A True Teacher’s Work: An Album Review of Criminal Minded by Yichen (Mario) Qiu
Every semester I publish some of my students' exemplary work on my blog. Work is only posted with explicit written permission by the student and will be removed if the student requests it.
Known as the “Teacha” in Hip Hop, KRS-One released his first album Criminal Minded with his partner Scott La Rock in 1987. To distinguish himself from other famous rappers, KRS-One uses “Teacher” to describe himself capable of writing exceptional lyrics and staying intelligent. While many people doubt his qualification with this title, his album reflects three key characters summarized by Professor Herman that are indispensable for a great teacher: “Knowledge”, “Creativity”, and “Understanding the students” (2).Not limited in the field of music, we can see that KRS-One is worthy to be a “teacher” from his excellent lyrics writing skill, innovative use of interpolation, and his impressive admonishment to the audience.
To teach students, a teacher must have the knowledge himself. For KRS-One, his knowledge is reflected in his exceptional skill of writing, which is firstly shown in his modified and flexible rhymes. Not satisfied with the classic rhyme schemes, the “Teacha” shows that he could do better. In the first track of this album “Poetry”, for example, KRS-One deliberately modifies the common “AABB” rhyme scheme by compressing them more tightly, thus adding a rhyme every one or two seconds to the lyrics.
This can be demonstrated in the sentence “For beats with plenty bass and lyrics said in haste”, where “beats” and “plenty” form a pair and “lyrics” and “haste” form a pair, both of which are separated very closely and making the rhymes compact. Besides certain brilliant modification of classic rhyme schemes, the flexible structures of rhymes in each track is also outstanding, which means the rhyme scheme changes very frequently through the entire song. Take the track “South Bronx” for instance: in the first verse of the song, there is barely any rhyme you can notice; but from the second verse, each group of two to four sentences contains an end rhyme which, coupled with a variety of rhyme scheme applied to the lyrics, helps the beats become more solid and rhythmical.
Such constant changing of rhyme style enriches each song and allows the audience to feel that the track keeps moving forward instead of just repeating the same segment again and again. With these flexible rhyme structures and some unique modifications on classic rhyme scheme, KRS-One proves his capability as a “teacha” by demonstrating a strong understanding of various rhyme schemes, which, worth to be noted, is only the first factor contributing to his writing skill of lyrics.
The other thing that makes his lyrics worth to praise is the widely used rhetorical devices, which help him argue his point in an indirect while still very efficient way, especially in his diss track against the Juice Crew. One rhetoric device that he uses most frequently is metaphor, with which he alludes in the track “Criminal Minded” that those currently known rappers in Juice Crew will one day lose their fame, just like a king losing his crown. In “Poetry”, he also likens himself and his partner La Rock to a crossbow and an arrow, which could easily “annihilate the violence”, to insinuate that gangsta rap music widely produced by Juice Crew is inferior. As the “Teacha”, KRS-One is trying to convince people that instead of violence and guns, good rap music is filled with imagination and enthusiasm. Besides metaphor, some other rhetoric devices are also used delicately. “South Bronx”, for example, ends with the following lines: “Manhattan keeps on making it / Brooklyn keeps on taking it / Bronx keeps creating it / And Queens keeps on faking it!” This parallelism explicitly contrasts the different roles taken by Bronx and Queens to diss Juice Crew’s claim that Queensbridge is the origin of Hip Hop in a funny and light-hearted way. This very diversity of rhetorical devices not only enables KRS-One to lively make his argument from different angles, but also reflects KRS-One’s mastery of English language. This feature, together with his modified and flexible rhyme structure, validates his qualified writing skill required for being the “Teacha”.
Besides knowledge, Herman points out that another factor to determine a good teacher is the innovation in teaching, which can be reflected by KRS-One’s creative use of interpolation in his tracks (2). At the beginning of the song “Criminal Minded”, he interpolates a classic clip from Beetles’ “Hey, Jude” in a deliberately off-key way and sets up a bright atmosphere for the whole track; he also adds two “echoes” in the end of each phrase, the first one as loud as the volume of rapping followed by the second one almost like murmur, thus giving audience a rather unrealistic, funny feeling.
