Happy 30th Anniversary to Boogie Down Productions’ third studio album Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop, originally released June 28, 1989.
You can imagine a scenario where the Boogie Down Productions crew followed a different path on the heels of By All Means Necessary (1988). In this alternate world, BDP looked at the success of their sophomore album and decided to move in a more commercial direction. Maybe they wouldn’t go full-on pop, because that would have been too jarring, but they might have recorded a few more club friendly songs. They wouldn’t have completely eschewed their socially conscious message, but maybe they would have toned down their rhetoric a bit. They wouldn’t be quite as inflammatory. Or maybe just provocative in a more palatable manner. Maybe they would have gone back into the more “gangsta” elements that the crew dabbled with on their debut album Criminal Minded (1987). But they surely wouldn’t have recorded an album like Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop, released 30 years ago.
Ghetto Music was a bold move on the part of the BDP crew, led by Lawrence “KRS-One” Parker and comprised of an expanding roster of emcees, vocalists, DJs, and producers. This time around, that lineup included their still teenage DJ Derrick “D-Nice” Jones, Ramona “Ms. Melodie” Scott (married to KRS at the time), and others including but not limited to Robocop, D-Square, Harmony, and Willie D. The album was released barely a year after By All Means Necessary and was a musical recommitment to the group’s core values.
As the album’s liner notes read, “Because of the present influx of platinum-starved artists on the rap scene, Boogie Down Productions has found it necessary to put out a record free from platinum attachments and very much close to intellectual attachments. In order to achieve such a goal, we’ve found it again necessary to return to our roots—The Ghetto—to insure purity, talent, and intelligence often lost in trying to keep up with the Joneses.”
Those weren’t just words. BDP followed that mission statement to the letter on Ghetto Music. It’s an ambitious undertaking and a considerably less commercial undertaking than By All Means Necessary. It deals with themes that might sound didactic on paper, but KRS and crew pull them off with complete ease and talent. And sticking to their principles paid off, as Ghetto Music, like By All Means Necessary before it, was certified Gold.
While BDP sought to define what hip-hop culture was on By All Means Necessary, they’re concerned with its preservation on Ghetto Music. KRS frequently decries the “soft commercial sound” that he saw creeping into the music. We were still a little under a year away from the Vanilla Ices and Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Ems of the world, but rap music was certainly continuing to grow in popularity by the time the decade was drawing to a close. In response, KRS attempted to further establish himself and the BDP crew as the vanguards of that “underground, that raw ghetto sound from which rap music was found,” which was built upon “slamming lyrics and beats unquestionable.”
KRS lays out the crew’s philosophy across both of the album’s title tracks. Though it’s tucked away toward the end, “Ghetto Music” represents the best summation of BDP’s guiding principles. Furthermore, though KRS strives to create music tailored to the denizens of the ghetto, he takes the extra step and acknowledges that there’s a place for commercial rap in the world. This is a view that many a red-blooded anti-pop solider (which includes KRS himself) often never bothered to recognize. Regardless of KRS’ acceptance that there will always be rappers and crews striving for commercial appeal, he does establish his belief that artists need to learn where they “fit” along the spectrum. KRS is perfectly clear on his and BDP’s position, asserting “the purpose of a rhyme is to strengthen and uplift the mind.”
KRS and BDP are decidedly more forceful on “The Blueprint,” both lyrically and musically. The crew takes a sample of the drums and introductory piano riff from Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ooh I Like You’re Loving” and transforms it into a rugged statement of purpose. KRS states BDP’s unyielding oath to create hardcore hip-hop, promising to wax any emcee or rival crew in their way. KRS brags about BDP’s success, reminding the audience that “we didn't do it with the soft commercial sound / Try the ghetto, cause I refuse to let go.” He later further attests to his dopeness as an emcee, declaring that his deftness on the mic “comes from years of practice / Anti-slackness anti-wackness / Throw on the glasses and teach the masses / Very simple the question I ask is / How many emcees must get stomped / Before somebody says Kris has no comp?”
Another impetus behind Ghetto Music is to continue to establish BDP’s roles as educators. KRS further expands his objectives, positioning himself not just a teacher of the tenets and values of hip-hop culture, but also global history. Specifically, KRS attempts to provide lessons that schools wouldn’t teach you, specifically when it came to the upliftment of the Black population and culture.
“Why Is That?” is likely one of the first hip-hop songs of its kind recorded and was considered legendary at the time. The central premise of the track is that African-American children are being misled by the American school system and not being taught their “real” history. As an example of demonstrating what’s not being taught, KRS outlines, in detail, why Moses of the Bible was Black. KRS extensively sites Biblical scripture to back up his central thesis, as well as geographical knowledge of the region. The song was a segment of a broader part of KRS’s beliefs, where the mainstream institutions in the United States were historically set on keeping its Black population subservient; one of these ways was by portraying all prominent religious figures as white. Proclaiming that Moses was Black was a revolutionary idea three decades ago, and one met with considerable resistance.
