Boogie Down Productions
Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop
Jive/RCA

Boogie Down Productions, or BDP, are one of the classic old school rap groups from the Boogie Down Bronx, from whence the name comes.  The band arose from the duo of Kris Parker and Scott Sterling, a social worker.  The pair met when Parker had left home at the age of 16 to try to make his way in the world as a rapper and he ended up in a homeless shelter.  Parker, who was known as ‘Krishna’ at the time due to his interest in the Hare Krishna spirituality practiced by many of the anti-poverty workers he encountered.  He also was a participant in the NYC graffiti culture, where his tag was Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone, or KRS-One.  Sterling took the stage name Scott LaRock, and BDP were born.  Their début album, the legendary Criminal Minded, was released in 1987, not long as Sterling was killed as he attempted to defuse a situation, his murderers were acquitted.  KRS-One was devastated, but carried on. After LaRock’s death, KRS-One purposefully moved his music into more political, more conscious directions.  Ghetto Music was his second album under the BDP name after Sterling’s murder.

I didn’t know any of this.  I was 15 years old in suburban Vancouver, living in a rain forest quite literally a world away from KRS-One’s world in the South Bronx.  I don’t know how I got my hands on this album, I seem to recall a blonde-haired kid who loved hip-hop, whose name I don’t remember, I can’t even remember his face.  I was in Grade 10.  I was not a happy kid, for all the usual reasons plus serious turmoil at home.  I was kind of lost and lonely.  I found my escape playing football, where all that untapped aggression could come out (at least until I blew out my knee) and in music.  I had already developed a love for hip hop, thanks to Rick Noble having introduced me to LL Cool J a few years earlier, but it wasn’t exactly easy getting my hands on anything hip hop beyond, you know, MC Hammer (I remember the kid who handed me this cassette was into MC Hammer, for the record).  So I ended up with a dubbed copy of this album.  I listened to it on my knock-off Walkman on the long bus ride home from junior high school in Port Coquitlam to my family’s home in Port Moody.  Many days, I stopped off at Pinetree Village, a strip mall, where there was a doughnut shop and Cindy Smith worked there.  I wouldn’t say I had a crush on Cindy, and she had a boyfriend anyway who was a friend of mine, but she was sweet and kind and she was both of those to me.  I have this distinct memory of her listening to this album on my fake Walkman, as she was also getting into hip hop and R&B.

KRS-One was really my introduction into the politics of race in the United States, Chuck D. and Public Enemy I discovered a few months later.  I listened the hell out of Ghetto Music.  I had messed up the dubbing of it, though, so Side One of the album was the b-side of my cassette, and vice versa, and it took me some time to figure that out (like maybe a year, because it wasn’t like I could go to Sam the Record Man in 1989 in suburban Vancouver and buy an actual copy of the album), so my memories of this album are a little backward to say the least.

On this album, KRS-One, who is also known as The Teacher, taught me about the world, about race, and racism.  Around me, there were a bunch of white suburban boys who thought they were gangsters because they listened to hip hop, I was friendly with this crowd, but they weren’t my people.  I did not think I was hard as fuck because I listened to hip hop.  I thought I was just another suburban junior high loser.  But I also didn’t know much about much.  And as I listened to this album backwards-ish over and over that fall and winter of 1989-90, I learned about black history, racist cops, and a black mentality.

Tracks like ‘Why is That?’, ‘The Blueprint,’ ‘Who Protects Us from You?,’ and pretty. much the entire b-side of the album opened up my eyes.  I knew about racism, I could see it all around me.  I saw it when I was younger, on the soccer field, as white parents all up and down both sides of the fields used racial epithets against the South Asian and Latinx kids on my team and others.  I saw it in the fact my Old Man could not, for the life of him, get my friend Ajdendra’s name right, calling him Abdul repeatedly.  I saw it in the language my Old Man and his friends used against East and South Asians.  It was pretty nasty.  My mom, on the other hand, always told me that I shouldn’t do this, I should not use racial epithets against people, she raised me to be more respectful (which is why I wasn’t cool in junior high school) of everyone around me.  But I did not understand American racism, anti-black racism, and why it was so intense.  I didn’t really know a lot about American history, though I did know about slavery and the Civil War.

