KRS-One explodes the concert performance paradigm

KRS-One (center) finished his set roving through the crowd at Dynacon Event Center.

by Jordan Green

Primed by a series of more-than-competent openers largely rapping over a boom-bap beat squarely placed in the sonic universe of New York City circa 1988, the crowd at Dynacon Event Center in Greensboro politely listened without giving much energy back.

In between warm-up acts for KRS-One on April 8, a hype man took a poll of the house to see which of North Carolina’s cities were represented, using the colorful argot of the scene: Tre-Fo, G-boro, Bull City and Fayettenam. The reverence inspired by the headliner — the Blastmaster, the “teacher of hip hop” and one of the greatest emcees of all time — drew a healthy cohort of respectful youngsters but the most solid contingent seemed to be old heads pushing into middle age. They were playing it cool and biding their time.

As the midnight hour approached, the hype man tried to build anticipation by calling out the hits from the golden age of hip hop, from KRS-One’s legendary 1987 debut as part of Boogie Down Productions to his 1993 solo album: “Love’s Gonna Get’cha,” “My Philosophy,” “I’m Still #1.” Finally, in exasperation, he exploded: “What’s goin’ on, man? Give it up, dammit!”

One could easily anticipate a veteran performer like KRS-One erupting with righteous indignation upon encountering a complacent audience and maybe leveling the room with a brilliant performance just for spite. As it turned out, the legendary emcee did erupt with righteous indignation, but instead he immediately connected with the audience and turned the tables on the production crew.

When KRS-One finally took the stage at 12:19 a.m., grinning and dressed in black knit cap and white leisure suit, he ordered the DJ: “Turn that s*** up!” As soon as he launched into sequence of early cuts, including “Criminal Minded” and “South Bronx,” the crowd went nuts, turning into a sea of rocking bodies in front of the stage with the lighted LCD screens of their cell phones craning from extended arms.

From that point forward, KRS-One proved himself every bit the mercurial performer determined to give his fans the most intimate, electrifying experience of their lives, whatever the limitations of the venue — a wedding hall sharing a block with a firearms store and storefront holiness church — and the production crew.

“I just walked in and I didn’t even do a soundcheck,” he declared. “Turn that s*** up. Don’t worry about the feedback. I got that.” Then he walked over to the DJ rig and started twisting knobs as the hapless DJ looked on with mortification.

Then he blazed through “Stop the Violence” and the “Sound of Da Police,” with the crowd gleefully filling in the sound effect “whoop whoop” on the latter.

Still unsatisfied with the sound, the emcee informed the DJ that he would be performing a capella, and launched into a freestyle about his 30-year-old feud with MC Shan over whether hip hop originated in the South Bronx or Queensbridge. (For the record, Shan has acknowledged the South Bronx as rightfully deserving the distinction, but the dispute has evolved into an argument over who is the better emcee.) Fortuitously, KRS-One had released a diss rap, “Still Huggin A Nut (SHAN),” on April 8, the date of his Greensboro show, and he elucidated on the topic for the audience. “We black men 50 years old/ What the f*** we fighting fo’?” he rapped, seeming to de-escalate before landing a surprise punch: “I’m gonna blast that crackhead.”

KRS-One ended the freestyle and picked up again on his displeasure with the local production crew. “These computers are taking away our art,” he complained, harassing the DJ. “Where the f*** is our art?”

The situation appeared to be degenerating further when KRS-One invited an audience member to join him onstage to guest emcee. Unfortunately, the second mic was cold.

“You want to spit your s***, but your mic ain’t even on,” KRS-One rapped, throwing his hands into the air.

When KRS-One protested the DJ again, saying, “Stop this s***, it’s corny,” one might predict that the concert was going into a complete meltdown, but what followed was a brilliant deconstruction of hip hop, stripping down the movement to its sonic and social roots and then reconfiguring it in the tangible moment.

“Any beat-boxers out there?” KRS-One asked.

A young man volunteered, delivering a low, rumbling bottom end.

“Hit it, hit it harder/ You’re on with Kris Parker,” the emcee demanded. The volunteer beat-boxer should have been terrified, but all his facial expression revealed was grim determination as he laid down a booming instrumental floor.

“That beat’s raw, man,” KRS-One congratulated him, inviting a second volunteer to take a turn. And so it went with an socially conscious coupling of songs “Why Is That” (“The age of the ignorant rapper is done/ Knowledge reins supreme over nearly everyone/ The stereotype must be lost/ That love and peace and knowledge is soft”) from the 1990 Edutainment album) and “You Must Learn” from its predecessor Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop. Interestingly, he followed with “9mm Goes Bang,” a nihilistic vignette from Criminal Minded that prefigured NWA’s rise by at least a year.

Less than an hour into his set, KRS-One jumped off the stage and waded into the audience, performing “Jimmy” and “Love’s Gonna Get’cha” while imploring the audience to make a circle and posing for selfies with fans while sweeping through the room to accommodate as many people as possible.

“Y’all better get in this,” he said.

Part of what makes KRS-One such a fascinating figure is the duality of his raw, street sensibility — the senseless beef with MC Shan, for example — and his status as hip hop’s greatest intellect and social conscience, rivaled only perhaps by Chuck D of Public Enemy. And while most of his set in Greensboro focused on the golden age of hip hop from 1988 to 1993, KRS-One proved his incisive political edge hasn’t dulled a bit when he delivered “American Flag,” off his new album, Now Hear This. With its reggae-infused instrumental track, the emcee makes an immediate point: “Symbols of injustice and hatred, Confederate flag (bring it down)/ Symbols of human enslavement (Confederate flag)/ But what about the red, white and the blue? (American flag)/ Racists flew that flag when they captured you (American flag).”

Eventually, the emcee wound up in the back of the hall, declaring that he sounded better there and that the stage was “corny.” A roving cypher evolved with KRS-One handing off the mic to a succession of local emcees as he stroked his chin like a patient and encouraging teacher. While the aspiring emcees thrilled to the opportunity to try their craft, others in the audience began to drift out of the hall and the energy level ebbed.

If anyone was expecting a triumphant finale, it never happened. Scarcely an hour after taking the stage, KRS-One — already hidden in the crowd — had departed the hall without notice.

Video courtesy of Sierra Dennis

  • Joanna Rutter

    One of my favorite pieces of yours I’ve ever read.

    • Jordan Green

      Thanks, Joanna!