Tuesday, April 8, 2008

No. 444: Criminal Minded

You've read him twice, here he is for a third time. Take it away, Padraig...

Band: Boogie Down Productions
Album: Criminal Minded
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, it’s a hip hop milestone from the beginning of the Golden Age of hip hop featuring arguably the greatest MC of all time. I think it should be much higher. I also like hip hop way more than Rolling Stone.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: A lot of the production, unsurprisingly, sounds dated. Also, BDP’s 2nd album “By All Means Necessary” is better.
Best song: My favorite is probably “Poetry” but I feel compelled to mention both “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over” for their historical importance.
Worst song: I’ve never been too into “P Is Free”.
Is it awesome?: There can be no doubt that it is.

“Criminal Minded”, along with “Paid In Full” by Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy’s debut, marks the beginning of the Golden Age of hip hop that lasted roughly from the end of 1987 until, depending on your view, 1993 or so. It was a groundbreaking release mainly because of KRS-One’s immaculate, intricate rhyme schemes. It was also widely misinterpreted, mainly based on the cover, seeming almost designed to scare the wits out of white people unfamiliar with hip hop, showing a very serious KRS and late Scott La Rock armed to the teeth. I’d imagine that still had some shock value 20 years ago.

(A quick aside here, for anyone not familiar with KRS/BDP – Boogie Down Productions was originally a duo with KRS as MC and La Rock as DJ. Tragically, shortly after the release of “Criminal Minded” La Rock was gunned down trying to stop a fight from breaking out. After that BDP became KRS and a rotating cast of his wife, brother and various associates for several years until in 1992 he decided to just record under the name KRS-One.)

That cover is very appropriate, however, as it symbolizes rap’s transition from the safer confines of electro and silly costumes to the far more serious and threatening (to some) world of gangsta rap and Afrocentrism, the two themes that would define this Golden Age, KRS having influenced both. In fact, many critics consider this album to be a frontrunner of gangsta rap (again, because of the cover), which I’d disagree with. If you want to find the roots of gangsta rap I think you’d do better to look at Schoolly D, Ice T & Too Short as well as the devastation wrought by crack cocaine in the 80s and the larger than life crime figures it birthed, like Kenneth McGriff and Felix Mitchell.

The production will probably seem underwhelming to anyone not familiar with that period of hip hop. In 1987 sampling was just beginning to gain popularity and the beats generally mix drum machine programming with a sample or two, mostly from obvious sources like James Brown as well as reggae artists like Yellowman and producers Sly & Robbie. The aptly named “Dope Beat” is probably the most egregious offender, as it seems inconceivable now that someone could get away with rhyming over the main riff from “Back In Black” but it was a different time, before the lawsuits against De La Soul and Biz Markie made sampling considerably more difficult. I like the stark, minimal structures of the beats, but I can see how they’d turn some people off. There are almost no catchy hooks and 90% or more of the album is just KRS rhyming over cracking loud drums.

That’s not so bad though, as the main attraction is KRS’ skills on the mic. He didn’t just come out of the blue, having been influenced by earlier lyrical MCs like T La Rock and especially Kool Moe Dee, but he and Rakim were the guys who really took it to the next level combining internal rhyming, multi-syllabic rhyme patterns with more complex and serious topics. Even when his rhymes aren’t complicated KRS just sounds great. His cadence and flow are impeccable.

Right off the bat he’s on a mission to elevate hip hop to the level of poetry, as the title of the first song suggests – “Poetry is the language of imagination/Poetry is a form of positive creation”. There’s KRS as teacher, an element that would become more prominent in his later work following Scott La Rock’s death.

There’s also a noticeable Jamaican influence on songs like “9mm Goes Bang”, with KRS’ lilting flow evoking the chatting done by dancehall DJs. That’s not surprising, as both of his parents are from the island and he clearly inherited their taste. This is another element that would continue to be prevalent in his music.

I’d be remiss if I don’t mention KRS as the quintessential battle rapper. And make no mistake, from the very first moment he’s on a neverending mission to crush all opposition, a theme that is endlessly repeated. The PSA about sucka MCs at the beginning of “Word to Our Sponsor” is hilarious even though I’ve heard it 50 times.

The famous battle cuts are “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over”. They’re from the Bridge Wars which was, in a nutshell, one of the greatest feuds in the history of hip hop, between BDP and members of The Juice Crew from Queens (a legendary group in their own right), which KRS also used to launch his career by battling and crushing the, at the time, better known MC Shan. “The Bridge Is Over”, KRS’ finishing blow, is particularly devastating and for my money the best diss song ever (other contenders would be “No Vaseline”, “Hit Em’ Up” and “Ether”).

You’ve probably heard this album by now. If you haven’t, find a way to do so, even if you don’t like hip hop at all.

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