But KRS-One taught me.  One ‘Why Is That?,’ he re-cast biblical history from an African perspective.  And even today, over 30 years later, I need to give KRS-One props for laying down biblical history in such a clear and powerful manner in a rhyme over this pounding beat:

Genesis chapter eleven verse ten
Explains the genealogy of Shem
Chem was a black man in Africa
If you repeat this fact they can’t laugh at ya.
Genesis fourteen verse thirteen
Abraham steps on the scene
Being a descendant of Shem which is a fact
Means, Abraham too was black.
Abraham born in the city of a black man
Called Nimrod, grandson of Kam
Kam had four sons, one was named Canaan
Here, let me do some explaining.
Abraham was the father of Isaac
Isaac was the father of Jacob
Jacob had twelve sons for real
And these were the children of Israel.
According to Genesis chapter ten
Egyptians descended from Ham
Six hundred years later my brother read up
Moses was born in Egypt.
In this era black Egyptians weren’t right
They enslaved black Israelites
Moses had to be of the black race
Because he spent forty years in Pharaoh’s place.
He passed as the Pharaoh’s grandson
So he had to look just like him
Yes, my brothers and sisters take this here song
Yo, correct the wrong.
Of course, many years later, I do now know that BDP was actually correct here, or at least there is enough evidence to support this argument.  But in 1989, this was really dope.  Here I was, the son of an escaped Catholic, a veteran of Sunday School, so it wasn’t like I did not know my Bible (though I had not yet read it all), and KRS-One was throwing all of what I learned and what I knew about the Bible into doubt. I remember thinking one day on the bus, the rain coming down outside (I mean, when is it not raining in Vancouver?!?) that what KRS-One was telling me meant that so much of history that I was learning, that we knew as a culture, was based on this warped understanding of history.  I knew enough to know that the argument KRS-One was putting forth here could very well be correct, the dark skin he was attributing to Biblical characters could very likely be true.  This was my introduction to the Afro-centric argument about the Bible.
And KRS-One spends a lot of time on this album talking about the whack nature of the school curriculum, as, bluntly, it did not teach African American kids their history, it taught them white history.
He returns to this theme in ‘You Must Learn,’ which stomps over this funky beat, bass pounding through my craptastic headphones into my ears:
Let me demonstrate the force of knowledge
knowledge reigned supreme
The ignorant is ripped to smithereens
What do you mean when you say I’m rebellious
‘Cause I don’t accept everything that you’re telling us
What are you selling us the creator dwellin’ us
I sit in your unknown class while you’re failing’ us
I failed your class ’cause I ain’t with your reasoning
You’re tryin’ make me you by seasoning
Up my mind with see Jane run, see John walk in a hardcore New York
It doesn’t exist no way, no how
It seems to me that in a school that’s ebony
African history should be pumped up steadily, but it’s not
and this has got to stop, See Spot run, run get Spot
Insulting to a Black mentality, a Black way of life
Or a jet Black family, so I include with one concern, that
You must learn!
And so I began to think about what I was taught.  Now, my junior high school, George Pearkes, and my high school in Port Moody were predominately white, though there were sizeable East and South Asian populations, and a few Arabic and black kids.  And, frankly, we didn’t learn a goddamned thing about their history.  Nothing.  And, in all reality, this is part of what got me into the study of History, this desire to know more about the kinds of histories I was not taught in my school.

 

