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article imageInterview: Hip-Hop Legend KRS-ONE Seizes New Ways for Rap to Work with Major Brands

By David Silverberg     Mar 8, 2008 in Entertainment
The godfather of hip-hop isn’t about to retire yet. KRS-ONE is still preaching from his pulpit about hip-hop’s relevancy today and, in an interview with, he explains how the business models of hip-hop now are changing for the better.
Digital Journal — Don’t call KRS-ONE a sellout. Sure, he might be joining forces with Smirnoff for the vodka company’s hiphop mix series. Sure, Nike commissioned the rap legend to collaborate on the track “Better Than I’ve Ever Been” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Air Force One sneakers. But KRS-ONE doesn’t take kindly to over-arching statements about corporations infiltrating hip-hop for their own greedy ambitions. In fact, in an interview with prior to his stop in Toronto for a keynote address at Canadian Music Week, the MC discussed the new business models of hip-hop which include accepting deals with major brands.
If there’s anyone who has seen hip-hop grow, mature and eat itself, it’s KRS-ONE. Born Kris Parker and raised in Brooklyn, he began his career as founder of Boogie Down Productions in the mid-1980s, winning attention for his politically conscious lyricism that earned him the nickname “the Teacher.” His Edutainment album with BDP espoused diplomacy over gun violence, but it was his first solo album Return of the Boom Bap that secured him a place in hip-hop’s Hall of Street Game. The lyrics were thoughtful (“No politician can give you peace/ If you trust Jesus, why do you vote for a beast?”) and the songs’ beats were heavy and inventive. Tracks like “I Can’t Wake Up” and “Outta Here” set a benchmark for other artists to emulate.
In an interview with, KRS-ONE says hip-hop artists should work with companies but still create music on their own terms.
When hip-hop went gangsta and then subsequently bling-heavy, KRS-ONE hung in there. Along the way, he founded the Stop the Violence Movement to promote crime-free living in New York, while also creating the Temple of Hip Hop, which offers information on hip-hop history and the various elements that make up this powerful music form. KRS acts as the school’s principal, giving interested hip-hop heads some of his knowledge about how people can live a hip-hop lifestyle and not just listen to it. As the website states: "KRS ONE has consistently taught the Hip Hop community to think of itself beyond entertainment and more as a specific culture of new people in the world."
Like any preacher who doesn’t want to get off the pulpit just yet, the 42-year-old MC is hungry to deliver his philosophies, whether on hip-hop or American culture. Musically, KRS recently released two new albums, including one with another hip-hop forefather, Marley Marl. Politically, KRS is active in battling poverty-stricken areas, meeting with New Jersey mayors to discuss high crime rates. He also spoke at an October FCC hearing about radio media concentration and how independent artists get squeezed out of rotations. It’s obvious KRS isn’t even thinking about retiring.
Known as "the Teacher" since he began his career, KRS-ONE founded the education centre The Temple of Hip-Hop
He’s crossing borders this weekend to bring his insight to a rapt audience: at Canadian Music Week in Toronto, he’ll discuss how hip-hop is progressing to foster new ways to bring music to the masses. As he told in an interview (often talking in the third-person), working with companies might be jarring to skeptics but it’s the smartest way to get good music out to hip-hop fans.
: So how do you think the hip-hop business model is changing?
: Today, artists like myself or Chuck D or Talib Kweli hold a degree of credibility that’s attracting companies like Red Bull, Cadillac, or Nike. Executives at these companies are our fans. And they are really sick of the state of music. So what they’ve done is spend $250,000 of their own money, in the case of Nike, to create a song with Kanye West, Nas, Rakim, and KRS ONE. We don’t rap about the shoes because they don’t want us talking about that. They just want us to create a song they can play on their website. Authenticity is the new business model and these companies need a product that’s not destroyed by an artist's shady image.
: But won’t some old-school hip-hop fans say you’re selling out?
: When you get KRS ONE, I’m not changing my message for nobody. If you do business with KRS, you’re getting anti-war statements, you’re getting stuff about the Temple of Hip Hop. A sellout is someone who buys you and changes your message, but we’re not doing that.
"Authenticity is the new business model," hip-hop MC KRS-ONE told, "and these companies need a product that’s not destroyed by an artist's shady image." You’re saying you can’t be a sellout if you stick to your guns?
KRS-ONE: Exactly. Listen. In our younger years, we hafta have heart. We need to let them know you’re on the front lines, but then there should come a time to win the war. The hip-hop revolution had to do with balance, so we don’t want to get rid of corporations. In the early 90s, Nike gave $99,000 to Gil Scott Heron, but all that money went to the birth of the Temple of Hip Hop. These corporations are laying their money down. Fake-ass closet protesters weekend warriors or barroom philosophers talk a good game but the real question is who’s going to finance the revolution?
KRS-ONE will be delivering a keynote address at Canadian Music Week on March 8 at 1:30 p.m. at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto. On the evening of March 8, KRS will perform at midnight at Toronto’s Opera House Concert Theatre.
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