Happy 30th Anniversary to Boogie Down Productions’ debut album Criminal Minded, originally released March 3, 1987.
This statement is going to sound cliché, but it’s true: Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded is hip-hop in its essence. It’s one of the essential templates that hip-hop albums are still built around. It’s groundbreaking in terms of both lyrical content and delivery, as well as production style. Now, thirty years after its release, it’s not an overstatement to say that its contributions to hip-hop music are indispensable and it’s among the 10 best hip-hop albums ever recorded. Truthfully, you could make a strong argument for it being in the top five.
At the group’s inception, Boogie Down Productions was two people: Lawrence “Krisna” aka “KRS-One” Parker and Scott “DJ Scott La Rock” Monroe Sterling. The group initially came together in 1984 as KRS was a young teenager living in a group home and Scott La Rock served as his social worker. They eventually bonded through their love of music and began recording hip-hop. The Criminal Minded album was the culmination of their work together. Roughly half of the album appeared as parts of various singles before the album was completed, but it doesn’t feel like a collection of tracks. Criminal Minded flows as a cohesive work from beginning to end.
The level of consistency and quality that runs through the expanse of Criminal Minded is striking. All ten of its tracks are innovative and unique in their own way. It’s an album that’s reverent to hip-hop’s old school history and pays tribute to its dancehall/reggae roots, but also an impressive early chapter in establishing the way that hip-hop’s “New School” changed how hip-hop was approached for years to come.
The production on the album is the work of Scott La Rock, KRS-One, and an uncredited Ced Gee, of Ultramagnetic MCs fame. All the rhymes are by KRS-One himself. The beats themselves provide the blueprint for the “Boom Bap” style of hip-hop production, one built on hard kicks and snares and soul and James Brown loops.
In terms of subject matter, Criminal Minded was a pretty straightforward hip-hop album for the time. Much like their unofficial brothers in hip-hop revolutionary arms, Public Enemy, who released their first album roughly a month before this one, BDP’s first endeavor is fairly light on political commentary. KRS-One works in a few lines and references throughout the album, but as of 1987, he had yet to assume the mantle of hip-hop’s teacher.
But the lack of political content doesn’t undermine the album’s significance. In many ways, Criminal Minded is the prototype for the New York/East Coast street album. While BDP would eventually become known as pioneers of the hip-hop concept album, Criminal Minded doesn’t initially come across as traditional. But upon listening to it, it’s apparent that the album’s “concept” is the innovative lyricism displayed by KRS-One himself.
Criminal Minded leads off with “Poetry,” the crew’s dedication to pure lyricism. The beat, created by Scott and Ced Gee, features a creative re-working of James Brown’s “Don’t Tell It,” as Scott scratches vocal samples of the Godfather of Soul throughout the song. But KRS is the highpoint of the track, as he conducts a clinic, or more appropriately, a class on lyricism. On the track, KRS largely eschews typical rap rhyme patterns and flows, compressing the traditional “AABB” rhyme scheme, so there are rhymes within each measure. As a result, each measure doesn’t rhyme with the one the follows it. For example: “For beats with plenty bass and lyrics said in haste / If this meaning doesn’t manifest, put it to rest / I am a poet, you try to show it, yet blow it / It takes concentration for fresh communication.” Later he rhymes, “Oh what a pity, I'm rocking New York City / And everywhere else you put the jams on the shelf.” The couplets don’t really sound right absorbed in isolation; you need to hear the whole song to appreciate the inventive rhyme scheme.
Criminal Minded is perhaps best known as the showcase of BDP’s beef with MC Shan, the Juice Crew, and legendary hip-hop radio DJ Mr. Magic, which evolved throughout ’86 and ’87. KRS said in Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique that the genesis of the animosity started when BDP and affiliates went to WBLS, home of the infamous “Rap Attack” radio show, to try to get Mr. Magic to play an early version of their song “Elementary” (more on that later). Mr. Magic dismissed the crew, then eventually listened to the track and told them it was wack. The group retaliated by recording and releasing “South Bronx,” the album’s first single.
