Itâ€™s no secret an increasing number of American rap artists are making it down under these days. The digital age has redrawn the boundaries of what used to be an insular, domestically focussed genre, forcing many artists to broaden their worldview and regularly tour foreign territories.
De La Soul have visited almost every year over the last decade and a half, and even the most underground of rap artists are finding promoters to hook up with: Shabazz Palaces were in Brisbane in January and DJ Quikâ€™s looking to take over the Hi-Fi next week. It begs the question, then: whatâ€™s taken KRS-One â€“ one of the most iconic rappers of the last 20 years â€“ so long to get to Australia?
â€œIâ€™ve been trying to get to Australia for the last decade,â€ he explains over the phone from a San Francisco hotel room. â€œThe reason being that I wanted to study Australian culture. I wanted to study Aboriginal culture. I just want to study Australian society. Iâ€™m just turned on by that â€“ I study culture, I study society â€“ itâ€™s what makes me tick.
â€œBut none of the promoters were able to fulfill my idea of what a tour of Australia should be. They wanted to fly me in first of all, and then have me go from the airport to the hotel to the venue, back to the hotel, back to the airport, out the country. Iâ€™m not doing that. When I enter the country, I walk through the country. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ve done all throughout Europe on and off over the last 12 years. Itâ€™s cultural anthropology at its best.â€
What KRS-One is really saying is that he doesnâ€™t fly. The New York-raised, California-based MC travels everywhere by either land or sea. Itâ€™s enough to put any promoter off from ever getting the man across the Pacific. But not Slingshot Touring: the Sydney-based outfit have managed to facilitate one of the more curious cross-country itineraries in music history. KRS just spent a month on a boat, meandering his way from California to Hawaii to Fiji to Australia. By the time youâ€™re reading this, KRS and his crew will be on local shores, gearing up for at least six weeks of travelling around the country in a couple of tour vans. Itâ€™s a mammoth journey, and includes two trips, back and forth, across the Nullarbor.
â€œI love the fact that Iâ€™m driving across the country,â€ KRS says. â€œIâ€™m taking photos, Iâ€™ve got cameras with me, Iâ€™ve got my books out, Iâ€™m documenting the scene. Iâ€™m an artist too, so Iâ€™ll draw the landscape for myself, in that sense. This is why Iâ€™m ecstatic about coming to Australia. Itâ€™s not just the concert â€“ thatâ€™s merely the celebration at the end of the day!â€
The trip also allows KRS to take a well-deserved break from his homeland. If you read the music papers, the internet era has turned the music industry on its head in the United States and made releasing a rap record a total crapshoot. KRS has a different take, however, and talks about the net taking the power away from the record executives â€“ the â€œbankersâ€, he calls them â€“ and putting it in the hands of artists and their fans.
â€œTechnology now makes the best the absolute best, and the worst the absolutely talentless. Thereâ€™s a judgement going on right now in the world about whoâ€™s really got talent and who donâ€™t. And itâ€™s being judged on the internet. Itâ€™s part of the new world order; part of globalisation where you no longer need borders ... you no longer need a president of a nation or a leader of a nation; you have this one world government now. Where we used to have to go to MTV to get our record played, what the new world order does is it makes everybody an MTV. And now anybody can broadcast, everybody becomes their own magazine publisher, everyoneâ€™s their own radio station. Everyone is their own everything. So, you know what? You have to now think as an artist. Imagine that!â€
It has of course also changed the ways in which artists and their fans interact. KRS hasnâ€™t been immune, and heâ€™s noticed the web broadening his fan base.
â€œI have about 100,000 diehard fans â€“ people that anything KRS puts out, they were going to go get it. But those people are 40-year-olds now. They donâ€™t buy records, really. Theyâ€™ll listen to KRS, theyâ€™ll support it, and theyâ€™ll even come to the concert. But theyâ€™re not everyday going to run out and buy anybodyâ€™s record. Theyâ€™re somewhere else in their lives. So I have that audience, but then I have this younger crowd thatâ€™s coming up, who are really enthusiastic about everything that I do.â€
But while the endless march of the web drives the artistry and makes it easier for a budding MC to get his or her music out to the fans, at a certain point KRS can envision this technological trend â€“ in a wider sense â€“ becoming a threat to hip hop culture.
â€œHip hop is a human skill,â€ he says. â€œThis is speaking, writing, toolmaking, drawing. And the fact is that technology can impede upon that â€¦ The human skill of speaking, the human skill of rhythmically rhyming in spoken word. Constantly relying on computer technology to do something that is inherently human can be a threat to culture.â€
The human element is what drives KRSâ€™s live performances too. Get him started about whatâ€™s going down at his Australian shows and youâ€™ll barely be able to stop the man. And why shouldnâ€™t KRS be excited? Adelaide sold out before he even got on the boat.
â€œPeople can expect straight hip hop savagery, and underline the word savagery,â€ he says, laughing. â€œAustralia has never seen this kind of performance. This is about the celebration of hip hop, not just a 20 minute set where I give you my hit record before a chick comes out and shows you her ass. Thatâ€™s not what this is. Every person is gonna walk in dry and walk out sweaty, mark my words. And thatâ€™s gonna be the sign that you had a great time, that youâ€™ve been baptised and transformed: the water is no longer poured onto you; the hip hop transformation is that the water that baptises you comes from within. Your inner well â€“ your inner spring â€“ is your baptism into hip hop.
â€œWhen Iâ€™m done with Australia, every MC is going to rewrite his or her album, every b-boy is gonna get back up on their dancing gig, every graf writer is going to be saying, â€˜Yo! I got to finish that pieceâ€™. Every DJ is gonna trash their computer and say, â€˜Yo, I gotta get two turntables and a mixer! I gotta go back to cutting and scratching.â€™ People are just gonna get every dime of their moneyâ€™s worth.â€
KRS-One plays The Arena this Friday, March 9.