I really don’t know who he is, this aging hype-man in baggy jeans and dreads, but what he keeps saying is this: “Hip-hop is a thing we live, rap is something we do.” I, on the other hand, keep looking around at the “we’s” and try to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible. This, after all, is my first-ever rap show and, having nearly upended some very expensive-looking equipment on my way in, I’m already sufficiently anxious about my being here.
Heedless of that apprehensiveness, though, Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom is clearly tonight’s place to be. It’s no coincidence, either, that the Cool Kids are in the house. I mull things over for a minute or so and take another look around. A handful of collegiate stoner-types have readied their camera phones, eyes agleam in anticipatory half-baked wonderment. The house lights come down, the dreadlocked hype-man gone. Out comes the DJ and a few people in the audience start to get going. Meanwhile, I’m still playing the invisible man, sipping on a beer and drinking it all in. Two MCs—one stout and stocky, the other rail-thin—emerge from stage right. The beat drops, the Kids step out, and a chill vibe takes over.
Recalling the old school dynamism of duos like Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth or Eric B. & Rakim, the Cool Kids’ Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks represent a new generation of cocksure, jive-talking MC—one that, hope against hope, seems poised to reintroduce to rap music the lost concept of the simple pleasures: Subjects like fly gear, hitting on girls or just shooting the breeze. Contrast that with the preoccupations of gangland hip-hop: Hoes, hard drugs, and shooting people, and, well, you get the picture. Better yet, though, the Kids’ set is energetic and the audience vibes accordingly. Nevertheless, I’m mostly just thrilled by the fact that it’s apparently Florida sports night in my honor (Mikey wears a Marlins tee while Chuck favors a reversed Dolphins cap). Otherwise, musical highlights include the Sega-referencing “A Little Bit Cooler”, the wry “Bassment Party”, and sludgetastic hit single “Black Mags”, which, it turns out, has its own dance that’s something of a cross between an Irish jig and a moonwalk (that’s Neil Armstrong, not Michael Jackson).
Fittingly, the Cool Kids’ mischievous lyrical fixations—edgier than the Fresh Prince’s but at times evoking his particularly slippery charisma—seem ideal complements to Q-Tip’s own brand of verbal playfulness. After all, the Abstract (as he’s sometimes known) is a rapper whose place in the Hip-hop Hall of Fame owes more to an agile melodic sense and deft delivery than the kind of hard-hitting, rapid-fire rhymes espoused by giants like Biggie, Tupac or Jay-Z. The Cool Kids finish up their set within an hour and out comes that hype-man again. “Hip-hop is something we live, rap is something we do.” Even if I still can’t make the claim myself, the room’s at least starting to feel a whole lot warmer.
Breaking a sweat, we wait in eager anticipation until the lights dim once more. Tip comes out familiarly close-cropped but wearing a checkered green sport-coat. Behind him the members of a four-piece band take up their instruments. DJ Scratch, formerly of EPMD, takes his stand in the back row. Together the group revs up for a huge crescendo, the tenser wind-up that precedes an opening pitch. At center stage stands the Abstract, arms raised high like a conductor’s as he hauls up the volume with each powerful upward jerk. Under the faint house lights his face looks strained, as though he were shouldering the weight of every last soul in the room. Then—the ultimate relief—the next note practically explodes, with the ensuing torrent of laser-guided rhymes assuaging any and all doubt that this rap megalith retains every bit of his legendary prowess.
Can Q-Tip still kick it? Yes he can.
What follows is a diverse set of material covering the MC’s entire career. Remarkably, although nearly ten years removed from his glory days with A Tribe Called Quest, the rapper doesn’t miss a single beat while laying down verse after verse in his trademark mellifluous style. The laidback, lackadaisical vibes that characterize most Tribe records are still in effect, though the stage (not to mention the live backing band) has a way of galvanizing the more mellow grooves. Across the board there’s a kineticism, a vibrancy that keeps the crowd moving flush with the newer, less familiar material. Throughout the night Tip roams free and wide, glaring into the audience with the careless intensity of a maverick up-and-comer. In retrospect, it seems fairly unsurprising that the songs off his latest record, The Renaissance, register as some of the show’s principal highlights. Lead single “Gettin’ Up”, for instance, draws some of the night’s loudest cheers, swaggering against a keyboard-driven ambience. Similarly, “Move” never lets up for a second, a surge of jangling guitars punctuated by the horn hits at each turnaround.
About midway through the set comes the Tribe material, a handful of songs drawn mainly from 1991’s stark The Low End Theory and 1993’s catchier Midnight Marauders. The best moments here, though, come distilled in an outstanding medley of “Bonita Applebum” (1990) and “Electric Relaxation” (1993). The tracks blend seamlessly, providing a microcosmic study in the rapper’s lyrical evolution, while other standouts include foreshortened versions of the indomitable posse cut “Scenario”, “Sucka Nigga”, “Rap Promoter”, and “Award Tour”. The choices are wise, and only “Check the Rhime”—a song driven by repartee—limps without the presence of Phife Dawg.
All in all, the show’s a killer. Heads bob in time, the crowd chiming in at all the right moments. At one point Mos Def appears in the wings, disguised in a dark, puffy overcoat and toque. Most people don’t seem to notice him, though, until about half-an-hour later when he can be seen making a cheeky beeline through the crowd, slapping fives and drawing cell phone snaps on his way to the bar or exit or who knows where.
As for Q-Tip, by the end of his set he’s wearing an expression that’s very difficult to read—a mix of intense purpose, earnest exertion, and maybe even a little frustration. Noticeably, he doesn’t flash a smile all night, but in the midst of show closer “Life Is Better”, he climbs down onto the dance floor to teach the crowd the song’s rousing chorus (quite simply, the words “Life is better”). He then ranges all over, frenetically goading the audience into participation at every step. Soon we’re all singing. Atonal clusters within the throng blare out with gusto, voices too loud and then too soft as the mic makes its skittish rounds. These are ecstatic moments, but Tip eventually reaches the end of his wide arc, bringing him to the entrance of the backstage area, where, suddenly, the show’s over. The music lingers for a minute longer until Scratch ends the record and the band takes its final bow. The house music comes up and the hype-man comes back out. His name? Busy Bee Starski (I had to look him up later). As it turns out, he’s one of the earliest progenitors of rap music and was featured in the landmark 1982 film Wild Style. He thanks the crowd for the last time and offers up, once more, the night’s well-worn mantra. With the lights growing bright he beckons us all to join him unison. “Hip-hop is something we live. Rap is something we do.” I almost have to stop myself from shouting, “Amen.”