August 23, 2010

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Photos by Henry Choi

The jokes are obvious. Gerontollapalooza was my best attempt. Nor are they necessarily unwarranted. When the only 80s baby on the bill is Wiz Khalifa, it doesn’t inspire confidence in the temperature of hip-hop. Had Guerilla Union wanted to they could’ve assembled a powerhouse undercard of Gibbs, Pill, Danny Brown, Blu, Nocando, Knux, Curren$y, the Walking Fiasco, et. al. But other than arguably Lupe, none of those guys can coax 500 people to fork over $75.  Economic realities will always dictate a reliance on those with cult followings, which explains why Jedi Mind Tricks and Immortal Technique continue to enjoy the finest in craft services.

I wasn’t looking forward to Rock the Bells. San Bernardino’s NOS Events Center is an asphalt wasteland, an hour away, marred by $12.50 beer prices, traffic snarls, and an air quality that resembles an industrial pocket of Beijing. Jeff Miller insightfully catalogued the event’s flaws at the OC Register. Plus, the prospect of seeing past-their-prime artists relive old glories promised to tar teenage memories and cause heat stroke. Ian Cohen cracked that I should play drink a beer every time they ask you to put your hands in the air if you love “real hip-hop.” Try not to die of alcohol poisoning.”  Had I been able to handle the psychic ramifications of spending $100 on beer,  I probably would’ve taken him up on it.

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But I would’ve stayed sober. Not once did I hear that lame and tedious wedge issue. Someone probably said it somewhere (I mean, Immortal Technique played), but for the first time since college, I attended a big hip-hop show and didn’t want to duck out early. There were no stupid shouted shibboleths pitting real hip-hop vs. fake, no dogma about how the 90s WERE THE BEST (they obviously were), or any insecure defenses about how hip-hop isn’t dead. For the first time, “hip-hop” chilled the fuck out and let itself have fun.

You know times have changed when Rick Ross’ “B.M.F.” is being played as interstitial music between sets. You know you’re in a different era when he’s getting cheers. People rapped along to everything from Drake (I know), to Naughty by Nature. Before Snoop’s set, we heard Gap Band, P-Funk. Rose Royce, Tom Tom Club and Tony! Toni! Tone!. It reflected something deeper than an arbitrary selection, it marked an increased confidence and security. It was the sort of thing that instilled hope that one day once-hermetic hip hop heads would remember that Digital Underground and Salt N’ Pepa actually existed.

Snoop was revelatory. No really.  The full review is at the LA Times. The short is that he rapped better than anytime since the Murder was the Case soundtrack. The lazy sing-song flow he’s kicked for the last decade was revealed as his version of “dumbing down, so they all yell holler.” The All Tomorrow Parties’-esque renditions of Midnight Marauders,  Enter the 36 Chambers, and Doggystyle threatened to feature bloated and off-key rappers bellowing scarcely remembered hits. Enter the 36 Chambers as performed by a bunch of guys older than 36. The jokes really are easy.

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But the reality was quite different. Snoop went Hollywood the right way–adapting his natural theatricality and understanding of visual media to his stage show. Whereas someone like Kanye thinks the only way to impress is by bombast and LASERS YO, Snoop created mini-movies depicting himself as a blaxploition-style pimp– blowing rivals away with hand guns, seducing femme fatales, bringing the “Doggy Dogg World” video to life. RBX, Tha Dogg Pound, the Lady of Rage, and Warren G were similarly well-rehearsed and brought a surprising focus.

Snoop played the role to the hilt–rocking the Jaromir Jagr jersey, the braids, the shades, the khakis. 40 bottles lined up on-stage, smoking blunts. He even had video renditions of the WBallz radio skits. Half of the crowd dipped into Junior High nostalgia and the indelible memories of the first time they heard these songs–while the 90s babies stood and soaked up game, shocked that Uncle Snoop had once been so cold. It was a beautiful thing. Thousands of people bound by a mutual love of music, G-Funk, and the idea that it ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none.

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The other highlight was Tribe, who made up for the fact that Low End Theory was the obvious album to play.  It was my third time seeing Tip and Phife post-reunion and it was easily the best. Maybe it has something to do with the Abstract finally having a solo career to speak of, relieving him from a fate of catering to the County Fair crowd. They scatted, stood on the risers, completed each other’s rhymes, traded bars effortlessly. It was clinical perfection, an unfuckwithable greatest hits sets culminating in a surprise cameo from Busta Rhymes, who ripped through “Scenario” like George “The Animal” Steele to a turnbuckle.

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The Clan turned in a professional, energetic, but unspectacular performance. Everyone appeared, even  ODB’s son doing a sad but sweet impersonation of the old man. Considering the cinematic overtones of their work, they should have done better. Snoop slammed them, and even though they brought out Reggie Noble for a cameo, you would’ve been better served playing Enter the 36 Chambers at home, with air-conditioning, a lounge chair, and an eighth to incinerate (word to Disco Vietnam).

Naturally, the mercurial L-Boogie drew the questions. Was she going to melt down? Do some fauxhemian acoustic guitar tangent and start talking about whatever god she’s currently advocating for. After all, she’s taken on the pretension of adding a Ms. in front of her name. Judging from her past, I suspect she is merely one step away from preceding it with a “lady.” But she was neither success nor spectacle. She rocked with an 11-piece band and lived up to her diva rep, striding off-stage and exhorting the crowd to give her a bigger reception. She didn’t deserve it. Lauryn proved that she can still rap better than anyone without a Y chromosome (excluding maybe Lyte). She’s still got the capability to do rapid-fire double-timed raps, and then blast off with a monstrously soulful roar.

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But the mood was flat — the audience only went wild when she read from the dusty Fugees songbook” “Fugee-La” and “Ready or Not.”  The sound was often muddy, her flow often chaotic, and the mood predictably unbalanced. The gifts are still there and maybe by the end of the tour, she’ll regain her footing–provided she understands that normal people don’t wear exclusively moccasins. It’s nice to know she’s back. Now that Wyclef’s candidacy to save the world has been as roundly rejected as prior restraint, maybe they’ll record that long-promised Fugees album. I’m sure Pras is free.

Download:
MP3: LL Cool J-“Rock the Bells”

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