Today, I'm handing the wheel over to co-worker Nadia Pflaum, who, this morning, produced a report on a pretty amazing hip-hop event last night in Lawrence. What follows may be one of the best essays on the current state of the art form you've ever read. Seriously. So twirl your thumb counterclockwise around the clickwheel of your iPod and listen up.
When I heard that classic MC KRS-One was coming to the Granada and our own Joe Good was opening, I knew I'd go for sure. I've seen KRS in about a thousand hip-hop documentaries; to me he was always the guy who sort of looked like a hippo, talking about the Bronx scene in movies like Wild Style and The Freshest Kids. I hadn't heard anything about this new thing of his, the Temple of Hip-Hop and its Declaration of Peace. But when I heard he was speaking for an hour before the show, I went to the free talk as well.
At 7:00 the Granada was populated by a handful of mangy college kids and some of the bigger names in the Lawrence and KC hip-hop scenes. The stage was set to the side of the Granada's main stage, ringed with plastic chairs. A skinny white guy in a hat who said he was named Zin Aroo (yeah, that's a phonetic spelling) came out onstage first. I thought he was just there to announce KRS, but he started talking about the Temple of Hip-Hop. It's a hip-hop preservation foundation, he said, constructed to keep the original scene alive. They've written the hip-hop Declaration of Peace, and printed it up poster-sized, where it lists the Principles of Hip-Hop (example: May 3 is National Rap Day) framed by sepia-colored portraits of people like Slick Rick, Tupac, Kool Herc and, of course, KRS. Zin Aroo told us that now was the best time to join the Temple of Hip-Hop, because it's all just beginning -- the ground floor, if you will -- and it only costs $12 for full membership.
"Sounds like a pyramid scheme," a guy next to me muttered. Another college kid whispered to me, "I love KRS and everything, I really do. But the Temple of Hip-Hop sounds like a retirement community to me."
Things started sounding real creepy, perhaps because of the breathless, idolizing way that Zin Aroo spoke of his Teacher, KRS. Zin said that it was the Temple's responsibility to manage the way the media tells its stories. "We believe that we were divinely chosen to carry this message," Zin said.
"What message?" someone in the crowd wondered.
Zin answered, "...We teach that hip-hop is the promise that Martin Luther King dreamed of when he said that one day little white children and little black children..."
At that point, I started tuning out. Since when did KRS-One become a cult leader? Zin Aroo said that the Temple has an Oracle -- does it also have a secret decoder ring?
But mercifully, Zin finally stepped aside after introducing the Teacher, KRS, who walked through the crowd with an entourage like a boxer headed for the ring. He was all smiles.
"How can I raise my quality of life through hip-hop?" KRS said we must be wondering. "That's what I want to address in part today. That question is not for everyone. That question is only for people who find themselves asking these questions. Here are some stark-raving answers." He started talking about stuff like urban inspirational metaphysics. He spoke in that pedantic lecture style, full of pregnant pauses that make ordinary sentences sound fraught with meaning. My mind started drifting.
Since when did hip-hop require so much managing? Since people started realizing its power as a movement, and not just as a style of music. But once hip-hop becomes a movement, does it have to start being lame? Do we have to endure all this talk about hip-hop, all this metaphysical moping around, or can we just, like, be into the music? Classic guys like KRS start seeing young guys with bling, who consider Biggie and Dr. Dre to be "old school" even though they rose a full decade after Kool Herc and Afrikaa Bambaata, and start worrying about their legacy. They get on the lecture circuit. They start preservation societies.
"Twenty minutes, Teacher."
KRS spoke about how his albums had gone from selling two or three million, to one million, to a few hundred thousand. He did a soft drink commercial and got roasted for "selling out," even though such endorsements are par for the course today. He moved on to the university lecture scene, becoming sort of a hip-hop pundit. Which explains where all the speeches, like this one, were coming from.
And he started talking about some useful things, too. About how he was proud of the local scene for starting to sound like itself, for no longer emulating the East Coast and West Coast sound (an idea that was echoed when Joe Good performed his song with lyrics like, "KC, get that down-South dick out 'cha mouf!"). About how hip-hoppers have to find a way to get on the radio, to snatch down some economic power for themselves and to link up with each other in the local scene to make things happen without waiting around for a record deal. And that making money is not synonymous with selling out.
"I've seen growth here in self esteem," KRS said. "I'm glad to see the more you sound like the 'hood where you're from. Now, somebody from this town has to make an album that blows this particular town up. To grow that scene."
When the Q&A began, Necia Gamby, Joe Good's mom and the creator of the Hiphopkc.com Web site, had some knowledge to drop on KRS himself. "I've been to the Temple!" she said. "And I've seen your message boards and your forum, and what I want to see is direction, and a clear agenda that speaks to the rest of the world. Here we are, we're the Temple of Hip-hop. We're all here. Now, what do we DO?"
It was a good question. I never quite heard the answer.
Later in the evening, Joe Good rocked his show. He was furious and on fire, and someone, finally, was filming him (he's never had a film of himself performing live). The b-boys and b-girls from Kansas City and Lawrence crowded the foot of the stage, jumping up and down to the beat, hands in the air, and created a pocket of unrivaled hometown hype-ness.
And when KRS took the stage with his entourage (which included a rugged-looking Busy Bee, who you might remember as the skinny kid with glasses in the last scene of Wild Style), he dropped the hip-hop pundit thing and became what everyone loves him for — creator of some of the most classic hip-hop songs to date. He didn't look old. He didn't look like he was going through the motions of songs he's performed thousands of times. He looked like he was having a ball, like he'd discovered some fountain of youth through microphones and blown amps (they blew 2!). He encouraged pictures, and the crowd became a sea of flashes and LCD screens. He took some lucky audience member's cell phone and rapped into it, recording a video of himself and turning the lens around on the crowd. He called the b-boys and b-girls on stage and rapped as they each took solo turns center stage. He called up all the MCs in the crowd and gave them each 8 bars on the mic.
"You guys do not look tired," he said somewhere around 1:30am. "That's fine. I have TWENTY YEARS of joints. We can go ALL NIGHT LONG."
Suddenly, I realized I'd dropped all my skepticism I was holding from the creepy talk earlier in the day. This dude might have some lectures to give, but he's also preserving hip-hop in the best -- maybe the only -- possible way: by putting on live shows that please old-school heads and virginal college kids alike. It was undoubtedly one of the best hip-hop shows I've ever seen. It made the Ghostface show I saw on the same stage a week ago seem like a distant and boring memory. (Sorry, but it did.) And, um, the man is not aging. Maybe there is something to this Temple of Hip-hop. I'm totally sending in my $12, Teacher!