“South Bronx” is an answer track to MC Shan’s “The Bridge.” The Queensbridge native recorded “The Bridge” as a B-side for his single “Beat Biter” and the track was designed to be a celebration of the borough of Queens. Marley Marl, who became known as a legendary producer but was an on-air assistant to Mr. Magic at the time, created the beat. With “South Bronx,” KRS adapts Shan’s delivery, rearranging each line to champion his own borough and to dis Shan. In between educating the listener on the Bronx’s rich hip-hop history, he trashes Shan for getting dropped by MCA Records and associating with crackheads. The fast-paced track features one of the earliest uses of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” break, as Scott La Rock also incorporates chops of the horns from “Get Up Offa That Thing.”
After Shan responded to “South Bronx” with “Kill That Noise,” BDP answered back once again with “The Bridge is Over.” It is rightfully considered one of the two or three best hip-hop dis tracks ever recorded. Part of the reason the song succeeds is because it’s vicious in such a light-hearted way. The spirit is carried by both the music and the way KRS flows on the track, the beats for which were constructed by Ced Gee and KRS himself. KRS re-played portions of the bassline from Supercat’s “Si Boops Deh” live on a piano he found in the studio. For the delivery of his two verses, he uses dancehall patois mixed with the flow and cadence of Billy Joel’s “Still Rock and Roll To Me.” KRS sounds like he’s genuinely having fun. With the first verse, he re-states the thesis of the beef (Shan is wack for implying hip-hop started in Queensbridge), laying on the heavy dancehall stylings before ending with the classic lines, “Manhattan keeps on making it / Brooklyn keeps on taking it / Bronx keeps creating it / And Queens keeps on faking it!”
KRS gets into the meat with his second verse, tearing into Shan, Marley Marl, Mr. Magic, and the entire Juice Crew. He rhymes in the fairly famous sequence, “I finally figured it out, Magic‘s mouth is used for sucking / Roxanne Shante is only good for steady fucking / MC Shan and Marley Marl is really only bluffing / Like Doug E. Fresh say, ‘I tell you now, you ain’t nothing’ / Compared to Red Alert on KISS and Boogie Down Productions.”
“The Bridge is Over” pretty much put an end to the KRS/Shan conflict, as Shan never bothered to respond. KRS and Shan “celebrated” the 10-year anniversary of the beef with a commemorative Sprite commercial. Recently, the two have somewhat revived the feud, albeit in a half-hearted way that hasn’t resulted in good music.
Another standout track on the album is “9mm Goes Bang.” It’s remained noteworthy for years after its release if for no other reason than it’s about as close to a gangsta rap song as BDP and KRS-One ever recorded. Subject matter wise, it’s as straightforward as any track by Ice-T or Schooly-D, as KRS bucks down the ill-fated Peter after Peter was stupid enough to accuse him of stealing his girl. Later, Peter’s crew tries to ambush KRS while he’s in his stash house, but KRS turns the tables and kills them all with the help of his trusty 9mm. “9mm” is the first track on Criminal Minded to showcase their heavy dancehall/reggae influence. The song is pretty much a dancehall track with some rap elements in its musical lyrical delivery, backing, and feel. KRS was admittedly a huge reggae/dancehall fan, and he rhymes the track and chorus using a reasonably heavy Jamaican patois, at times borrowing lines and rhyme schemes from Supercat’s “Heavy.” Heard in a current context, it’s still a bit striking to hear the man who would become the teacher rhyming about selling weed and blasting enemies with reckless abandon, but it’s keeping with many an ’80s rude boy dancehall anthem. The beat, with its low rumbling bass and harsh kicks, definitely evokes other dancehall hits of the time.
The “P is Free” remix is another dancehall-influenced track featured on the album. The original version, released as the B-side to the “South Bronx” single, features KRS again using patois stylings over a live beat box by a 16-year-old Derrick “D-Nice” Jones, who would eventually become a more prominent member of the group. For Criminal Minded, Scott La Rock and Ced Gee remixed the track, now incorporating the stuttering dancehall riddim used on Michigan and Smiley’s “Dangerous Diseases” and Yellowman’s “Zungguzungguguzung Guzeng,” layering it with extra reverb. KRS-One uses the track to rap about New York’s crack epidemic, specifically women trading sex for money to purchase crack, because, as the chorus states, “The girlies are free, but the crack costs monnnneeeeeeyyyyyy.”
