Live: Cranky New York Rap Nostalgia Soldiers On

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Have you seen this man?

Redman + Raekwon + Supernatural + Smif-N-Wessun
BB King Blues Club
November 28, 2006

With all the huffing and puffing about New York rap, it's pretty funny that the Rock the Bells tour, maybe the biggest straight-up New York rap tour of the year, is an outgrowth of an annual festival in California. The tour is built completely around mid-90s New York street-rap, or, as a whole lot of people prefer to call it, "real hip-hop." Redman, Raekwon, and Smif-N-Wessun all performed at last night's New York show. Of those guys, Redman probably peaked most recently, somewhere around 1998. Smif-N-Wessun put out an indie album last year, but that was their first album since 1998. Redman and Raekwon released their most recent albums in 2001 and 2003, respectively. They aren't in retirement; all these guys constantly have projects in various stages of development, but they keep getting release-dates pushed back. They're part of rap's angry, disenfranchised legacy, the last guys standing or the first guys left behind, depending on who you ask. And that makes the Rock the Bells tour a sort of unwilling nostalgia revue, a show where the fans and the audience all share the idea that something has gone very, very wrong in rap. They aren't the only ones on the tour, either. A couple of nights before last night's BB King's show, I read somewhere online that Ghostface and EPMD and Pharoahe Monch had all been added to the tour, and I got all excited. I should've kept reading; all those guys are on board for select dates only. And Keith Murray was supposed to be at last night's BB King's show, but he must've punched someone out again, since he's not on any of the bills anymore. That makes one big tour all full of axes to grind.

Rap shows like this one are always sort of stressful in practice. You're jammed into an extremely full room with a whole lot of dudes in hoodies, and it's always somewhere in the back of your mind that you might jostle someone wrong or spill someone's drink and start a fight; I see that happen constantly at these shows. The enormous BB King's bouncer staff keeps kicking people out for smoking, and then the performers onstage tell everyone to smoke; you're never quite sure what's going to happen with that. And there's never any place to sit or any vantage point where you're not in someone else's way. It takes a truly inspired performance to turn all that free-floating tension into catharsis. We didn't get any inspired performances last night, but we did get some good ones, so that's something.

Redman is a professional. More specifically, he's a professional who plays the role of a demonic, unhinged walking teenage id, all weed and porn and alcohol. His live show is totally rehearsed and professional, and it revolves around crowd-pleasing stunts like stage-dives and fast-rap workouts, stuff that looks spontaneous but totally isn't. I saw him dive off the stage for the first time nine years ago; it's an expected part of his live show by now. And this stuff makes for a totally satisfying show; Red has a catalog of hits fourteen years deep, and he's got a sharp and furious onstage energy. He has a hypeman onstage most of the time, but he doesn't really need one; he's always been a sort of hypeman for himself. When he came out onstage, he ripped through three tracks in quick succession, finishing up with his verse from LL Cool J's "4321," something I hadn't heard in a while. Late in his set, he did "Da Goodness" in its entirety, and I'm never going to get sick of hearing that song. Red also brought out the show's host, DJ Kool, to do "Let Me Clear My Throat," backing Kool on turntables himself. That bit probably kills everywhere else in the country, but it fell flat here, either in spite of or because of DC boy Kool's constant suckups to the New York crowd. Red's set was polished and contained; it didn't have any of the loose-limbed insanity that Red regularly projects. The only time he did something legitimately crazy was the part of the show where he introduced his crew of useless backup rappers and let them take over the stage for three songs; one guy compared an ass-whipping to The Passion of the Christ, and another, the one who sounded just like Rick Ross, said he was "similar to Rick Ross." Red announced from the stage that these jokers would be releasing an album next year. He also said that his long-awaited Red Gone Wild will be out in March, and that he'll also be releasing Muddy Waters 2 in September. And he said he's trying to get How High 2 made. I wonder how much of that stuff he honestly thinks is going to happen.

Voice review: Chris Ryan on Redman's Malpractice
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Red's set might've been short on actual scattered unpredictability, but Raekwon's wasn't. Rae's rapping is hard and choppy and tangled and sort of ugly. He's a lot of people's favorite Wu-Tang guy, but I've never found much emotional resonance in his stuff the way I do in Ghostface or ODB; it's all bullying scattershot hardness, and I have to be in the right mood to enjoy that stuff. His live show is the same way. A ton of random dudes clutter up the side of the stage and make it hard for DJ Kool to carry all his record-crates off. Tracks begin and end abruptly with gunshot noises, sometimes in the middle of a verse. Rae himself looks drunk, although maybe that's just how he looks all the time. He does a whole bunch of old Wu-Tang group tracks, rapping everyone else's verses as well as his own. The crowd goes apeshit for everything. A couple of screens on the sides of the stage show old Wu-Tang videos on mute, which is distracting because old Wu-Tang videos are awesome. It's all a bit, um, choppy, but it's also oddly riveting, since it's impossible to guess what he's going to do next. At one point, his hypeman asked the crowd what it thought of Kingdom Come. Inevitably, the crowd booed. "I didn't know you was going to say that," Rae muttered. And then: "I don't give a fuck about Hova." Rae elaborated: he respects Jay, but "he ain't helping Rae eat." This all went toward Rae promising that his next album would be straight-up hardcore rap, that there would be no pop on it. The point was made.

The freestyle rapper Supernatural, randomly dropped into the middle of the bill, called himself "the David Blaine of hip-hop" like that was something to brag about. He didn't rap underwater or anything, but his live show was an engaging series of crowd-pleasing stunts, like the one where he tells the audience to give him three words and then works them into his lyrics (last night, the words were indespicable, metaphysical, and incredible, even though I'm pretty sure indespicable isn't actually a word). There's nothing particularly compelling about his rapping or his stage presence; he sounds sort of like Xzibit, which is a problem. And he was defensive, constantly talking about how he'd earned his spot on the show. But he does work almost absurdly hard to keep a crowd entertained. He mentioned that he set a world record at the last Rock the Bells festival by freestyling for nine hours straight; that doesn't make him a great rapper, but it's pretty impressive nonetheless. He also rapped about the shit that people had in their pockets and did note-perfect impersonations of Biggie and Busta Rhymes and Slick Rick. So he's a prop-comic and an impressionist, rap's Gallagher and Darrell Hammond rolled into one. The set predictably ground to a halt when he did his one actual song, but the rest of it was fun.

Voice review: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Supernatural's The Lost Freestyle Files

In a way, though, Smif-N-Wessun had the best set of the night. They're old New York guys with gold fronts and dreads and lines on their faces, and they're charismatic and energetic, capable of making their voices heard without resorting to shouting or hypemen. Their beats, both old and new, are eerie, burbling hardcore-rap formalism. Steele ran into the crowd for his verse "Bucktown" verse, rapping while the crowd surrounded him. Sean Price and Rock came out for a feel-good Heltah Skeltah reunion, and Tek rapped from on top of Price's shoulders. Their live show isn't spectacular or anything, but it is just incredibly solid, and I can't think of a single complaint. There's plenty of nostalgia at just about every New York rap show these days, but it's rare that someone makes an actual aesthetic case for mid-90s rap. During their time onstage, Smif-N-Wessum made a dark room sardine-packed with aggro dudes in Carhart feel like a pleasant place to be. That's an achievement.

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