In that time, he's remained a vital artist, and has become not only a hip-hop historian, but also its leading philosopher. He started an organization, The Temple of Hip-Hop, which is more than a library, it's a college and a church. It preaches the ideals on which hip-hop was founded, and KRS-One spreads the message in books, editorials, at lectures and on visits to college campuses across the country. Actually, KRS-One takes the message wherever there are those that are willing to listen. Creative Loafing catches up with this hip-hop renaissance man in Vermont.
"I just did a homeless shelter, it shocked me — not really shocked. It's just crazy like that out here. Vermont was hit hard with the economic changes this country's been going through," says The Teacher, who lived on the streets himself for a time.
Indeed, KRS-One has been here all along spreading the word, while the media and mainstream radio's been preoccupied with rap's more truculent and salacious elements. That's hardly surprising given our culture's fascination with sex and violence. But KRS-One sees the whole gangster and bling rap movements coming out of the same hip-hop idea — even if it sometimes seems a gross caricature. It's an idea as old as the Horatio Alger dime store rags-to-riches stories.
"Those who would gravitate toward hip-hop have changed the American popular culture. What now makes a person a celebrity is their story, not their credentials or validation. And the reason I give hip-hop the credit for that is because of this record Rappers Delight, by the Sugar Hill Gang. He says I've got a Lincoln Continental and a Sunroof Cadillac," KRS-One sings.
"They didn't have all of that. Saying it before it happens — living it before it happens — this is hip-hop to a T, and this is what changed American pop culture, this attitude of self-creation. It resonated amongst every community," says KRS-One. "Looking at hip-hop in that sense you see the budding of a new consciousness of people."
He draws a parallel to the mob, and points to how the iconography was so natural because they're also self-made men. We discuss the appeal of this philosophy to suburban teenagers, as well, trying to forge their own identity as they move into adulthood, while rejecting authority and convention. But if this is such a powerful concept — and looking at rap's growth, it clearly is — how has it turned so cartoonish? (If you don't believe me, look at L'il Kim, a modern Betty Boop who packs a gat.)
"We can't front on hip-hop's poverty beginnings. Which made us desperate and do desperate things, and sell things we shouldn't have sold for the prices that we did," says KRS-One. "You start in immense poverty ...(and in a few years) become a $3 billion industry — no warning, no planning, no discipline, no principles, no guidelines, no direction, (without) some sort of government/governing body. Going from zero, zip, nothing to $3 billion because you can rap. And what has happened is some of us have made a great life for ourselves because we can rap."
"I believe rap is something we do and hip-hop is something we live. Right now, hip-hop is an international culture and what is it really? It's not physical. It's an idea and from that shared idea that really can't be written on paper — it's just a shared vision — those that betray that are those that have joined the mainstream, so to speak, and have sold the sacredness of our dream just for money, only for money. You only are doing it to stuff your pockets and get what you can get only for you. You're taking the collective conscious and using it for individual purposes," KRS-One says.
But, he suggests, these things are cyclical, and driven in part by the political circumstances.
"When Clinton was in office, it was like America was straight wallin'. The money was good, the sex was plentiful," says KRS-One. "And wouldn't it be George Bush come in and say, I'm going to wall out on this other level over here, and I'm going to take the jobs and bring them overseas. I'm going to show you corporate America like you've never seen before."
"Now people are feeling more like brothers and sisters. Now people are more likely to hear the conscious rapper. Look at me for instance. I'm getting more lectures, my shows are packed everywhere I go...I'm in high demand," he says. "Why is that? Everyone knows my message; they know what it's about. For years I've been standing out for truth. Truth is what it is, and people want it and they want it now. For me, if I was a straight marketer, or a straight capitalist with no scruples, I'd be hoping George Bush stays in office. I'd be hoping for some sort of disaster, calamity or fear because the people run to me when they are afraid."
KRS-One definitely feels like he's in the driver's seat of this cultural hoopty.
"They keep honoring me on VH-1, Billboard. Everywhere I go they're handing me an award. Look, I have no problems in my life right now and I'm enjoying that. I don't know about these others who chase a dollar and have no time for themselves, their children or this, that and the other. But I will say that hip-hop offers a free life when you live the whole hip-hop lifestyle," he says. "It centers you, lets you know where you are, and gives you the courage to be yourself.
KRS-One, whose January date in Charlotte was cancelled at the last moment, appears at The Room Sunday.