The middle portion of the album features three songs devoted to showcasing KRS’s lyrical ability: “Word from Our Sponsor,” “Elementary,” and “Dope Beat.” “Word from Our Sponsor” is the most stripped-down and simple track of the three, featuring KRS using his intricate rhyme styles and flows over a solid bassline and drum track taken from Edwin Starr’s “I Just Wanna Do My Thing.” It’s one of the few tracks where KRS shows flashes of the lyrical teacher/educator that he would become, with rhymes like, “Cool, like the air we breathe / Inhale, exhale, perpetrators will fail / As sure as my name is Blastmaster KRS / Sit and listen to the very essence of this tale / From the days of prison I have uprisen / To my family members I'm marked down as missing.”
Meanwhile, KRS uses “Elementary” to scold emcees and crews for being repetitive and predictable on the microphone, leading off the song with, “I hear the same old rhyme, the same old style / The same old runner has ran the mile / See I don't know exactly what you know / But what I know is that stuff gotta go / Usually when I pick up the mic / Something ill jumps out my mouth for that night / I like to talk about fact not fiction / I got some fantasy rhymes, but just listen.” The beat features pulsating drums and low end, coupled with a filtered and chopped horn track, bolstered by Scott La Rock’s scratches. The song also features what is likely the first time KRS-One explicitly spelled out the meaning behind his name: Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.
“Dope Beat” is a song that would never be recorded again today, due to the simple fact that the dope beat in question is a four-bar loop of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” The song itself is very much in the vein of rap-rock hybrids created by Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. And as much as the songs by those artists are great, neither of those groups had the verbal dexterity of a young KRS. He raps, “Cooling out and easy going cause the money be flowing / 6’4”, brown eyes, and I’m always showing / Stupid emcees on the mic the way it’s supposed to be done / They study rhymes all week but I be rhyming for fun / When they lose they get upset, always pulling a gun / But they must snap out of that because I’m KRS-One / Not two, not three, but O-N-E / Get it right the first time I won’t repeat this rhyme.”
“Super Hoe” is another track that doesn’t fit into the notion of a traditional BDP track. The track serves as KRS’ goof on Scott La Rock’s many sexual conquests. KRS later said that he and Scott were in many ways polar opposites at the time, him a shy teenager and Scott a player’s player. The song, set to the tune of Esther Williams’ “Last Night Changed It All,” and incorporating vocals from Captain Sky’s “Super Sporm,” is basically KRS playfully ragging on Scott for over five minutes.
Criminal Minded draws to a close with the title track, one of the best overall tracks on the album. Over a beat built around Trouble Funk’s “Let’s Get Small” and Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes,” KRS again constructs a masterful lyrical exhibition, further laying the groundwork for what became a legendary career as an emcee. He raps, “You’re a king, I’m a teacher / You’re a b-boy, I’m a scholar / If this was a class, well it would go right under drama / See kings lose crowns but teachers stay intelligent / Talking big words on the mic, but still irrelevant.”
Criminal Minded succeeded in setting the stage for what would become a legendary career for KRS and for BDP as a whole. For the next decade, from 1988’s By All Means Necessary to 1997’s I Got Next, KRS would create a nearly incomparable musical catalogue, first as a member of BDP and then as a solo artist. The run of six BDP albums, from Criminal Minded to 1992’s Sex and Violence, also remains a singular achievement in hip-hop.
Tragically, Scott La Rock wasn’t around to help BDP create its enduring legacy. He died tragically in 1987 just as the group began recording their second album. While attempting to defuse a dangerous situation involving crew member D-Nice and a pair of other South Bronx youths, he was shot in the head while sitting in his jeep.
Through BDP’s existence, and even after it ceased to be, KRS-One has persevered, becoming one of the most iconic emcees to ever touch a microphone. Thirty years after releasing Criminal Minded, KRS is one of the few emcees that can truly say he’s just about done it all. In a business where artists rarely get second acts, KRS-One has had three, maybe four. But as his career and stature have grown over the years, KRS has always built upon the rock solid foundation of Criminal Minded.