KRS continues to confront the educational system in the U.S. with the album’s second single, “You Must Learn.” Again, the premise of the song is that schools have not taught Black children about the accomplishments of prominent African-Americans, and thus raise a population that is ignorant of its culture. He name-checks prominent Black inventors, scientists, educators, and revolutionaries like Benjamin Bannaker, Charles Drew, Garrett Morgan, Madame CJ Walker, and Harriet Tubman. The song’s “Live From the Caucus Mountains” remix, which was recorded to sound like an out-in-the-park performance, features a third verse in which KRS breaks down how the concept of “race” was created and how it has been used for centuries to separate people across the globe and justify racism and genocide.
Much of the album’s production has a decided dancehall/reggae feel to it. BDP’s music has always been influenced by Caribbean musical stylings, from “P is Free,” “9mm Goes Bang,” and “T’Cha.” Here, the Jamaican influence is even more prevalent, with large chunks of the album’s sound heavily using either reggae samples or dancehall riddims.
BDP chose to sample the JB’s-esque guitar riddim of the Brentwood All-Stars “Greedy G” for “Jack of Spades.” The track was recorded as theme music for the faux Blaxploitation film I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (“Every good hero should have some”), and included here on Ghetto Music. KRS follows the time honored-tradition of loosely breaking down the film’s plot through his verses. He makes the movie sound much more serious than ever intended.
The crew utilizes reggae soundscapes on some of the more radical tracks on the album. The deceptively bouncy “Who Protects Us From You?” is KRS’ targeted salvo against crooked police officers who present clear threats to the Black communities that they serve. The horn-heavy “Bo! Bo! Bo!” also features KRS confronting abuse by the police, but in a decidedly more direct and violent manner. KRS details “the only way to deal with racism if you’re Black” by getting into a deadly confrontation with bigoted police officers, who initially assault him. The tracks allow KRS to express his frustration with a police force that views the Black population that they are supposed to serve as enemies. Hence, while being “in too deep with this everyday ghetto pain,” at times the only solution seems to be smash the offending officer in the throat with a bottle of Snapple or blowing him and his compatriots up with a well-placed grenade.
At times throughout album, KRS takes the time to remind the audience how dope he is. “Breath Control” is an exercise in flow, cadence, and well, breath control, as KRS unleashes a stream of complex and interconnecting phrases and rhymes, such as “Sit in the class and ask real fast about a fresh rap / You’re getting left back, set back, kept back / Get back, I don't accept that material / Your rhymes are artificially flavored like cereal.” The beat is made up of D-Nice’s beat-boxing, as well as filtered jazz horns, modified to sound as if they were emanating from a live speaker system, feedback and all.
The greatest overall lyrical performance of KRS’s career may still be “My Philosophy,” but for my money, the best single verse he ever kicked is his first offering on “Gimme Dat (Woy).” The oft-overlooked album cut is Ghetto Music’s pinnacle, and sits comfortably among the top five tracks that BDP and KRS ever recorded. Over a loop of Redd Holt Unlimited’s version of “I Shot the Sherriff” (more reggae influence), KRS asserts his dominance in a commanding conversational tone. He raps, “Offbeat, got you out your seat / When I created the style, they studied every single week / Now you come in my face like you’re ruling? / But I’m a teacher boy, who you fooling?!”
Blueprint ends with the soulful “World Peace,” another of the project’s conscious tracks. The song is centered around a theme that KRS echoes throughout the album: that for love to prevail, “peace must attack.” KRS preaches that if people are going to be serious about pursuing peace and ending global conflicts, they cannot be passive. He advocates for the aggressive pursuit of peace, and warns that we must change how we perceive concepts like strength and love. The song also features extensive live instrumentation, which occasionally makes the song sound overwrought, but KRS’ sincerity carries the day.
This is the fourth tribute that I’ve written about an album by BDP or KRS-One. In each, I make sure to mention KRS’ complete and continued commitment to the preservation of hip-hop culture. One of the more annoying trends that I’ve observed throughout the ’00s is the outright dismissal of this goal, with more and more hip-hop artists emphasizing getting money, fame, and props by all means necessary. But whenever I hear BDP’s unwavering support of remaining true to hip-hop’s essence, it’s always inspiring.
It’s admirable to hear an album that’s so fiercely uncompromising in its principles. BDP always made sure that they stood for something, and thus the messages on Ghetto Music remain just as vital three decades after its release.