Boogie Down Productions was one of the most important and influential hip-hop groups of the latter half of the '80s. Led by the often brilliant and incendiary MC KRS-One, BDP were pioneers of both hardcore and political (or "conscious") rap — and if that seems contradictory, it also illustrates the scope of KRS-One's talent for chronicling and even shaping his culture. Musically, BDP usually employed spare, minimal backdrops that accentuated KRS-One's booming delivery, and they were also among the very first hip-hop artists to incorporate elements of Jamaican ragga and dancehall into their style. Early on, BDP devoted itself to brash but realistic narratives of ghetto life, which made them a street-level sensation; however, after the murder of original DJ Scott La Rock, KRS-One — who now essentially was BDP — devoted himself to socially and politically conscious material that earned him the nickname "the Teacher." In the process, he helped pave the way for both gangsta rap and the positive, Afrocentric Native Tongues movement — a legacy no other rapper can claim. KRS-One retired the Boogie Down Productions moniker in the early '90s to release records under his own name; to this day, he remains one of hip-hop's most outspoken and respected intellectuals.
KRS-One's real name is Laurence Krisna Parker, or simply Kris Parker; some accounts hold that he was born with the "Krisna" moniker, while others suggest it was a nickname given to him during his youth for his interest in spirituality. Born in Brooklyn's Park Slope area in 1965, his Trinidad-born father was deported not long after his birth, and he later adopted his stepfather's last name of Parker. Early in his teens, he dropped out of high school and left home, migrating to the South Bronx; although he survived mostly on the streets and in homeless shelters, he continued his education by studying extensively in public libraries. During this period, he became interested in hip-hop culture, writing his own raps and tagging graffiti under the name KRS-One (originally an abbreviation for "Kris Number One" but later turned into the acronym "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone"). At 19, he spent a brief time in jail for selling marijuana; after his release, he met social worker Scott Sterling at a Bronx shelter in 1985. Sterling was also a DJ who performed under the name Scott La Rock, and when the two became friends, they decided to form a rap group, which they called Boogie Down Productions.
BDP's first independently released single was 1986's "Crack Attack," and they soon completed a full-length album for the small indie label B Boy Records (which was rumored to be a front for a pornography operation). The record, Criminal Minded, earned them a rabid cult following on the streets when it appeared in 1987, and today is considered an early classic of hardcore rap. KRS-One's detailed depictions of urban realities — drugs, survival through violence, promiscuity, hip-hop turf wars — were sometimes harsh and sometimes gleefully celebratory. He hadn't yet developed a unified message, but his was the voice of a rebellious, intelligent young street poet, and it connected mightily with his audience. Meanwhile, La Rock's bare-bones production sometimes interpolated pop and rock samples, and the ragga inflections of the classic "9mm Goes Bang" produced a groundbreaking early fusion of hip-hop and reggae. The record's strong street buzz attracted the attention of RCA affiliate Jive, which signed the duo to a record contract. Unfortunately, not long afterward, La Rock was shot dead trying to break up an argument at a party in the Bronx.
Shattered by the loss of his best friend, KRS-One picked himself up and decided to continue Boogie Down Productions as a tribute to La Rock's memory. He recruited his younger brother Kenny Parker as a regular DJ, and also employed side members like D-Nice and Ms. Melodie (the latter, born Ramona Scott, was also his wife for a time). Convincing Jive to stick with his new crew, KRS-One completed By All Means Necessary in 1988, which marked the first time he took on the role of "the Teacher." Also considered a landmark, By All Means Necessary was one of the first rap albums devoted primarily to social commentary, and contained militant, deeply personal message tracks like "My Philosophy" and "Stop the Violence." The same year, during a BDP/Public Enemy concert, a young fan was killed in a fight; galvanized into action, KRS-One founded the Stop the Violence Movement and organized the all-star charity single "Self-Destruction," which raised half a million dollars for the National Urban League in 1989.
Also in 1989, Boogie Down Productions returned with an even more politicized, intellectual album, Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop. BDP's auxiliary personnel expanded to include several more members, like Scottie Morris and Ms. Melodie's sister Harmony, but the sound wasn't any more fleshed out; in fact, it was resolutely skeletal, the antithesis of what KRS-One perceived as a new, unhealthy pop-crossover mentality overtaking hip-hop. Taking on issues like black-on-black crime, police brutality, education, and spirituality, KRS-One found his audience growing and the mainstream paying attention to his message. The New York Times invited him to write editorials, and he found intense demand for his views on the college lecture circuit. However, many critics found that his intellectual credibility got the better of him on the next BDP album, 1990's Edutainment. Despite a minor hit single in "Love's Gonna Get'cha (Material Love)," Edutainment was roundly criticized as being full of preachy, didactic lecturing, which also came at the expense of compelling musical backing. KRS-One further alienated his audience via a 1992 altercation with hippie-fied pop-rappers P.M. Dawn. After the group jabbed at him as "a teacher of what?" during a magazine interview, KRS-One and part of BDP stormed P.M. Dawn's New York concert, physically throwing frontman Prince Be off the stage and launching into their own set. KRS-One later explained that he was opposed to hip-hop taking such a soft, crossover-oriented direction, although P.M. Dawn had never claimed street credibility, and it seemed an odd approach from the founder of the Stop the Violence Movement. Amid negative reaction from his own fans, he later apologized publicly.
In the meantime, BDP kept recording. 1991 saw the release of Live Hardcore Worldwide, one of the first live hip-hop LPs. It was basically a way to get the material from Criminal Minded back in print, in a format where royalties could be collected (an ongoing dispute with B Boy Records was tying up the original recordings). The same year, he made a high-profile guest appearance on R.E.M.'s "Radio Song," and recorded the album Civilization vs. Technology with the education-oriented side project H.E.A.L. Bowing to requests from fans, BDP returned to the harder-hitting beats of its earlier material on 1992's Sex and Violence, which some critics hailed as a return to form, but failed to recapture his former audience. By this time, KRS-One was divorced from Ms. Melodie, and had pared down his supporting cast to Kenny Parker and Willie D. For his next project, KRS-One decided to simply put Boogie Down Productions to rest and record under his own name; his solo debut, Return of the Boom Bap, was released in 1993. Since then, he's released several more solo albums, and maintained an active presence in the media and on the lecture circuit. ~ Steve Huey