KRS-One is an icon. As the leader of Boogie Down Productions, he delivered some of the seminal moments of hip hop history. But the rapper has also worked outside of the genre, collaborating with R.E.M. on one special track.
R.E.M.’s contribution to the cultural landscape of the 1990s should not be underestimated. Alongside the rest of the band, Michael Stipe’s confusing yet contagious lyrics and penchant for artistic prowess made the Athens, Georgia, performers become kings of the alt-pop world. None more so is that felt than on their seminal 1991 album Out of Time.
The album would become a global sensation, efficiently charting itself as one of the band’s most outstanding recording achievements. While most of the attention for the record landed on the quite stupefyingly fantastic ‘Losing My Religion’, the album also contained an unusual collaboration between the band and a legend of hip hop; KRS-One.
Also on the album was another banger from the band’s discography, the much-beloved and derided ‘Shiny Happy People’ and ‘Near Wild Heaven’, both of which mean the shine for the album’s opening song has lost a little bit of its sparkle over the years. However, few artists, especially alt-pop, rock and country artists, can claim to have genuine hip hop royalty on their record, as R.E.M. dd for their opening number ‘Radio Song’.
The song isn’t necessarily the most serious composition fro the band, with Stipe once gently suggesting the track’s pastiche quality, saying once he hoped that the world’s sense of humour was good enough to realise that he was “kind of taking the piss out of everyone.” Whichever way you cut it, using KRS-One — who at this time was merely the leader of Boogie Down Productions — was a genius move for the group.
Peter Buck explained the song’s creation to Guitar School back in 1991: “When we wrote it out, we only had acoustic guitar, bongos, bass, organ, and a 12-string over the chorus. When we got to the studio we added drums, and I put down some funk guitars and we thought, ‘Well, gee, now it’s kind of a funk song.’ And Michael suggested bringing in K.R.S., since he’d worked with him before (KRS-One appeared in a public service announcement for Stipe’s C-Hundred film production company). It blows people’s mind, and gets them thinking, ‘Whoa, what’s the rest of the record going to be like?’ But then we go into ‘Losing My Religion,’ which is probably the most typical R.E.M.-sounding song on the record.”
KRS-One was initially intended to only provide backing vocals for the song but soon found inspiration and penned the final rap verse. The song sticks out on the album not only for the rapper’s inclusion but because it is far more preened than the rest of the LP The recording process, until this point, had seen the band play straight through and commit any mistakes to tape, but not for ‘Radio Song’: “We had cut it in E, but changed it to F. When Michael started singing it, he said, ‘Man, I don’t know what it is, but I can’t get the tension I need.’ I suggested F sharp, which was too high, then we tried F, which was perfect because there were certain places his voice needed to be on that song.”
It was unusual for such an icon of hip hop to jump on an alt-rock song; you’d have to look back to Aerosmith and Run-DMC for such a flagrant crossover. However, if there was one band to provide such a heady cocktail of influences and genres, then R.E.M. are just the band.