Survivors: An Interview with KRS-One and Buckshot

This article originally appeared in Popmatters.

“You can become one of us by sounding like none of us.”

“We use our minds to write rhymes that you can touch / My feet stay planted on the ground / You want that soft pop sh*t you better book another sound / We gets down, I know the streets / Ya’ll rappers got maps out looking all around.”
—KRS-One lyric from “Survival Skills”

For those weary and lost in the wilderness of auto-tuned rap and hip-hop, Kris Parker (aka KRS-One) and Kenyatta Blake (aka Buckshot) are coming to the rescue. Collaborating for the first time on Survival Skills, the duo assembled a team of emcees and DJ’s that spans three generations. It’s a sonic adventure that finds both artists exploring new territory and mapping out their next career moves.

Across 14 tracks, KRS-One and Buckshot educate the next generation of hip-hop artists and fans alike by calling out those who’ve auto-tuned away the heart of hip-hop in the mainstream. Survival Skills retains the old-school, boom-bap vibe while putting it in a fresh new-school skin.

On “Clean Up Crew,” street-smart rhymes mix with crafty humor, while “Survival Skills,” and “Past * Present * Future” impart wise and cautionary lessons to a new flock of hip-hop proselytes. Never ones to shy away from controversy, KRS-One and Buckshot lead Skills’ search party into a jungle of taboo hot topics. They address issues of race, relationships and originality that have tangled up and shackled mainstream hip-hop, but the emcees don’t get things twisted. As expected, they lead the way, with minor missteps, through a gritty and in-your-face journey that keeps it real.

Track for track, you can feel the strength of the collaboration. KRS-One, as one of hip-hop’s best emcees, spits righteous rhymes like he always does, while Buckshot—who pioneered the classic New York mean street sonic in the early ‘90s with Black Moon and Boot Camp Clic—delivers lyrics and production filled with grace and might.

While Survival Skills was produced and mixed, the duo used the Rock the Bells 2009 summer tour to test out the yet unfinished songs. They relied on what they felt from fans during the live shows to work out the final touches on lyrics and production on both the title track and the death to auto-tune anthem “Robot.”

Since Survival Skills is helmed by two rap stalwarts—who both have reps for reinventing and producing some of hip-hop’s best music—my phone conversation with them felt less like a normal interview and more like a lesson in hip-hop history as the two emcees fielded questions in harmonious tandem. Similar to the fluidity and symmetry you feel throughout the album, KRS-One and Buckshot completed each other’s thoughts while pushing our conversation into new places. They unfolded the bigger mission of Survival Skills and explained the reasons and inspiration for assembling such a talented list of emcees, DJ’s and artists (Slug of Atmosphere, K’NAAN, Mary J. Blige, Marco Polo, Talib Kweli, etc.) to collaborate with when they could have easily made the album by themselves.

To start things off, KRS-One explains how, as one of Rock the Bells’s tour hosts, he was inspired by the fans response to put the finishing touches on Survival Skills. “The tour was a real experience for me. I got to see the hunger in the fans and the new artists. Being on the tour showed me that hip-hop is by no means dead.”

“When you do an album you don’t get to test an album live,” says KRS-One. “I was still studying my lyrics when we were touring so I was relying on my free-styling skills during those shows, so that influenced the album’s final version. We got to do a litmus test with “Robot” to see how fans would respond. We had an idea of what we wanted that song to feel like but the vibe we got from the crowd gave us more creative direction of where to take it and how to say what we wanted to say. The feeling we got directly from the people is that radio is putting shackles on music. Even with so many artists using auto-tune, there’s still a growing group of artists rising up and going in the opposite direction making music that’s real and fresh. And those cats are getting back to the basics without auto-tune. And a lot of those cats are packing out venues without getting played on the radio!”

Shortly after my interview, Buckshot spoke out against Rock the Bells and its promoter Live Nation saying, “They don’t get hip-hop, its fans or its culture.” But during our interview, Buckshot did express that the connection between him and the fans wasn’t compromised regardless of his views of Live Nation. “When we got on that stage [at Rock the Bells] it was authentic. I wasn’t persuading the fans to respond to the new music. They did it on their own. And I learned a lot by watching Kris interact with the crowd. He played a big part in controlling the crowd because he’s a veteran and knows how to master the ceremony. He’s a true emcee.”

“That’s why true hip-hop culture is stressed in the music we made on Survival Skills,” explains Buckshot. “Rap is a word that the corporate world made up. hip-hop is a culture that’s always been around since the early days. Like the Rock the Bells experience—you get the real experience from the people who were really there as a culture celebrating the music together.”

There’s a wide range of emcee styles and experiences that spans almost three generations of hip-hop on Survival Skills. And when thinking about the making of the album and how all the artists where assembled, Buckshot points to one specific goal and the feeling that they had some “help from above” that guided the album’s production.

“It might seem like we planned to tour with the same artists on the album, but we didn’t create the album for the Rock the Bells. It just happened that way because that’s how the Most High works. All the emcees and DJ’s on Survival Skills share in common that they can rock a live crowd. And it all starts with Kris. He can entertain you off the top of his head and grab you with a lyric that has nothing to do with the song. But that one lyrical thread is perfect for that moment and speaks right to the heart of the crowd at that specific moment. And when you go down the list of K’NAAN, Talib, Slug and the rest of them can all do this, too. That’s what all the artists have in common on Survival Skills. I love that combination because I know that nothing will be able to match this package of artists. I’m proud because we all have that common quality of being a great live emcee. But at the same time making this album was a huge challenge because not all albums that bring together great talent work out.”

