Better Than: Looking silly at the club trying to learn the latest incarnation of that Soulja Boy dance.
The Legend and the Heir Apparent: Rakim and Brother Ali.
In no other genre of music is patricide more prevalent than it is in hip hop. Showing some wrinkles (and perhaps manifesting its most serious mid-life crisis--why else have we suddenly become enamored with teeny bopper rap muzak?), rap needs an antidote to the business-driven, calculating, and computerized sound output now becoming the norm. Enter Hip Hop Live, an intergenerational celebration of classic artists and their art.
Performers included Brother Ali, our devoted hometown hero and one of the premier artists of the future; Ghostface Killah, who is fast solidifying his place as one of the most consistent and engaging rappers of all time; and Rakim, a known legend who still rocks a crowd with the effortless swagger of a god MC, all backed by the ten piece funk/jam/Latin band Rhythm Roots All Stars.
As First Ave slowly filled to sardine status and the band opened with a passionate infusion of energy and cohesion, the concert quickly became one big party, a celebration of the first time we heard Paid in Full or "Proteck Ya Neck." And though nostalgic (the crowd was decidedly older than normal, with plenty of dusted off Kangols and grey hair), the live format did what it was supposed to, effectively reinterpreting our favorite records, rather than just being a pale facsimile of them. Indeed, all three lyricists seemed infused by the energy of frequent change-ups in tempo and style, giving the appreciative crowd not only the standards, but also frequent personal asides, history lessons, and thanks for being so live.
Of course Ali tore it down, garnering an encore as fans both old and older gave it up while his seven-year-old son stood bobbing his head stage right. Ghostface brought his Theodore Unit on stage (nine deep), but fortunately the visual clutter didn't interfere with his performance, as he rolled through over a decade's worth of classics. The live band, with its horns and bongos, encouraged the Killah's soulful side, which--despite him being tone deaf and unable to hit any high notes--was still a treat to witness.
Finally, the living legend came through as he always does, with the charisma and energy of an MC half his age. The only man onstage with a mic, his laidback vibe was intimate and warm, leaving the job of finishing indelible lines to the Rakim fanatics liberally sprinkled throughout the venue. In sum, the key tonight was the human contact and interaction that can only come with real instruments and vocalists, nearly forgotten in an age of club hits and DATs. I guess you don't have to be under the legal drinking age to rock the crowd after all.
Critic's Notebook Personal Bias: I was one of the aforementioned fanatics finishing every rhyme for Rakim and singing my off-key ass off to each of Ghost's tortured wails.
Random Detail: After being nearly kicked out for sleeping in the corner before the music began (official policy), I have to ask: is the concern for patron safety, or that everyone will follow suit and steal a few winks on the dance floor?
By the way: The phrase "real hip hop" was bandied about all night, an indefinable trait which I agree is an adequate descriptor for the show. Although the ironies of describing a live band-formatted show as such, in an art form conceived using records, only to be later exploited by record labels that cut DJs in favor of cheaper in-house bands, before once again becoming sample-based, is nonetheless palpable.