Thursday, February 18th Mos Def, De La Soul, Pete Rock, and Hezekiah, with special guest Slick Rick at the Trocadero Theatre.
In introducing the group's 1991 hit "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'", De La Soul's Posdnuos expressed his regret that the show had fallen on a Thursday night rather than a Friday: when midnight rolls around on a Friday night, it becomes (as the song says) our "one whole day to play", but when the clock hits twelve on a Thursday night, it'll be just another weekday. And while Posdnuos said this only as a lighthearted way to lead into the song, by the end of the night the crowd quite clearly shared the sentiment. When Thursday changed to Friday, headliner Mos Def had only just taken the stage, and he wasn't providing the special something necessary to keep the audience captivated.
But it didn't have to be that way. Mos Def is by no means a bad performer, De La absolutely killed, and Slick Rick did what he needed to do (be Slick Rick; spit a few lines). In order, then, to avoid suggesting these talented performers were the major cause of the lost enthusiasm, I'll begin by imposing a large deal of the blame on DJ/producer Pete Rock.
At the risk of sounding like an impatient, ADD-ridden Generation Y-er that doesn't understand real hip hop, I must say that I found no reason for Pete Rock's DJ set to go on for an hour and ten minutes. Despite decent transitions, his collage of snippets from hip hop classics--barely, if at all, remixed and frequently interrupted by commands to yell "Go Pete Rock, go Pete Rock, go"--can only keep one interested for so long. Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't help but feel like if his performance had been half the time, concertgoers would not have been quite so spiritless by the time Def took the stage.
Now we come to Hezekiah, our host for the evening. A cheerful and sprightly rapper, Hezekiah had started the night off on a good note with an upbeat set featuring live horns (provided by members of the troupe "Me So Horn-y"). Each time Hezekiah would show up to fill time between sets, however, he had less to offer, and his appearances eventually deteriorated into an awkward series of plugs for upcoming events and random a capella verses from him and his sister. In the minutes leading up to Mos Def's set, the audiences hit their breaking point and began to boo Hezekiah. I felt bad for the guy and I certainly don't condone or forgive the crowd's lack of tact, but I could understand their restlessness.
All right, now that I've established some context concerning the vibes that preceded Mos's entrance, I feel more comfortable explaining why exactly he didn't cut it. Mos Def is a relatively laid-back performer. While his tunes are often energetic, he is a cool, collected fellow whose flow and demeanor lack the aggression and bite of many rappers. Not an inherently negative style--I often find it preferable--but after Pete Rock's 70-minute relay of songs I can listen to at home and bad vibes surrounding Hezekiah, we wanted to be wowed. Def's show, though, is consistently enjoyable but rarely transcendent.
Even when he stepped into new territory by simultaneously playing drums and rapping on "Quiet Dog Bite Hard", it still felt too subdued. The routine was more impressive than entertaining, kind of like that movie Adaptation.
When he broke into "Auditorium" Mos Def actually managed to generate a healthy response from the crowd, but he can't take the credit--on album, the song features a guest appearance from Slick Rick; the fans all knew it was only a matter of minutes before the guest of honor finally took the stage.
Def glides through his part of the song amidst the flourishing cheers and intermittent hollers of "SLICK RICK!", clearly energized by the renewed vivacity. The second chorus closes and a heavily gold-adorned Slick Rick saunters onstage, greeted warmly with applause from a crowd ready for his sticky eerie-serene flow.
But when he raises the mic to his mouth, it squeals and wails and no vocals are heard. The Ruler continues to rap inaudibly for a few seconds before a roadie dashes over with a substitute mic. And thus, the most anticipated moment of the night was dulled by technical problems. The set recovered quickly as Ricky then does a short medley of his hits, but it's hard to deny the false start to what was destined to be the evening's climax.
Fortunately, the night was not a loss. I've saved the best for last, and the organizers of the event should have as well: the experience would have been greatly enhanced if De La Soul's energetic, playful, engaging, and all around fantastic set had closed the evening. De La dished out everything the audience would have needed to recharge them as the night grew later, everything that Mos Def just couldn't quite provide.
The 45 minute (yes, they gave the best act of the night 25 fewer minutes than Pete Rock's iPod shuffle of hip hop classics) show was a forceful blend of classics like "Me, Myself, and I" and "Potholes in My Lawn" with more recent favorites like 2000's "Ooh." Posdnuos charges through his verses with a joy and vigor seen nowhere else throughout the night, while fellow emcees Trugoy and Maseo alternate in the role of a solid second fiddle. The group's back-and-forth banter is delightful, including a bit in which each Pos and Trug attempts to prove to the other that one side of the crowd is superior. The routine is clearly rehearsed but so endearing that the crowd eats it up, cheering wildly to pledge their allegiance to either Pos or Trug and whichever side of the arbitrary line they happen to be standing.
And maybe part of what makes it so endearing is the fact that these guys have been doing this for more than 20 years with little mainstream success and can still completely bring it. They haven't gone out with a bang; they haven't slowly faded into obscurity. Rather, they've continued to put out solid records and, despite their age, their live show transcends every expectation. The D.A.I.S.Y. age may be long over, but the trio carries on the attitudes and vivacity they first let flow on their 1989 debut. And why not? The crowd at the Troc that night certainly needed it, and we could have used more of it.