Oct 5, 2008 - 4:12 PM
Now this is what I'm talking about: bring the live energy to hip-hop, honor it as a political force and social movement, but allow the shows and flows to be fun, leaving the pompous “only conscious” requirement at the door, the Suicide Door. Remember what it's all about, stating the problems, uniting and informing the community, but keeping in mind that wilin' out and letting loose was always the feeling behind the message, too. Nas said the death of hip-hop is here. Maybe he should check The Hip Hop Live Tour formula to be sure.
This is the second run of The Hip Hop Live Tour which goes like this: 1) Find a tight live band to hold it down with the roots of the music—the 808 bass and drum sound, the funk, the soul—and throw in some Puerto Rican Salsa with champion style reggae flavor. That's the 10-piece Rhythm Roots All-Stars from Los Angeles, this and last year’s go to. 2) Bring the live MCs to do their thing backed by the heavyweight players.
For me, live elements take the performance to another level. This year's tour has Little Brother, David Banner—who was insane (more on him later)—and Talib Kweli in the maestro spots. Honestly, every set of the night was solid and entertaining. At moments, feeling the thoughtful and party rockin’-in-the-know lyricism to the throw-your-hands-up-ecstasy and body shaking, I was like, “Where the hell have I've been? This is the deeeal!”
After Rhythm Roots All-Stars rocked a three-song warm-up showcasing their depth and scope, Little Brother walked out on stage all Double Windsor duded up, looking like they'd just come from a frat alumni dinner or something. They later said they put on their “preacher clothes” for the Bay Area audience, who've showed them love from early on. Little Brother member Big Pooh confidently weaved the hooks and verses while Phonte came with the booming gospel, soul-inspired harmonies. Their slot was short yet all quality.
Next on deck, Mississippi's own David Banner. This man is a show man! I could see it in the eyes of the band before he jumped out that he would bring the fire. Banner came to the mic, proclaiming: “I promise to give you the best show of your mutha fuckin' life.” He continued to run around the stage with his hype man, giving bugged-out eyes and chaotically bobbing, flinging his arms in every direction without even a solid beat yet, pumping up the crowd to get into the set and then signaled for the band to drop out of their battle call prelude. The first song hadn't even started and I was sweating!
In a quiet and menacing voice he then goes, “Did y'all see Palin fuck up tonight?” referring to that day’s earlier vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. I was thinking he might wax political because thinking back to the first interview I'd heard with Banner, he was spouting about how the Electoral College should be replaced. He continued, “She fucked up and this is the most important time. I'm not goin’ to tell you who to vote for or nothin' (he then clearly coughed "Obama") but man, during Vietnam you could feel it in the music then. I'm not feelin' that now!”
He then roared into the crushing “Suicide Doors,” from his latest album The Greatest Story Ever Told. The crowd went nuts as Banner and co. seemed to leap from one side of the stage to the next, head banging to what could sound like a Metallica circa early 90's track but were actually his heavy beats fortified by the drummer and percussionist’s hard hitting and turntablist’s frenetic scratching. He then jumped in the crowd (one of at least five times throughout the night). His shirt was ripped by the end of “Suicide Doors.” The whole place was fired up.
And that was the story for Banner's set: relentless energy and hype delivery spliced in with social and political commentary between his verbal and physical odes to the female form. At one point during the song “Get Down Like a Pimp,” he ran around the Ballroom's balcony, grabbing a quasi-willing girl to freak with, after an instant of negotiating her hesitation, they hard freaked with half of Banner's body actually hanging over the 20-foot drop. At another moment he stayed in the crowd for the better part of a song to slam dance with anyone who wanted to, rallying his tribe.
Once back on stage, he said, “Man, fuck the bling cars. I'm about to get me a hybrid, fuck that!” Later he gave shout-outs to all the Latino, Black, Arab and Asian people in the house. When the largest response came after he mentioned Asians, he said, “Aww yeah, I'm gonna sell a lot of merchandise tonight—just joking.” He then said he wanted to give some love to all the white folks “cause they give me love.” (At this point I'm reminded of a Katt Williams Pimp Chronicles sketch.) The band then broke into a shortened version of Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” chanting "whiite pee-ople whiite pee-ople!" Banner has a knack for jester-like absurd comedy.
Banner later told me he wants people to make his show whatever they want for them. “Define it for you, be spiritual, be with God and let it go.” I like David Banner because he's like: be serious, be spiritual, have fun, and mock all that seriousness—oh yeah, and wig out. Brilliant. I felt like I was at the circus, and loving it.
Now, I'm not dissing Talib Kweli (except by not giving him much space here—sorry!), he was solid all the way, keeping all the people into it, dancing and singing with his and Blackstar's favorites and paying mad respect to Bay Area hip-hop. Kweli comes off extremely at home in the live band context, if a bit too laid back to follow the Banner explosion.
I wouldn't miss this show, especially if you have even considered that hip-hop could be or had been dead.
Ian Thomas is a San Francisco-based freelance reporter, videographer and lover of concrete jungles and frequently retreats from them.
Stephen Morrison is a freelance contributor to Oh Dang!