Cadence Hip Hop Series w/ P.O.S. & Big Zach of Kanser
October 28, 2010
Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis
Thursday at the Guthrie things were busier than usual. "It's not too often that we've got a big play and a rap show," I overheard from near the box office, while Guthrie staff sold the last few tickets available for each to hoodie-wearing hip hop heads and suit-clad theatre aficionados alike. From the start it was clear that this wasn't an ordinary night.
[jump] The Dowling Studio is a great space to create. It's a black box of a room with great sound perched atop one of the most fascinating and artistically influential buildings in the Cities, a room that seems purpose-built to allow artists to open their vision up to an intimately-close audience. The stage was set low and centered in the back of the room and the big doors were wide open, allowing a free flow between the studio and the iconic "yellow room" lobby. It was a unique experience seeing the night-lit city and dark Mississippi River flowing under the bright Stone Arch in full panorama while experiencing live music a room away. Quite worth the escalator-and-elevator shuffle required to reach the space.
When I arrived the crowd was packed in close, visibly enjoying Big Zach's introspective and energetic opening set. Zach's performance of "Footsteps" was particularly poignant, leading into more energetic material that saw beat-boxing partner and More Than Lights bandmate Josh "Jellyfish" Holmgren strap on a saxophone for some funk-tinged grooves. As the opening set wound down the crowd was well-primed for a serious rap show.
After a brief break, Dessa came on to introduce P.O.S. with a story about his fateful Ford Fiesta and encouraging "lunch table beats" that got her interested in moving from spoken word to rap. Her spoken word piece about marrying Dave Eggers got some snickers and laughs from the crowd, as intended, even if many in the crowd weren't familiar with Eggers' work or the tongue-in-cheek jokes sprinkled throughout. The crowd was rapt with attention and fully attuned, thanks to Dessa's delivery and the studio's enveloping embrace.
With the intimacy of the venue in full effect, P.O.S. took the stage with a somber look on his face.
"Hey everyone. How was your day?"
[crowd responds timidly]
"Yeah. Mine was terrible. One of the worst days ever. I just got back from the wake of a good friend of mine."
With that, the event transformed from a rap show into a living-room scene with hundreds of supportive friends. The crowd nodded silently, interspersed with some shouting out words of support and love.
"So I'm just gonna hit some buttons, that cool? It just doesn't feel right to perform a big rap show tonight. You know? I'm gonna play some new stuff too so please put your cameras away, I don't want to see any unfinished stuff on YouTube..."
As he talked to the crowd, he became more and more emotional, culminating at a point where it seemed he was about to break down on stage, ranting sans microphone about being worried about the wrong things in life. In a feat of Herculean fortitude he held it together though, with tears streaming down his face, and turned to his groove box, sampler and laptop to cook up some minimal electronic beats on the fly. Words and smiles of encouragement from his long-time DJ partner, Plain Ole Bill, seemed to propel him along and encourage his creative jam session. As the minimal grooves built to a jaw-rattling crescendo he cut the bass lines out and let the groove drift away.
"I bet he's just gonna hit delete on that like he does on all of the stuff he makes in his living room," said Plain Ole Bill. "Yeah, that beat sucked," came the reply. Despite P.O.S.'s grim appraisal, the crowd roared it's approval and the smirk on his face betrayed the fact that he might just have enjoyed it more than he let on. With that, the duo launched into well-worn crowd favorites from his most recent album like "The Brave and the Snake" and "Never Better," and the crowd's immense response seemed to provide the fuel needed to carry through the difficult set.
The set was still off to a difficult start though. After a few mis-steps during the early songs, they returned to minimal bass-heavy beat-crafting experiments.
"You all don't have to stand there like this is something important," P.O.S. said. "Just start talking to the person next to you, it's ok. I'm just going to push some buttons. We've already gone way off format so yeah."
More electronic grooves flowed out of the P.A. and into the studio while the crowd slowly started conversations. Some in the all-ages crowd seemed unsure of what they were experiencing but most seemed genuinely happy to be experiencing a unique performance. After a particularly intense crescendo of bass, drums and synth stabs the crowd roared again.
"My next album's gonna be a straight rap record. A straight rap record with beats like that."
Again the crowd gave its direct approval for what they were hearing. And again it seemed that, through their applause, they were giving back a breath of life to an artist that had done the same for them through his music. The emotional presence was immense but what started out as heavy became lighter, almost jubilant as the night moved on. As his mom appeared side-stage, he introduced her to the crowd.
"Hey Mom, how long have you been here? Five minutes?"
Half-jokingly he asked if she had seen him crying on stage. Plain Ole Bill's air horn and "Get Cryphy" sample interjections in their conversation brought some levity at just the right moments, putting smiles on faces all over the room.
From this point, the set seemed to really coalesce as it moved to familiar territory with more crowd favorites like "Gimme Gimme Gunshots" and "Stand Up" called out on the fly, while "Goodbye" induced a near hysteria in parts of the audience. Maybe it was the intimacy of the venue or the intense exchange of emotions earlier in the set, but these well-worn songs felt like they carried a deeper resonance throughout the room. People were moved - and moving - by the time Dessa joined on stage for a few tracks including a terrific rendition of "Low Light Low Life".
As he tore through inspirational songs like "Optimist" he looked like a changed man. Either he was incredibly uplifted by the crowd's response or through sheer emotional fortitude he was able to push the sad facts of the moment back into the background and focus on the performance. Several times the crowd shouted out requests, some accepted but some rebuffed immediately including one that I didn't catch the title of which elicited a response that he "just doesn't feel like that about love anymore." "Duct Tape" and "De La Souls" were rejected because "they bring me down." Down or not, the explosively inspirational "Purexed" felt transcendent.
As the set wound down triumphantly, I felt a kind of relief wash over me. It was like watching a close friend go through a painful process that you knew they had to push through. The vast majority of the audience there last night, myself included, may not know Stef Alexander on a personal level, but after last night's performance I can say that we've all got his back.
Personal bias: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that songs like "Let it Rattle", "Music for Shoplifting" and "Purxed" powerfully inspired me to create and, in turn, change my own life.
The crowd: A mix of young hip hop heads, music fans in their 20's and 30's, an older audience of intense fans that knew the words better than the kids and bemused and incredibly friendly Guthrie staffers.
Overheard in the crowd: [one teenage kid to another] "You told me that his shows are crazy, like mosh pits and stuff." "Yeah, usually. Tonight was special though."
Reporter's notebook: "My son Jake had a show tonight I couldn't be there because of this. Hey Mom, how'd he do? That's great! So my son Jake's in a band, they were gonna play 'Surfin Bird'. You know the one, it goes 'umma umma mow mow, umma mow-mow mow-mow.'"
For more photos: See my full slideshow of shots from last night.