Hip-Hop and Homelessness

Spare Change News Exclusive: An Interview With KRS-One

By Nakia Hill

As the “Teacha” of hip hop, KRS-One, the artist, prepares to travel to New England for his teach hip hop tour, Kris Parker, the person, reminisces about the irony within the connection of homelessness and hip-hop and how he once lived on the streets for over 10 years.

“Hip-hop is homeless. Hip-hop doesn’t have a home. People take from it. Gospel loves taking from hip-hop, but loves calling it the devil’s music. Rock’n’roll takes elements from it. Where is the hip-hop museum? Zulu Nation Community Center?,” said KRS-One, who performs Saturday July 16 at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston.

The late 1970s witnessed the confluence of the unfamiliar elements of scratching records, DJing, powerful voices engaging crowds at block parties with traditional African call-and-response practices, emceeing, unique forms of dance movements of different parts of the body, breaking, and colorful words etched on trains and street corners, graffiti, which Afrika Bambaataa identified as hip-hop.

“Hip-hop, the jam, and block parties were unheard of,” KRS-One said.

This rich, pungent, and colorful culture known as hip-hop was something that spread within urban communities and has expanded throughout the world today, but the heartbeat of its existence lies dormant in the gritty streets of New York City, the same streets where hip-hop icon Kris “KRS-One” Parker found himself sleeping.

“I used to sleep at the World Trade Center,” Parker said.

The World Trade Center was not the only place Parker slept after leaving home in his early teens. He also found himself sleeping in some of the most compromising places in the Big Apple, including the Bowery in Manhattan, where he often went to the Bowery Mission for food and clothes, benches at Wingate Park in Brooklyn, and local shelters in the city.

Unlike people who find themselves homeless because they’ve lost their jobs as an effect of the recession, foreclosed homes, mental illnesses, or a struggle with drug addiction, Parker ran away from home willingly after he refused to pursue his education in a traditional school setting.

“I had an epiphany. I told my mother when I grow up I want to be an emcee,” he said.

Parker identified his single mother as a scholar who allowed him and his brother to rhyme over her Earth Wind & Fire records, but she wanted her children to pursue higher education. Her son believed otherwise, “School and college for me was a waste of time. I knew I wanted to be an emcee.”

When Parker ran away from home he would find a haven at different friend’s houses, shelters, and NYC’s infamous MTA system where he found himself on the path of homelessness.

“I realized I was homeless when I went to (a friend’s) house and I smelled like the shelter, my hair was messed up, and his mom brought out a plate of food for me. It was Mac and Cheese and greens. It was weird because I couldn’t pick the fork up. It was awkward in my hand.”

Four years of lifting plastic cutlery and drinking and eating out of Styrofoam crystallized what it meant to be homeless for Parker for the love of hip-hop.

“I was out on the street losing my mind becoming KRS-One.”

Parker spent his teenage years honing his craft as an emcee who’s lyrical content did not focus on spending an excessive amount of money, driving luxurious cars, and dating the most attractive women. Instead his lyrics focused on uplifting the black community, ending the urbanite genocide, and spreading the ideologies of Marcus Garvey. KRS-One, Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone, is a tag name he adopted as a graffiti artist.

In one of his early songs, “The Homeless,” KRS-One raps, “You could call a man a bum with disgust on your morning run/Cause he lives outside in the street, you don’t know this/But you’ve failed to realize that the one you so despise/Reflects yourself cuz every black man is homeless.”

Being homeless and an emcee went hand in hand for KRS-One. It was in a shelter where his artistry as an emcee began to develop and where he decided to change his name to Krisna as a result of his interest in the Hare Krishna spiritual movement.

“I took a vow of poverty when I was 18 or 19 where I don’t seek to own. My existence is for the benefit of other people. I’m the holder of the purse.”

The shelter also played a pivotal role in connecting KRS-One with Scott Sterling, a.k.a. Scott La Rock, a social worker who dedicated his life to service and hip-hop. Scott La Rock took the homeless emcee under his wing and they formed the group Boogie Down Productions.

In 1987, BDP released its first album, Criminal Minded, but unfortunately shortly after the release KRS-One’s DJ and friend La Rock was fatally shot in the neck after trying to defuse a fight between Derrick “D-Nice” Jones, a former BDP member, and a rival neighborhood gang.

“He was like the ultimate guidance counselor because in the end he gave his life. What a life of a social worker, to give of yourselves to help these clowns, but then you lose your life.”

KRS-One not only credits DJ Scott La Rock for mentoring him, but he also admits that he could have done no wrong staying at a shelter where his social worker was his DJ.

“I would eat, get my pants, and coat first and go right to the front of the line. Scott La Rock had the money, so he would buy us sneakers, keep us fresh! Fresh Nikes on your feet, Addidas jump suits.”

During the early days of KRS-One’s career as an emcee, YouTube, MySpace, and Reverbnation were nonexistent. Music lovers would have to come out of their homes to see a live performance and for KRS-One being a well-known artist locally and being homeless, his fans would run into him sleeping on the subway after shows.

“I would be sleeping on the train and they would see me and put money in my hand,” KRS-One said.

Today, KRS-One is on the teach for hip hop tour, but Kris Parker still feels detached from his home.

“I personally live a comfortable life not owning and I credit that to my homeless days.”

NAKIA HILL is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.

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