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"Black people still slaves up till today." That's the basic message of KRS-One's 1993 diatribe, "Sound of Da Police." The popular rap song, performed in KRS-One's signature in-your-face-yet-professorial style, controversially compares the current-day police to slave overseers of the past, and accuses police of profiling.
When the song came out, many listeners thought that KRS-One's points rang true. Although the Civil Rights movement accomplished a great deal towards racial equality and legally abolished Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination in public institutions, poor black communities remained largely ghettoized. Unemployment, gangs, and drugs were growing problems throughout the 1970s and especially the 1980s, when crack-cocaine hit the inner cities. The War on Drugs was the government's response, and it focused on law enforcement and increased policing.
For many blacks still trapped in cycles of poverty, the intensified police presence brought on by the "tough on crime" laws of the 1980s and 1990s sometimes did not feel like a helping hand. Highly publicized cases such as the Algiers 7 case in New Orleans, in which four black residents were killed after the shooting death of a police officer, and the 1980 Liberty City riots in Miami, spurred by the beating murder of a black man named Arthur McDuffie after a traffic stop by police, fed a distrust of law enforcement and lack of faith in the criminal justice system. At the same time, the homicide rate for black men ages 14 to 17 nearly doubled between 1984 and 1994, apparently driven by the turf wars inherent to the crack economy.
It was in this embattled context that KRS-One came of age. Born Lawrence Parker in 1965 in Brooklyn, KRS left home at age 14, dropped out of school, and ended up living in various homeless shelters in the South Bronx. His teenage years were deeply intertwined with the burgeoning hip-hop scene, which at the time comprised a mix of party-hard kids, former and current gang members, political hardliners in the Black Power tradition, and community activists advocating for the rights of black youth. KRS-One's early projects as a rapper were created as a part of Boogie Down Productions (BDP), a project he started with his friend Scott La Rock. KRS met La Rock when La Rock was working as a social worker at a shelter; it was during this period that he acquired the nickname Kris, short for Krishna, because of his interest in Hare Krishna spirituality. In 1987, BDP put out their first album, Criminal Minded, a raucous rap album that some credit as being the first real gangsta rap album. But at the end of 1987, before BDP could really take off, Scott La Rock was killed while attempting to mediate a dispute with local street kids in the Bronx. In response, KRS-One spearheaded the founding of the Stop the Violence Movement, a loose movement of hip-hop artists encouraging alternatives to violence in black communities while also speaking out against police brutality and racial profiling.
But the violence continued. The murder rate was on the rise, and police attempts to crack down sometimes led to further violence. The environment in the inner cities was that of a festering (and growing) war among crack dealers and cops. In 1991, a horrifying video came out of a black man named Rodney King getting beat up by a group of L.A. police officers. When all of the police officers were found not guilty by an all-white jury in 1992, Los Angeles exploded into the infamous L.A. Riots. For days, neighborhoods in L.A. were literally on fire while angry citizens in black neighborhoods clashed with police and set fire to cars and businesses.
Even though the accused officers in the Rodney King case were not convicted of any crime, many see that moment in time as a watershed. According to the LA Times, "The nine minutes of grainy video footage ... of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King helped to spur dramatic reforms in a department that many felt operated with impunity."
In 1993, still in the shadow of the L.A. Riots and in the midst of fierce national discussions of race relations, The Teacher released his first solo album. After five years and six albums with Boogie Down Productions, Return of the Boom Bap was successful with both fans and critics, surprising even some KRS detractors with its spot-on political commentary and beats grounded in the best of old school hip-hop. Still, some did not like the Teacher persona he had taken on as he became a politicized leader of the Stop the Violence Movement. In 1995, a profile of KRS-One in Vibe talked about his "reputation for arrogance" and suggested that "the Teacher should no longer be taken seriously"—KRS was carried away, the author thought, with his own ego and his contradictory outlook. But throughout the long interview, KRS-One both charmed the Vibe writer and spit some of his classic wisdoms: "I appear to be contradictory only because I look at the whole of a situation," KRS said.
"KRS-One is teaching reality," he said of himself in the third person. "That's a very vague word. Reality in this sense: I think human beings must react to the real conditions affecting that human being's survival." And, later on: "If you go to the 23rd century and look back on 1990 to '95, it will look identical to slavery...the only difference between then and now is technology. Wage slavery exists today, identical to chattel slavery."
A lot of people (including the Vibe interviewer) see this last statement as an extreme or even offensive viewpoint: comparing life under legal slavery to life not under legal slavery can feel like a sleight to the slaves of the past, who suffered unthinkable things. But KRS isn't afraid to lose a few admirers to get his argument across: that black people still suffer en masse in the United States. One of the ongoing issues, of course, is the primary topic of "Sound of Da Police": the strained and often violent relations between police and urban blacks.
Police brutality was clearly already on the political table, especially after the L.A. Riots. But it actually wasn't until the mid-to-late 1990s that the term "racial profiling" became a common way to refer to law enforcement targeting of racial minorities. In 1998, police shot and wounded three unarmed black and Latino men after a routine traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, bringing another wave of national heat to the issues. Lawyers and activists in the case also helped popularize the term, using "racial profiling" to describe the case to the media. But even when specific racial profiling cases came to light, it remained difficult to gather data about the incidence of racial profiling. Today, violence involving police and disproportionate incarceration of black youth still persist as problems.
Law enforcement officials also tell their own side of the story: "There's a tiny number of police officers who may be stopping people because of race, but for many of us these days, it's guilt by uniform," says James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.), the largest police union in the U.S. "It's wrong to characterize a person because of the color of their uniform."
It also turns out that KRS-One, at least according to his own record, might just have love for cops these days. As he told Sean Hannity in 2007 (admittedly under some intense pressure), "My best friends are police officers!" Do with that odd statement what you will. Even if it's true, it seems likely that KRS-ONE will continue to try to bring attention to the issues he sees in the world around him.