the way through his set. “The two hours from now me sees me right now,” he announced. “The future me is over me. I can be the past, present, or future me.” He advised the crowd to “be a friend to your future self” — a statement light-years away from rap’s stereotypical bling, guns, and crack shtick. “You are old-school right now. You are a grandma right now. You are an ancestor right now,” he intoned, more quartz crystals than Cristal.
New Age-iness notwithstanding, the emcee seemed okay with his present self. There aren’t too many forty-year-old rappers still touring, but KRS looked like he could still do it as long as people still want to see him.