I've been working on this piece for the magazine, and managed to finish a draft today. I wanted to put Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul" up here (you know for the "Been a long time, I shouldn't have left you") but I somehow I got diverted are started watching KRS-ONE's live shows. I love Rakim--still my favorite MC ever, with Raekwon and Nas coming in close. But KRS-ONE is almost a category to himself.
I didn't see KRS live until I was like 20 years old. Before then I knew him as a great MC, by which I mean an incredible lyricist with a great flow. But then I went away to college and saw him live. It's very hard to explain what happens (to this very day) at a KRS-ONE show. The first thing I need to say is KRS is a great, great performer--certainly the best rapper I've ever seen, and arguably the best performer I've seen bar none.
This is no small feat. I've never seen KRS with a band. He controls the crowd simply through voice and presence. For those of us who grew up controlling nothing, this has long had special meaning, and perhaps is key to understanding hip-hop's enduring power. At any rate, there are basically two KRS-ONEs. The first is the one I knew as a boy--an intellectual wordsmith, a philosopher. The second, the live one, I met later, is something else, something visceral and ferocious, something that represents beyond the artist himself.
The last time I saw KRS it was 1998. He came on stage and the baseline to "The Bridge Is Over" came on. He didn't say a word. He just walked the stage. The crowd went insane. People who'd never been to New York, or some no doubt from Queens itself, leaping in the air, chanting "The Bridge is over, The Bridge is over..." It was like his mere presence, the scowl on his face, his bop, combined with the music to transport us somewhere else.
This is nostalgia at its most powerful and meaningful. 1986 has a specific meaning to some of us. It's that era of Just-ICE, Mantronix and Sparky D, that moment just before hip-hop really broke (88, 89) and became one of the most significant artistic movement of the latter century. At that point it was really just a baby, but those of us who cradled it in the twin decks of our boom-boxes, out on porches, on benches, in projects, in dorm rooms, felt that we were watching something incredible happen. And then it did.
KRS represents that time--the Big Bang. His manic energy, his awkward freestyle, the way he mugs the crowd when "Still Number One" comes on. It's as if he takes in all of the dark energy of old, all that we felt on those streets addled with crack, haunted by Saturday Night Specials, drinks it and then radiates. You have to see him. Even now he is talismanic. A shaman of our lovely and painful past, who somehow stills move the crowd in this odd and different future.
I learned a long time ago to not speak of "greatest" anything in hip-hop unironically. But KRS has an actual claim to "greatest." There's nothing like him. I don't know that there ever will be.