'We knew exactly what we were doing when we made this album,'
Hip Hop pioneer says of Boogie Down Productions' 1987 breakthrough.
By Shaheem Reid, with additional reporting by Sway Calloway (@realsway)
Making of the Moment: Criminal Minded
KRS-One is both known for dropping jewels to cultivate minds and dropping bombs to blow minds. The Bronx bred hip-hop pioneer has lived up to both his titles — The Teacha and The Blastmaster — over his almost 25-year career. T was considered Hall of Fame/ Greatest of All-Time list over ten years ago. Over the past decade, KRS has been expanding his artistic reach, releasing the gospel-tinged album Spiritual Minded in 2002 and the book "The Gospel of Hip-Hop: First Instrument" in 2009. But as the title of his most recent album, Back to the L.A.B. (Lyrical Ass Beating), shows, he's still down to tear the lining out of the sound booth walls.
This summer KRS has joined a slew of mic icons on the Rock the Bells tour. Snoop Dogg, Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Slick Rick and the Wu-Tang Clan are the headliners on the outing, which has a different twist this time around: Each act is performing a classic album from their catalog. KRS picked the first album he performed on, Boogie Down Productions' 1987 debut Criminal Minded. Back then, the crew also consisted of D-Nice, Just Ice, Ms. Melody and their late co-founder and leader, DJ Scott La Rock.
La Rock oversaw the business and handled the production of the album with Ultramagnetic MC's Ced Gee. The opus set off a new era in battle rap with timeless tracks like "South Bronx" and "The Bridge Is Over." As KRS will testify, it's also certified as one of the albums that spawned gangsta rap. Criminal Minded introduced KRS as one of the new mic stars of the era, alongside Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and the aforementioned Rakim. Right after his set at the Rock the Bells kickoff in Los Angeles, KRS gave us some insight into his starmaking first LP:
"This may sound arrogant, but it's the truth and it's honest. We knew exactly what we were doing when we made this album. If you notice, all the away up to Return of the Boom Bap — I stopped doing it after Return of the Boom Bap — I used to say things like, 'We will be here forever! Forever and ever!' I used to always speak into the future: 'I got rhymes for the '70s, '80s, and '90s.' This was the '80s. So yes, as a metaphysician, as a philosopher, you know what you are doing. We didn't make mistakes. We still don't. That's why the albums are out the way they are. I say that humbly. I don't say that with no arrogance; 'Yeah, we knew what it was.' No, we didn't. What we knew was hip-hop. We knew if we came out with what our people wanted to hear, that's just what it is. It wasn't on the radio, there's no videos for it. We just said what we knew the block wanted to hear at the time. We knew we were changing the game.
"The song 'Criminal Minded,' the idea is so ironic. Big up to Ced Gee. He's the one that programmed the drums. Scott would come with the records and Ced Gee would program the drums. We were working at the Power Plant studio in Queens. The idea was revolutionaries. If you look at the cover of Criminal Minded, that's what we were saying modern-day Black Panthers are. I had the gun belt going over the shoulder, grenades. That wasn't hood. It wasn't like [we] had guns on the table like we were drug dealers — we had grenades. Real paramilitary stuff was on the table. We were showing ourselves to be revolutionaries. Gangsters are really intelligent. We're Black Panthers. We're not just dudes on the corner. Then when Criminal Minded came out — and I said it all over the record — 'I am a teacha!/ Others are gangs. It's the teacha, the teacha, the teacha!' Cats said, 'Oh no. You're the father of gangster rap.'
"On top of that, it wasn't our life that was gangster at all. We weren't selling drugs or none of that stuff. We were in the hood, we knew everybody. That wasn't our thing. Scott La Rock was a social worker; I was in the shelter. Even Just Ice, as wild as he was, he was still a Five Percenter. So he was following some kind of discipline.
All of us were. But what happened, the record came out and because of the battle with MC Shan, everybody thought, 'We're coming out hard core now. We're coming out like this.' And we did have a large crew. We had a couple of hundred people down with us and BDP at one time.
"After Scott was killed, I clarified the message with [the] Malcolm X [pose] on the [cover of BDP's 1988 album By All Means Necessary]. Trying to clarify, this is not about gangsterism, this is what revolutionaries look like. If you go back to the some of the revolutionary pictures of the Black Panthers, you'll see that same thing on Criminal Minded's album cover. It's just that over time, people didn't look at it for Black Panthers, they saw us in the hood with the gat and people started mimicking that, unfortunately."