Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: Jean Grae & Talib Kweli, San Fran Bathhouse, 8 April 2010

Edit: YouTube of Jean's crack-up moment added at the very bottom, courtesy of DJ Sticky Fingaz.

I went with Morgue to see Jean Grae & Talib Kweli live at San Fran Bathhouse last night. They are both New York rappers, which seems to be a real thing in Wellington at the moment (having already been to excellent shows by RZA and Raekwon in the last couple of months and with DJ Premier apparently on his way). Kweli is I guess a backpack rapper, with usually much more socially positive & iltellectually interesting lyrics than usual, which is probably why he doesn't sell, though he does command respect from some of the top-selling American rappers.

If skills sold, truth be told
I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli

- Jay-Z, "Moment of Clarity"

Jean Grae, meanwhile, is just plain one of the best MCs alive. Her lyrics are sharp and focused, and her flow is excellent (she's sometimes criticised for sounding monotonous, but last night proved she has real range). Unfortunately her records don't sell very well at all, largely because she refuses to sex up her act, but also because her lyrics are far more intense than anything that will sell to a hip-pop crowd, often focusing on subjects like bad relationships, abortion, and vicious lyrical beat-downs.

I wasn't feeling too great when I went to this gig. I'd been awake half the night with breathing issues (asthma & a persistent cold) and I needed a cup of coffee to revive myself before going in. I was tired, sore and grumpy.

So it's a mark of how great the show was when, at about midnight on a Weednesday night, Kweli started chanting "Jump! Jump! Jump!" and I found myself almost involuntarily pogoing to the beat while pumping my fist into the air. That's one thing I've been loving about the live hip-hop gigs we've been getting lately: the crowd isn't too "cool" to be obvious about enjoying themselves, and it's infectious. I'm sure we all looked totally ridiculous, but who cares? It was so much fun.

We arrived just before nine, and surprisingly things had already kicked off. There were two MCs and a DJ on stage; I don't know what time they started, but we only saw about 3 songs, which varied from being kind of poor to pretty great. Next up was what seemed to be 2/3 of Electric Wire Hustle, with a Kiwi MC I didn't recognise instead of the drummer. This was pretty cool, with the MC laying down some quite good freestyles over songs like Perception. He mentioned H-Town a few times, which was a bit mystifying. (Hamilton? Hawera? Hokianga? Hutt Valley?) I still wish that Mara TK had an on-stage presence to match his voice (and beard!); dude can really sing, but tends to come across as shy, though he definitely seems more confident than the first time I saw them at Te Papa.

After they were done, Jean Grae came on. Given her albums and her image on this poster: was pretty surprising that she came out with her hair done up and wearing a nice dress, backed up by DJ Chaps wearing a shirt & tie and with the (really good) soul singer MeLa Machinko on backing vocals, and started doing really RnB sounding stuff. It even turned out that she's got a really sweet singing voice. It all sounded like love songs - but then we noticed the lyrics, which were completely cynical. But it was still a real surprise to see her performing in this mode.

Jean's between-songs banter was hilarious, and she maintained an antagonistic (but still friendly) attitude towards the crowd, telling us off for being lazy, saying that people in the front row who weren't prepared to go hard should "move the fuck back" and even complaining that there were "too many dudes" at the show. At one point she completely lost it, laughing so hard at a young woman who was apparently dancing really hard-out in the front row that she had to stop a song and start again. And of course, if completely blew my mind when she rocked the theme song from The Muppet Show.

Eventually she said "We're gonna leave the stage until you motherfuckers know how to act" - and they did! Ominous music played over an empty stage for a good five minutes, until suddenly all three of them burst back on wearing caps and hoodies. From that moment on the beats were raw and the raps were fierce. Morgue said that it was a shame her set wasn't longer, because we were just getting used to this new style when she flipped it.

It turned out that this dichotomy was a result of her upcoming album, Cake or Death; the first half was the cake and now we were getting the death. Much as I enjoyed the first half - and I really, really did - the second half was what I actually came to see. Much as I like Talib Kweli, what I really wanted was to see Jean Grae cut loose, and she did.

She finished her set with a surprisingly positive song, asking everyone in the room who was living their dream to put their hands in the air. That's something else I like about her: after all the negativity and black humour, when she's upbeat it sounds all the more sincere. Then suddenly, without delay, Talib Kweli was on the stage. He was hard to miss - he's very tall. DJ Chaps stayed on for Kweli's set, and Jean and MeLa Machinko also stuck around.

For some reason Kweli's first couple of songs felt a bit flat, perhaps just because Jean really is a hard act to follow, but then he seemed to come right. He certainly did not lack for energy. He roared through his set, jumping from new to old material, previewing some stuff from his next album (a reformation of his old group Reflection Eternal, with DJ Hi-Tek - he mock-told-off anyone who had already downloaded a leaked version), doing stuff from mixtapes, from Black Star, even throwing in a bit of KRS-One's "Sound of the Police" at one point. (Not too surprising given the number of quotes & references he throws into his songs, most famously quoting one of Rakim's dopest lyrics from "Follow the Leader" for the chorus of "Eternalists".)

At one point the music stopped and he started rapping a capella. After a couple of bars everyone started clapping in time, and he stopped and told us off, saying he was “laying down some fly shit” and that we should just listen and clap at the end. Amazingly, everyone did quiet down. He’d do a couple of lines (it was socially conscious and anti-war kind of stuff) and people would cheer, and he’d kinda frown and motion for everyone to be quiet and then keep going, then everyone would cheer again, and he’d hush us again... it was pretty weird. But a good weird, and yeah it was some fly shit.

Kweli actually did an encore, quite a lengthy one, in which "just one more song" kept turning into two or three. It was almost one by the time it was all over. He expressed surprise at how much the tickets had cost ("Seventy dollars? SEVENTY DOLLARS?! That's New Zealand dollars, but still!") but still asked us to buy t-shirts ("Because we want more of your money") and mixtapes (except it turned out that the DJ had forgotten to bring them).

It was a great night. And it's not the last of this sort of thing. There were posters up saying that DJ Premier (from Gang Starr, also did heaps with Nas, Biggie, M.O.P., and – bizarrely – Christina Aguilera) is coming soon. Apparently there is one guy who has managed to make contacts with the NY hip-hop scene and is bringing all these guys over.

Here's the obligatory YouTube link, which shows Talib & Jean performing "Get By", the song that probably got the biggest reaction last night simply because it's his biggest hit. It's not that great of a clip and it does not capture at all the excitement of actually being there. (And obviously it is not from last night's show.)

Edit: here's the crack-up mentioned above. Choice.

Edit again: thanks to Anna for providing me with the names of the singer & DJ in a comment.