On an icy cold night, the white stretch limousine glides through lower Manhattan. Outside its windows, homeless men huddle around the hearth of a burning garbage can, staring at the long, sleek symbol of privilege as it cruises past. But the looks of resentment and envy are not lost on the limo’s passenger, Kris Parker, a 23-year-old rap star known to fans as KRS-ONE. Before the limo reaches its destination—the theater where his first movie, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, is set to premiere—Parker points to a man curled up on a steaming sidewalk grating. “I used to sleep there,” Parker says. “On nights like this it kept me warm.”
Now that he’s hot, Parker refuses to forget. “I know what it’s like on the other side,” says the musician whose gold album, By All Means Necessary, uses the bold rhythms and raw rhymes of rap and hip-hop to call for social justice. Just three years ago, he was a member of New York City’s ghostly army of homeless. Now he’s bypassing the trivial concerns of most rappers to write lyrics attacking racism and political corruption: “They create missiles while families eat gristle, then they get upset when the press blows the whistle.”
So he raps in Stop the Violence—a title that might confuse anyone casually looking through a record bin. The cover of Parker’s current LP, after all, features the performer carrying an Uzi pistol. Parker insists the weapon is a come-on for rap fans wary of “wimpy” educators. “The face of love is not always coming with a flower,” says Parker, who stands a distinctly unwimpy 6’4″. “We’re saying the face of peace has to be stronger than the face of war.”
He knows what it’s like to battle evil odds. Kris was born in Brooklyn, the elder son of real estate secretary Jacqueline Jones and handyman Sheffield Brown, an illegal alien who was deported in 1966. When Kris was 4, his mother married the man who gave her sons, Kris and Kenny, their last name—a United Nations bodyguard who, Kris says, quickly turned violent. “He would go to his shelf of many guns, take one out and put it to Mom’s head and say, ‘If you don’t shut your mouth, I’m going to shut it for you.’ He was going to kill himself or one of us. We left in 1972.”
Jacqueline struggled to keep her family together. “There was always food, but it was a strain on Mom,” says Parker. Though Jackie entered another relationship and gave birth to a daughter in 1975, the union ended when Kris was 11, and he has not seen his half-sister since.
It was about this time that he began etching his street name, KRS-ONE (for Kris—Number One), on city walls. Kris and Jackie began to quarrel. “All I wanted to do was rap music,” he admits. “My mother is an education fanatic. She didn’t want to hear of D’s.” An orphan herself, Jacqueline also feared that her boys would be left alone. “So from age 1, she taught us to think for ourselves and survive. By 13, I was grown.”
And out of the house. Frustrated at home and itching for adventure, Parker hit the streets before his 14th birthday. Though at first the life was fun—”It was summer, it was hot, and you just live”—he was soon devoured by a New York that closely resembled Dickens’ London. “Some horrifying things happen to the homeless,” says Parker. “When the subway slasher was around, my fear was that I’d wake up with no head.”
Too proud to panhandle, he learned to “eat by making deals. I’d mop floors, wash windows. When it snowed, that was the biggest money day of your life. You’d get a shovel and go. You could make $100.” When he wasn’t working, Parker sat reading in public libraries.
Winter months were spent in city shelters, some of which “treat you like you’re in jail—whip, whip, work, work,” he says. “When security guards break up a fight, they beat on both guys. You just have to look straight ahead—to save your own butt.” Still, he never thought of going home: “No one told me to leave, and I wasn’t going to go back whining. I was going to stick it out until I got what I wanted.”
He was 19, an urban castaway in a South Bronx men’s shelter, when he took his first firm step toward his goal. He met Scott Sterling, 22, a counselor at the shelter who worked part-time as a dance club deejay known as Scott La Rock. “Scott was the youngest social worker, and I was the youngest client,” Parker says. “When we met, we got into an argument about rap. Scott said, ‘Can you do better?’ ”
The pair began to record Parker’s raps. In 1987 they released their first album, Criminal Minded, on B-Boy Records, and were just about to sign with Warner Bros, when Sterling was killed—sprayed with bullets when he tried to mediate a dispute between two teens. “I couldn’t go to the hospital,” Parker says. “I always want to remember him alive.” When the record deal died with Sterling, Parker worked to resurrect it. “If I was to quit, Scott would really be dead,” he says.
Signed by RCA/Jive last year, Parker released By All Means Necessary in March. Married in July 1987 to rap singer Ms. Melody (real name: Ramona Scott), 20, Parker now lives with his wife in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with a doorman and private terrace. Parker’s mother, who hadn’t seen him since 1978 and had moved to Florida, spotted him on TV last fall and came to New York. “No one cried,” says Parker of the reunion. “It was like, ‘What’s up?’ It was me who wanted to leave. Me, me, me. There’s no anger.”
His mother, Kris says, “reads about the stock market and thinks I should invest.” But Parker is more concerned with keeping the common touch. These days he tells fans that KRS-ONE stands for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone”—a message his mother once battled to instill in him. “I want to show that there is hope for these kids,” he says after talking with a group of homeless children in New York City. “They see me and they think, ‘Wow, Kris could have slept right next to me. He’s no more intelligent than me. I can do it too.’ ”
—Steve Dougherty, and Sue Carswell in New York