Hip Hop at the Fitz

first published on realbuzz.com

The crowd did not want to sit.
I think it’s safe to say that, for the most part, these were the Converse-and-thick-glasses-wearing
underground hip-hop fans more accustomed to the open floor space of
First Avenue than to the rigidly rowed seating chart of the Fitzgerald
Theater. So when Brother Ali came out to play his first set — "Truth
Is" and "Uncle Sam Goddamn" (the latter dedicated to Reverend
Wright) — grooving torsos mashed awkwardly against seat backs. Pretty
soon everyone stood up.

Intricate
and articulate, Brother Ali performed his typically political songs
to a sympathetic (that is, democratic) crowd. What’s nice about the
Fitzgerald is its acoustics are much better than most other venues,
and Ali’s lyrics tonight were especially fluent and clear. Several
times, BK-One, his dj, would stop the beat and just let Ali go a capella,
with no loss of musical richness.

Then
came Chuck D. (Of seminal rap group Public Enemy, for those who
don’t know.) The crowd sat down quickly, just so they could give him
a standing ovation. Which he quickly patted away, and then sat on the
black leather couch on stage discuss, with a local radio dj, his life
and career and car (a vintage ’95 that his daughter hates).

As
this is a review, I suppose I should to some extent critique Chuck D’s
performance. If he’d been rapping, I would say that he ‘rocked the
crowd.’ But as his portion of the night was limited to discourse,
all I can really say is that he was incredibly engaging, and enthusiastic.
("This is better than anything on TV," he kept saying, as much observer
as participant.)

"What
I always tried to do on tour," he said "was learn something about
the places I was playing. And not just before the show — it didn’t
stop there. I mean really talking with the people. So many rappers get
bummed out when they have to go places. They’ll say something like,
‘Aw man, I have to play this show in Topeka, Kansas.’ And that’s
the wrong attitude. You can’t act like you’re better than your fans.
People in Topeka know damn well they’re in Topeka. And they don’t
care you’re from New York, they just want you to put on a damn good
show."

Living
up to his credo, Mr. D made the evening incredibly personal, seasoning
his speech with Minnesota sports references. (On the current NBA playoffs:
"You guys should have no sympathy for the LA Lakers. They left you
a long-ass time ago." [They were originally the Minneapolis Lakers,
way back when.]) There were no notecards, or even any stuttering;
meaning, there was no feeling that Chuck D. was trying to pander. His
tone the entire night was genuine. At intermission he got off the couch,
and sat with his legs hanging off the lip of the stage, signing autographs
and posing for pictures.

After
the break, Slug, of Atmosphere, came onstage and played an acoustic
set from his new album, If Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit
Gold
, which comes out this week. (For the uninitiated, Slug basically
has hero status in Minneapolis.) His performance was basically ‘Slug
Unplugged.’ I’ve seen him concert probably ten or so times, maybe
more, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard him sing. His choruses
consisted of melodic scat, and Slug, a bit surprisingly, nailed them.

It
was also the first time I’ve seen him with a little bit of stage fright.
A notorious egomaniac (sorry, sir), there was a catch in his voice to
whole night, as when a 7th grade boy calls the girl he has
a crush on for the first time, and ends up having to talk to her parents.
In fact, Brother Ali was the same way. It seems the presence of a pioneer
like Chuck D injected a bit of humility into the rappers who brag so
often of sleeping with your girlfriend.

And maybe because of this timidity, Slug’s performance suffered a
little. His posture was slouched (he was sitting down, which is unusual),
his hand gestures were nervous. Strange, but he sounded best when he
was humming-or-whatever the choruses, as opposed to rapping, which on
any other night would be his strength. (Maybe it had nothing to do with
Chuck D. Maybe it’s because this was on the first night of the Jewish
holiday Passover, which asks, "Why is this night different from all
other nights?" The answer this evening being, ego gave way to introspection.)

Another
discussion session with Chuck D and Slug ensued, equally entertaining
as the first. What may sum it up best is to say that Chuck D, front
man of Public Enemy, political activist, dour Knicks fan, at several
moments of the show, leaned back and giggled.

5 stars*****