Credentials: "South Bronx"
What MC wouldn’t want to be dubbed the “Best Rapper Alive”? But pinning that title on Kris Parker aka KRS-One (an acronym for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone) seems like damning him with faint praise. KRS was never just a rapper—right from the start he was a renegade teacher and scholar, a satirist, polemicist and most of all, the Blastmaster. As such, his lyrics were tools of war, which he kept sharpened to a lethal edge.
KRS was living at a Bronx homeless shelter when he met Scott Sterling aka DJ Scott LaRock, who worked there as a counselor. KRS was also an MC and graf writer known for battling other residents at the shelter. Scott was sufficiently impressed that he would slide the 20-year-old passes that allowed him to go out and catch live rap shows from time to time. Before they collaborated on their monumental 1987 debut album, Criminal Minded, with beats supervised by Ced Gee of Ultramagnetic MCs, KRS and Scott LaRock dropped a 12” single called “South Bronx” (“Fresh for '86 you suckers!”). This song was provocative enough to set off an epic inter-borough musical conflict known as “The Bridge Wars,” and also set KRS above and beyond all lyrical competition in that particular year.
It all started with MC Shan’s song “The Bridge,” which big upped the borough of Queens, specifically the Queensbridge housing projects. Filled with local pride, Shan asserted that the Bridge played a vital role in the birth and evolution of hip-hop—and he had a point, since it was home to Marley Marl and the mighty Juice Crew. Nevertheless, the song provoked KRS, who proudly repped for the Bronx in a hip-hop masterpiece set to a shrill, staccato beat and raps that hit home like blunt force trauma. “Party people in the place to be KRS-One attacks…” he rhymed in the first verse before going in for the kill: “So you think that hip-hop got its start out in Queensbridge?/If you popped that junk up in the Bronx you might not live.”
Vacillating between Blastmaster and teacher mode, KRS worked a lengthy hip-hop history lesson into the second verse, shouting out such luminaries as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaatta, and Grandmaster Flash—among others—and evoking memories of jams in Cedar Park and Bronx River where the amps were powered by electricity jacked from lamp posts. But before long KRS brought it back to the battle. “As odd as it looked, as wild as it seemed/I didn’t hear a peep from a place called Queens.”
Shan had no choice but to respond to KRS’s devastating attack, releasing a song called “Kill That Noise,” but he was only falling further into BDP’s trap. Soon thereafter Scott and Kris returned fire with a reggae-flavored war chant called “The Bridge Is Over” that was an undisputed lyrical TKO. KRS remains a hip-hop icon to this day, but in 1986 there was simply no denying the fact that he was the best rapper alive.
Honorable Mentions: Run, Too $hort, Schoolly D
The mighty Run-DMC movement continued unabated with the Queens trio’s third and best-selling album, Raising Hell, which contained “Walk This Way,” a historic collaboration with the rock band Aerosmith. At the end of the day Run’s raps still led the way.
After flooding the streets of Oakland with singles on the independent 75 Girls label, Too $hort inked a deal with Jive Records and released Born To Mack, which was eventually certified gold, proving that regional pimp rap could move big numbers nationwide. (Jive elected to leave its logo off the album for years. See industry Rule #4080.)
Meanwhile in Philadelphia Schoolly D revealed a whole new world with a sinister jam called “PSK What Does It Mean?” (dedicated to Philly’s Park Side Killers) released on a 12-inch backed with “Gucci Time.” Though “gangsta rap” is usually considered a West Coast thing, Schoolly’s pioneering crime narratives developed in parallel with BDP’s, proving that brothers were getting paid by all means necessary all over the country. —Rob Kenner (@boomshots)