Then there was the issue of the police.  KRS-One, like many rappers, has spent a fair amount of time discussing the police, challenging the police, laying out the racism of police in a rather devastating manner.  I did not trust the police, even as a 16-year old kid, in large part because of the violence in my home, which was practiced by the Old Man upon my mom.  When I called the cops, and it was usually me, cowering somewhere, furtively and frantically trying to call the cops to stop this horror, when the arrived, they always, always, always, even the female cops, blamed my mom for the Old Man hitting her.  Always.  I knew from a young age the system was broken, I knew the score.  So, to learn about racist cops in NYC wasn’t surprising, but it sure did fill me with a righteous anger.
In ‘Who Protects Us from You?,’ over a simple beat, KRS-One lays down the science.  It is also interesting that this track was written sometime in 1988-89, and it laid down some simple facts that African Americans already knew.  But I found myself blasting this track this summer in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as I had in other such moments.  Maybe it’s not so much interesting as it is depressing.  The Black Panthers, of course, got their start as a shadow, monitoring the Oakland Police and their interaction with African Americans there, that was the 60s.  Thirty years later, nothing had changed, and here we are 30 years on from that, and, well, tell me, what has changed?
‘Bo! Bo! Bo!’ was and is my favourite track on this album.  BDP, which was comprised of KRS-One, D-Squared, D-Nice, and Ms. Melody, wrote one of the great hip hop fantasy tracks of fighting back against racist cops.  This is, today, a pretty familair trope in hip hop, and everyone from Public Enemy to Killer Mike have produced classics of this genre.  ‘Bo! Bo! Bo!’ flows over a heavily-reggae-influenced beat and indeed, a Jamaican influence is very noticeable in much of BDP and KRS-One’s solo career.  The beat of this track, which is insistent, and the reggae styles, provide the soundtrack to KRS-One having an unfortunate run-in with the police, one which, I might add, does not sound outlandish, even today:
Well, seven in the morning I woke up to jog
Rushed out the door to inhale the smog
As I ran, I began to wonder
Should I produce or should I tour this summer
Well just that second I heard stay where you are
Before I could stop I was hit by a cop car
I laid on the pavement like I was hurt
Then a redneck cop jumped out with a smirk
He said, ah boy you better watch where you run
As he poked my side with the barrel of his shotgun
I said officer man I ain’t do nothin
He said what’s that word you n***** use, ya frontin
And this is the beginning of the story that has led to the death of so many African Americans in the United States, this is what led to the death of George Floyd this spring, which led to this summer’s protest movement.  But it also led to Eric Garner’s death.  And Michael Brown’s.  I could go on.  But from there, KRS-One flips the script, and engages in this fantasy where he fights back:
Well ya frontin, so why were you running down the street
At this time I had stood to my feet and said wait a minute
And that’s when he did it, he hit me in the face with his gun I wasn’t
With it so
On the ground was a bottle of snapple, I broke the bottle in his fucking
Adam’s apple
As he fell his partner called for back up well, I had the shotgun and
Began to act up with that
Bo bo bo clack clack clack clack clack
Get your street knowledge every posse know that come again
Bo bo bo clack clack clack clack clack
The only way to deal with racism if you’re black!
Well I threw down the gun and began to run
I got back in no time and loaded the nine
First I took two clips and then I took two more
I was out the window cause by now they were right at my door
I took three shots and then I laid
They rushed in shooting so I threw a quick grenade
It went boom like a supernova
Badges arms heads legs cops were all over
I jumped out the fire escape down to the street and I started to run you
Know I couldn’t feel my feet, I was weak, I said to myself holy shit!
My shirt had filled with blood I didn’t know I got hit but there’s no
Time to stop no time to explain man I’m in too deep with this everyday
Ghetto pain
Black men are judged by their clothes
Black women are looked at as hoes
So I as one of these uppity n*****
Can only rely on the sound of a trigga going
Bo bo bo clack clack clack clack clack
Get your street knowledge every posse know that come again
Bo bo bo clack clack clack clack clack
The only way to deal with racism if you’re black!
And from there, he staggers into an old African book store, the Tree of Life, where his life was saved by two African American women, and then, after recovering some, he was smuggled away in a truck, ‘driven by two guys, Rakim and Chuck,’ and here KRS-One gives a shoutout to two of his contemporaries, two other legends of the game, Rakim from Chuck D.

This kind of fantasy has, as I note, become a trope in hip hop, along with other violent fantasies.  And this is often used to criticize hip hop and to dismiss its practitioners as being nothing more than gangsters and thugs.  But, as Erik Neilson and Andrea Dennis remind us in their brilliant Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, this IS a fantasy, this is an imaginative trope explored by oppressed artists seeking an escape from their lives.  But, hip hop artists tend to find themselves in prison for crimes that are either little more than misdemeanours or they did not even commit, convicted with their lyrics that over-zealous prosecutors seem to think are real.  As Neilson and Dennis note, hip hop is not the only music genre that involves violence in the lyrics.  But it’s only black rappers that get treated this way by the justice system,.
BDP remain, to this day, one of my favourite hip hop artists of all-time, and despite the legendary status of their début, Criminal Minded, is their most legendary album, all of this is why this is my favourite.  I was listening to this album last week and I was reminded once again this was so brilliant an album, and what it meant to me.  I like to think that much of what I have brought to my world, my life-long commitment to anti-racism and anti-racist movements, comes from hip hop, it comes from KRS-One, it comes from Chuck D.  They were my teachers.