Live review/ KRS-One, March 22, Yoshis.
Hip-hop legend KRS-One should have a spot in any purist’s Top Ten list of greatest emcees. In the list of greatest emcees at live performance, the “Blastmaster” is probably a Top 5 finisher. His greatest weaknesses offstage—bluster, arrogance, and an ego which probably gets its own seat on airplanes—are indeed his greatest strengths when the mic’s in his hand.
How many other almost-50-year-old hip-hoppers could rock a jazz-identified venue with just a DJ for over an hour and one half and make it seem like an event?
And how many artists could effortlessly rip off string after string of classic hits, peppering them with lesser known yet slept-on material, while keeping the intensity level high, throughout?
Because it was a KRS-One show, Sunday night’s live performance at Yoshi’s—his first time at the Oakland location—also included, gratis, a long section where KRS engaged the audience with an a cappella monologue like a motivational speaker. That was the “edu-“ part of “edutainment,” the term KRS coined during the Afrocentric 90s to describe his style. There was plenty of “–tainment,” however, especially in the last 20 minutes of the set, when a flurry of greatest hits had grey-haired 40 somethings reliving the glory days of their hip-hop youth, reciting lyrics along with the Blastmaster.
KRS’ accomplishments are many, as are his contradictions. The leading force behind the Stop the Violence movement, which called attention to Black on Black crime, he committed a major PR blunder by opening up a can of whoop-ass on PM Dawn’s Prince Be – which Afrocentric rap, once a legit commercial force and cultural tastemaker, never quite recovered from. He once opened up for Nelson Mandela and crossed over to MTV via R.E.M., and may have been the first Bronx emcee to work the college and lecture circuit – despite being a vocal critic of academia. He decried the corporate commodification of rap, but once made a Nike commercial.
In more recent years, KRS has battled scholarly types over whether hip-hop is a religion and put out an uneven smattering of releases, as the boom bap style of hip-hop he championed has been almost completely overshadowed by simplistic and/or nihilistic rap — seemingly as unconnected to the genre’s late 80s-early 90s golden age as inner-city African Americans are to the history of African kingdoms like Kush and Nubia.
But his legacy should include the right to say “I told you so.” KRS was right to address such topics as the correlation between the dirty money of the drug economy and the wave of violence in the streets of America’s urban cities on tracks like “Love’s Gonna Get Ya” and “Illegal Business.” He outlined the dichotomy between culture and commodity in “Hip-Hop vs. Rap.” He stressed the value of black self-education in songs like “You Must Learn.” He examined the correlation of animal rights and diet on “Beef.” And he unwrapped police brutality and the historical role of the slave overseer in “Sound of Da Police” – a song which, in the wake of current events, has recently become an anthem for Oakland youth a cappella singing group YGB.
Through it all, one thing has remained certain: KRS is hip-hop incarnate; when he’s in the building, so is hip-hop—the real hip-hop, not the culturally-appropriated version. That was very much the case Sunday night, as KRS—wearing a hand-painted shirt with his emcee name under a plain black hoodie—turned Yoshis’ swank environment into a temple of boom bap.
Hearing “Sound of Da Police” live was worth the price of admission alone. He followed that with his breakthrough single/history lesson “South Bronx”—a minor hit at the time which has become an endearing classic: way back in the day when hip-hop began/ with Coke La Rock, Kool Herc and then Bam/ b-boys ran to the latest jams. The hits kept coming: “(Who Am I?) The MC,” “(Step Into a World) Rapture’s Delight,” as did lots of ad-libbing and freestyling; on several occasions, KRS directly addressed a random audience member and made an impromptu rhyme about them – creating an instant hip-hop memory.
Having warmed up the audience, he then switched into lecture mode, dropping a flurry of sound bites:
“This is KRS, not a bullshit rapper on stage.”
“It’s not Egypt, it’s Kush.”
“Don’t expect rappers to be responsible for what comes out of their mouths because they got no soul.”
“The government you’re angry with is you”
“Nothing in the US Constitution says you deserve education.”
“No one guarantees you knowledge, and if you don’t have it, you’re a slave.”
“I don’t attract bullshit people to me, because I love you all.”
“I can’t police the culture.”
Love it or hate it, it was vintage KRS. He prefaced a new song, “Enter the Boom Bap,” by remarking on the endearing popularity of 90s hip-hop (of which the sold-out crowd was a testament to). He showed his solidarity for immigration issues on another recent song, “The Invaders,” which continues his almost 30-year tradition of fusing hip-hop lyrics with reggae beats.
He juxtaposed the Criminal Minded oldie “9mm Goes Bang” with 2013’s more emphatically anti-gun answer track, “Nina.” He rapped over the melody from Pachelbel’s Canon. And he sandwiched the Return of the Boom Bap track “Higher Level” around a track exploring America’s failed drug policy (“they declared a war on drugs but drugs won”) and another oldie, “A Friend,” whose looping strings make it one of the most emo hardcore hip-hop songs ever.
KRS entered the home stretch with a speed round incorporating “My Philosophy,” “The Bridge is Over,” “Hip Hop vs. Rap,” “Love’s Gonna Get Ya,” “Jimmy,” and “Mad Izm,” all of which had the audience verbalizing and fist-pumping along with the Blastmaster. The finish line sprint saw Oakland’s Jahi take the stage for yet another freestyle session, before the crowd exited into the night with a renewed appreciation for KRS’ artistry, his longevity, and his gumption.