You can't help but be intimidated by KRS-One's voice, a booming tone that shakes walls from concert halls to Ivy League classrooms. It is deeply distinct, like what you'd get if James Earl Jones rapped about b-boys, Jesus, and Bobby Seale. So imagine what it's like to pick up the phone and be greeted by these three words: "This is KRS-One." Even the phone trembles.
At the moment, he's lost on the Florida Turnpike, trying to make sure his driver isn't veering toward the Everglades. They're headed to downtown Miami, where rap star Fat Joe waits for a studio all-nighter.
"KRS is always in the studio," says KRS, one of those stars who refers to himself in the third person. "KRS always stays current with the times, putting out projects three to four months within each other."
That's not entirely accurate, but it's fairly close. His newest album, Adventures in Emceein,' due out next month, offers a stylistic journey through rap, where KRS reigns supreme. His last album, Hip Hop Lives (a title responding to Nas' 2006 album, Hip Hop Is Dead), was released in May. On it, KRS collaborates with his longtime rival, producer Marley Marl. The pair defined hip-hop in 1987, when their "Bridge Wars," which KRS started, brought Marl protégé MC Shan to shame and KRS to the spotlight. The beef between Marl's Juice Crew and KRS' Boogie Down Productions was so compelling that eventually it had whole New York boroughs at odds. Twenty years later, the two old lions came together to make a refreshingly old-school hip-hop album. Despite lackluster reviews, they offered cleaner rap for the over-35 crowd — and KRS asserted his clichéd primacy: "I come back, every year I get newer/I'm the dust on the moon, I'm the trash in the sewer/I come back, every year I get brighter/If you think hip-hop is alive, then throw up your lighters."
For fans of hip-hop, certain names are etched in its cornerstone: Tupac, Jay-Z... and KRS-One. KRS will be the first to say that he is hip-hop, a statement he offers the same way someone else might say they are Catholic or Methodist. He's performed around the world, garnering respect both for his MC talents and his role as a kind of scholar of hip-hop. Whether he's getting accolades from VH1's Hip Hop Honors or whipping up controversy as he did on Fox's Hannity Report, screaming "Nigga!" and "Saddam Hussein" in the same sentence, he seems to stay busy, even though he hasn't had a hit recording in more than a decade.
In addition to MC'ing, KRS is something of a mystic and a philosopher who sometimes is called "The Teacha." Even in casual conversation, he spits knowledge, touching on topics as varied as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Keanu Reeves box-office bomb Constantine. Still, what's most on the minds of KRS fans these days is the way he handles death. Two months ago, his 23-year-old stepson, Randy Parker, fatally shot himself in the head. Parker had suffered from severe depression, according to a news release.
"We did everything we could," KRS says. "The last thing would've been to send him to a mental institution, but we couldn't do that...
"Randy was depressed for many years, he'd come in and out of it and would take medication... Depression is a battle within yourself. You could see that he was fighting it, living day by day. He didn't want to take the drugs...
"This is a disease. Depression is a disease."
Asked if he felt that he failed, KRS sighs.
"Our family had to come to grips with this loss," he says. "I mean, of course I felt guilty, questioning everything, wondering if, you know, that one time he called and I brushed him off was that what triggered it... There were so many of those thoughts, but we came to the conclusion that this was Randy's choice. He wasn't afraid of death — that's the part, in a weird and twisted way, I feel strengthened by...
"Randy was a man, he was 23 years old, and he made the decision to take his own life... I'm not trying to make any excuses here, but how do we make sense of this whole thing? Knowing that this was his choice, in some way, gives us peace. The tragedy was really that he was depressed."
That tragedy is obviously still fresh for KRS. But then, in KRS fashion, he leaps to a related, teachable subject — actor Owen Wilson's recent suicide attempt and how so many celebrities, it seems to KRS, are now coming out about their depression. "I don't want to say it's coincidence, because the universe has no coincidences," he says, "but because of my son's suicide, I am able to talk about this with so many people who are suffering from depression. Now, more than ever, we need to talk about this!
"I believe that everybody has the right to take his or her own life," he continues. "I believe in reincarnation, that we come back and relearn the lessons that we didn't get in this life. God is in control of life, but we are in control of living. Freedom — that's one thing the universe has an abundance of."