5th October 2010
“BOOM!” Marker pen on the front of a white bucket-hat is reclaimed from advertising by Supernatural, who is now using it as a prop for his punch lines. The dense crowd at the edge of the stage are holding up random objects as the MC tiptoes freestyle rhymes incorporating a digital camera, a flyer, a blackberry with ‘I Love Hip Hop’ as its screensaver and then … “I bet you’re eyes jump out the socket/as I take your ten pound note and slide it in my pocket”.
Suddenly my £16 ticket price for Hip Hop legend KRS-ONE seems like outstanding value. My doubts and nerves en route to the gig are eased by the surging crowd that has packed the mini-arena venue at Leeds University. Old and young are united by recognition of the most important thing in Hip Hop… reputation. ‘Criminal Minded’ the vinyl album KRS holds up (and explains what vinyl is) was released by Boogie Down Productions in 1987. I was born in 1985, but that doesn’t prevent me from raising my hands and voice when asked if I’ve been down with KRS-ONE since day one, like the majority of others in attendance. This raises a curious question about why, with hip hop (a supposedly progressive/forward thinking movement) the further you retroactively delve the better, the more credible, and more impact it seems to have. Why is KRS-ONE still relevant?
The crowd squirms as the looming giant of aggression that is KRS-ONE lays into the ‘soundman’ demanding his mic, and all mic’s, get louder. This delay to what was possibly the scheduled set offers the most cutting insight into the night. For almost twenty minutes, KRS and Supernatural improvise with the help and agility of a skilful DJ; free-styling over anything they can quickly lay their hands on, all to maintain the momentum of the show.
‘Show’ adequately describes the experience, like a Hip Hop Whose Line Is It Anyway, it’s rough, raw and rugged. The crowd deal with an uncomfortable feeling that things are not going to plan, gradually realising that this makes the Leeds show a unique experience. Eventually it seems KRS settles into his lesson plan. Taking us through clever tracks spelling out definitions of HIP and HOP, tracing a year-by-year history of Hip Hop up until 1986, then unifying crowd and performer, inviting breakdancers on stage and challenging local MC’s to get on the mic for an opportune 16 bars. The mix of seasoned talent and newcomers that Leeds offers is celebrated with respect by the headline act; offering inspiring advice to wannabes. “When you look at me, don’t see me, see you! See what you would do”. This awareness of the need to nurture talent is a refreshing use of ego in the realm of Hip Hop.
Through technical difficulties and an interactive experience KRS ONE is delivering a message about raw talent. This is no karaoke act, this has been rehearsed, but not for a album-track tour. This has been forged in years of experience- he can do this with his eyes closed. As a man he’s fearless, a compelling simultaneous mix and anger and delight. His anger is a constant driving force demanding excellence in the art form he helped forge. His delight is that, tonight, lyrics from twenty years ago resound in venues across oceans and continents like this one in West Yorkshire.
I’m struck by a startling similarity between modern Hip Hop and The X Factor. Seemingly every year we sit and watch the charm of glistening, raw ‘musical’ talent (singing, dancing) digested by a machine; an industry in a blatant and arrogantly self-important self-expose. The potential seen in auditions are chewed up by PR, fashion and marketing and we’re left with a dead-behind-the-eyes corpse of an artist for yet another Official UK Number One. Modern Hip Hop’s fascination with fashion, technology and the associated trends, reflects what Supernatural, in support, describes as being “Bastardised, raped and exploited talent.”
Afterwards I find my mp3’s hard to listen to on the journey home. I’m confused by the complicated idea of what I considered a forward thinking/progressive form of expression paying constant respect to it’s origins. Maybe it’s more simple than this. KRS seems to have one-line answers all the questions we haven’t yet clearly formed. From being homeless and ‘criminal minded’, he arrives during Black History Month with a spirit of rebellious, self-education that transcends race and class. A lesson that unites crowds. Most importantly, it demands a certain level of awareness on top of the £16 entry fee. If you didn’t know who KRS-ONE was (I had to go to the gig alone) then you weren’t privy to the inspiring message of the show. Further evidence that Knowledge Reigns Supreme.