Get our free newsletter
With dreadlocks wagging, DJ Evil Dee places two plates of wax over the twin slip-cues adorning his turntables. Tonight’s host at the 9:30 Club is Evil Dee’s partner, Buckshot, but Buck, the scowling lead MC for Black Moon, is off busying himself otherwise. So as Evil Dee readies his sonic arsenal, Buck’s anonymous temporary replacement announces that a DJ set is next.
Evil Dee is beloved by hiphop heads worldwide, and when he steps behind a pair of Technics and prepares to bless the wax, every citizen of rapdom within earshot looks up and takes note. At least, most times they do. But this crowd has waited patiently through a series of opening actsFalona Brown and the Last Emperor were quite good; others have been the auditory equivalent of Chinese water torture. People always remember the bad before the good, so as Evil Dee readies himself for a personal exhibition, the natives grow restless and begin chanting up the first few syllables of the artist they have all come to see: “K-R-S! K-R-S!”
The audience can’t hold tight any longer. Neither can Evil Dee. He begins an elementary scratch that synchronizes with the rhythm of the crowd’s chant. When the incantation succeeds, it is without the glamour that has accompanied many of the night’s other acts. There’s no offstage voice-over, no lengthy introduction, and no purposeless hype-man yelling obscenely at the crowd. When the man who owns this Sunday night strides on stage, the chant simply dies amid a chorus of yells and an ocean of foot-stomping. With no flash and no pomp, KRS-One just happens.
Most contemporary MCs’ performances are humorless jokesstage-prowling, crotch-grabbing, obscenity-laced debacles that always end with a series of thinly veiled threats aimed at the sound man. The horror stories surrounding Nas’ and Wu-Tang’s live shows are legion. Rap is raising a generation of performers who grew up scrawling complex lyrics in the basement, as opposed to rocking block parties. Thus in the genre’s post-golden era, the live show has become a lost art. There are a few exceptions, such as the Roots and Common, but by and large, most contemporary MCs couldn’t rock a crowd if you gave them a personal landslide.
Of the older cats who can pull together a decent show, KRS-One is king (with the possible exception of Doug E. Fresh). Tonight, he hasn’t even uttered a word before the relatively placid audience begins whooping it up. Of all the things that make KRS hiphop’s most complete MC, his sheer presence is No. 1. Only he can set off a crowd without even uttering a bar from his first song. Call it the KRS effectan innate ability to convince an audience that no one loves hiphop the way KRS does.
It’s the way KRS points to the left side of the audience, chanting in call-and-response fashion, “The real hiphop is over,” and then jets to the right side and repeats the routine, instigating the audience into a battle of noise-making. It’s how his face lights up as the wicked strings begin blaring for his most recent gem and the first actual song of the night, “The MC.”
In an age of overwrought flash and glitter, KRS’s show defies conventional wisdom and makes a sound argument for the benefits of minimalism. Indeed, there’s nothing overtly special about his performance. He walks onto the stage, does the ritual call and response, rocks a few classics, and he’s out. Even the Roots, as sweet as their shows can be, need the help of a band and a hefty set of remakes to pull off a decent performance. KRS is usually alone, except sometimes for a couple of b-boys and hype-men. You never catch him reworking the music of others. He doesn’t employ smoke machines or special light effects, and on the surface, KRS is actually rather average.
But KRS communicates with his crowd on an intangible level by representing some of the most moving aspects of rap, which have largely been lost in the ’90s. He came to prominence during an era that saw an outpouring of great lyricists; beyond the quality of the art, much of the material was socially conscious. The Stop the Violence movement, which KRS founded, stood upon the idea that art has power and that MCs have an obligation to influence the lives of their listeners positively.
Besides serving as the missing link to rap’s golden age, KRS brings astonishingly pure energy to a stage. He can run the gamut of underground classics, from “The Bridge Is Over” to “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know,” without sucking wind. And while other modern MCs take whole segments of the show to curse and insult the crowd, KRS firmly massages his audience. Halfway through tonight’s show, he tells the audience to put the peace sign in the air, in stark contrast to Buckshot, who instructed the audience to put their middle fingers in the air and yell, “Fuck that!” (Fuck what?)
As KRS moves across the stage, pointing the mike out into the crowd, which steadily chants each of his verses, the passion is palpable. In the middle of his set, he pulls out a black marker and signs autographs for anyone in the front row. And when the time comes to dish out promo material, KRS robs his hype-men of the opportunity, electing to do it himself.
Being a hiphop head is like marrying the most confused of women. You hear about some MC catching a rape charge, or hear some rapper telling you that if it weren’t for the money, he wouldn’t be doing it, and you consider filing divorce papers. You find Onyx doing party songs or listen to half a bar from Mase, and you wonder where the love went. Then one night you catch KRS-One kicking a verse from “My Philosophy,” and suddenly you get that same gooey sensation you got the first time you heard “South Bronx.” That night, you go home and strap on the headphones, blasting Return of The Boom Bap until your eardrums rebel in protest. And just like that, you’re back in love again.CP