For KRS-One he can’t help but boast about the album’s originality and authenticity. “I’m so proud that we don’t sound like anybody else and that our album doesn’t sound like a Lil’ Wayne album. Each artist is doing their own thing, but we’re still jamming together under one roof. Sure, [Survival Skills] will sound average to fans who know what’s up. But for the 14-15 year old kids who are listening for the first time, all the real emceeing, rhymes and boom-bap beats will give them an education.”

Mixing the entertainment with education has always been a part of KRS-One’s approach. He never forgets what it was like back when he was paying his dues as an up-and-coming rapper in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But what he misses about those early days is how each artist had their own unique way of expressing the times.

“You had so many different voices and styles. It was a celebration with Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Salt-N-Pepa, Heavy D and the Boyz all having their lane. That type of diversity brought perspective about our culture that you don’t get today because it’s only one or two people who are talking about thugging and sex and drug dealing. It’s not the content but the diversity and the creativity that’s lacking today. Our whole perspective has been narrowed down to just one or two ways of talking about important topics. If you want to rap about selling drugs that’s fine but don’t do it like every other cat is doing it. But the truth is that most cats sound the same or they’re not being real about their experience. So when you hear most rap songs about drug dealing today you’re not even getting a true representation of drug dealing culture because the rappers I hear are rapping about it in a way I’ve never seen drug dealing. It’s not even authentic in that sense.”

Besides keeping it real in his rhymes—and after releasing 19 albums over the course of the last twenty years—KRS-One is in the process of recreating himself. His persona as hip-hop’s “Teacha” remains the same, and working with Buckshot and on a fresh business approach has led him into new territory. “Even after all this time I’m still learning, especially from Duckdown and the new business model. I can’t get away from 19 albums and 11 videos. I have to put a business model together because certain businesses are approaching me as a legend as if I’m on my way out. Same goes for the way I get presented on the VH1 hip-hop Honors and BET. I get lifetime achievement awards because of who I am and what I’ve done. But they want to put me in a place as if I’m on my way out.”

“What I’m learning from Duckdown is the revitalization of KRS-One. I get to be small and young again. But [Survival Skills] is not about my legacy. It’s about what’s happening in 2009. It’s about a collaboration between two artists who have a history in hip-hop and are coming together for the first time on record to form a historical project. I’m learning what it means to be KRS-One in 2009. I’m learning how to throw off 44 and flaunt it as a t-shirt at the same time. You may think it’s a football jersey, or I’m repping somebody’s number. But that’s my age. And I hope other 44-year-old’s get inspired when they come to the show.”

And the “Teacha” is showing no signs of slowing down in an industry obsessed with youth. Together with Buckshot, he’s looking to teach the younger generation lessons about longevity and relevancy. Alongside albums and constant touring, collaborations and a forthcoming 800-page book called The hip-hop Bible have kept him busy and able to speak directly to hip-hop culture’s biggest issues.

Survival Skills is full of banging anthems of crafty attitude and aggression, but it’s the equally hard-hitting and tender “Think of All the Times” that knits Skills together. The song features fluidly flowing rhymes by Somalian-born rapper K’NNAN, whose lyrical hook puts an unlikely twist on Harry Chapin’s 1974 hit single, “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

“Think of All the Times” was created as each emcee crafted their lyrics to address a taboo issue that has plagued hip-hop culture. “I love how we each completed each other’s story on that song,” says Buckshot. “We wanted to speak to females, letting them know we are conscious of what they’re talking about with father/daughter relationships. My verse speaks towards the fellas and Kris’s verse speaks to the fellas and the ladies. And together what we’re saying is to not just talk about taking responsibility. By writing that song we wanted to go one step further and take responsibility ourselves and make a song that holds us and other dads accountable for the relationships with their daughters. Everything we say in that song is a grain of sand and when you put all the feelings about the struggle together it makes it feel like we’re all walking through the desert together, instead of pointing fingers.”

Speaking his thoughts on the subject matter of “Things..” KRS-One says, “Nobody wants to talk about this topic—our country or hip-hop culture. Many of us were raised without a father and the subject of deadbeat dads hits home in a lot of areas. Most of all, doing a song about being a father to your daughter flies straight in the face of the argument that says hip-hop is misogynistic. The song speaks directly to those who say hip-hop has no meaningful message to women and all we do is talk about ‘bitches and ho’s.’ [“Think of All the Things”] is another example of how culturally illiterate our critics really are. When I wrote my lyrics I was thinking about how a dad is at the club having a good time but their kid is at home saying, ‘Where’s my dad?’ And that speaks so directly to our fans. I’m looking forward to when we perform that song live because our fans are going to be neglecting their child support to come and see us, and we’re going to hand it to them right then and there, and say ‘Yo, man, what are you doing?’ And not only is the rest of the Survival Skills record timely, it’s addressing real issues that most cats don’t want to hear, but we’re going to say it to them anyway. And we were very intentional about making “Things” because we also wanted to show respect to “Cat’s in the Cradle” because that song spoke to the same issue at that time.”

Buckshot also feels that there’s a psychological importance in having “Things” on the album, giving it a cohesiveness that would be missing otherwise. “All the classic songs speak to the consciousness at large. And whenever you hear a classic song like “Cat’s in the Cradle” it brings you back to that era and mood. On [Survival Skills] we’re bringing generations together so we needed to reflect that in the music, too, not just the age range and experiences of the artists.”
“From the music styles to making people think, Skills represents three different generations all moving as one,” Buckshot says. “We sound like everything that is hip-hop, yet it doesn’t sound like anything else. And we know that the young kids and seasoned cats are going to get an education.”

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