It is worth to be noted that since the use of interpolation in Hip-Hop was still very novel back in 1980s and had hardly been touched before, KRS-One’s application of this technique has already proved his creativity. But there is more than that: in the previous interpolation, he perfectly merges this extraneous piece of work into his track by endowing the originally melodic and peaceful clip with a funny and exaggerated air. Through this, he successfully leaves his own mark on this classic work and modifies it with his distinct style. This feature can also be reflected in another interpolation of Winston Hussey’s 1985 dancehall tune “Body No Ready” in the hook part, which is given a comical element with the obvious prolongation of the last syllable in each sentence. Both of interpolations given dynamic and bright elements, KRS-One proves that he is capable of stringing these seemingly unrelated clips together with his own unique music style. The logic is clear then: The interpolations serve as two extreme cases, showing that since KRS-One can still keep his own style even when borrowing others’ work, he can certainly hold his manner for any other tracks he makes. as he raps in the first verse :“Keep my hair like this, got no time for Jheri curls”, he is setting an example for other rappers that in any circumstance, he will never plagiarize others’ styles. While his integrity in his music style is definitely unquestionable, his innovative application of interpolation to prove this quality is more reflective of his creativity. Just like the professors exploring the unknown world by publishing articles, KRS-One is expanding the possibility of Hip Hop music with his innovation, an indispensable element he presented in this album.
The last quality defining a good teacher is understanding your students, which could be hinted in KRS-One’s story-telling tracks: “9mm Goes Bang” and “Remix for P is Free”, where the “Teacha” carries out his job of teaching in practice. In 1980s, there are few story-telling tracks in Hip Hop field, and KRS-One’s inclusion of this technique is indeed “ahead of time” (HipHopKid). “9mm Goes Bang” tells a story that KRS-One is tricked by a drug dealer and has to use his pistol to kill the people trying to hunt him;
“Remix for P is Free” portrays a whore who could do anything in exchange for money and drug. While these two stories are quite simple, they both describe the dark side of America, such as violence, gang, drug and so on.
These lyrics of gangsta topic are not written just to entertain audience or simply for fun; in fact, around 1990s, gangs were a serious problem in lots of major cities in United States: there were at least 187 major cities with evidence of known street violence around 1990 and the gang violence plays a large part in the high murder rate in many places (Aldridge, 110). With such a serious gang problem all around the country, these two tracks act as an important statement of KRS-One about the root of violence, materialism. In “9mm Goes Bang”, the drug dealers who intended to trick KRS-One finally died because of their lust for money, and the whore in “Remix for P is Free” ended up without a penny. People may ask: “How does a rapper gain insight about these social problems in such depth?” It is necessary to know that as KRS-One once lived in the streets before being a rapper, he has suffered from gang violence just as others did. He could understand the bitter of those poor people since he was one of them. These stories are so close to reality because they are very likely based on what he experienced and even feared before. By describing the sad ending of those who are negatively affected by such distorted materialism, the “Teacha” is admonishing the audience that both money and violence are the sources of destruction to Americans (Boyd, 301). Just as what he indicated after the release of this album, instead of drugs and money, the “positive destiny” and “harmony within community” are what people should pursue. He knows that these are exactly what troubles the poor black people living in streets because of his understanding to them. As “Teacha”, he wants to use his music to illuminate his people the way out of dark.
Again, a good teacher should have knowledge, creativity and understand people (Herman, 2). With all these factors, KRS-One is qualified to call himself a “teacher” because of his knowledge of writing lyrics with delicate rhymes and rhetoric devices, his creativity in his usage of interpolation to stand his style out, and his understanding of the true problem that troubles the poor people with his color. As his first album, Criminal Minded is also the first step of the “teacher” in his career in Hip Hop, the album that stands out because of these fascinating characters.
Coming from China, Yichen Qiu (Mario) is a first-year student in UNC. He is currently majoring in statistics and interested in applying his knowledge in analyzing social problems. In free time, he plays soccer a lot and loves astronomy, and he can’t wait to watch the last season of Game of Thrones!
Aldridge, Heather, and Diana, Carlin. “The Rap on Violence: A Rhetorical Analysis of Rapper KRS‐One.” Communication Studies, vol. 44, no. 2, May 2009, pp. 102–16
Boyd, Todd. “Check Yo Self, Before You Wreck Yo Self: Variations on a Political Theme in Rap Music and Popular Culture.” Public Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 1994, pp. 289–312.
Hebdige, Dick. “Rap and Hip-Hop: The New York Connection.” The Aesthetics of Rap, 1 Apr. 2014
Herman, Russel. “Letter from the Editor-in-Chief: What Makes an Excellent Professor?” The Journal of Effective Teaching, vol.11, no.1, 2001, pp. 1-5
HipHopKid. “Review of Criminal Minded.” Sputnik Music, 1987