Kicking off the Kansas City stop of the showcase of California hip-hop known as the Cali Comm tour, Motion Man came out on the stage wearing a Halloween mask. It stayed on his head about two seconds before he took it off, saying “I can’t rap with this damn mask on”! That mask was probably the only fashion accessory on stage that whole night, and it didn’t last long. In contrast to the many musicians, in hip-hop and elsewhere, who seek to project an image of glamour and wealth on stage, all of the artists on the Cali Comm tour seemed to care only about getting their music across to the audience. Nearly every musician wore what looked like usual street clothes, spoke in a down-to-earth, friendly manner, and gave a stripped-down, no-frills performance. With eight acts each performing around 30 minutes, the Cali Comm tour was a heavy-duty affair, around five hours of hip-hop (it might have been even longer if one of the acts, Mixmaster Mike, hadn’t cancelled at the last minute). Though the crowd in Kansas City was surprisingly small and a number of the acts had to deal with sound problems, each group put on a spirited set that displayed hip-hop in its purest form.
Most of the show consisted of an MC, or a group of MCs, and a DJ, throwing their music down without any extra instrumentation or, most importantly, any backing tapes propping up the MCs’ voices. Yet the two groups that did use live musicians to fill out their sound got perhaps the strongest crowd reactions of the night. There’s a difference, though, between trying to dress your music up to be something it isn’t and using musicians to augment your sound. The latter is what both The Coup, performing third, and The Pharcyde, the last act to go on, did. The Coup, who received the most press attention locally, have a deservedly acclaimed new album out called Party Music. Their fourth album, it continues their habit of merging funk grooves with incisive, hard-hitting rhymes that take an activist, populist (some would even say, revolutionary) stance towards social and economic issues. Live they played up the funk side of their music by bringing along a full band—guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and backing vocals—in addition to their DJ, Pam the Funkstress. Lead by The Coup’s MC, Boots, the group flew through a handful of songs off Party Music, including “Everythang”, “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.”, “Ghetto Manifesto” and “Get Up”. Though a bad mix of sound made the vocals nearly impossible to hear at times, the skillful musicians and the furious scratching of Pam the Funkstress got the small crowd moving during the whole set. Ending with a sped-up version of their 1994 attack on corporate America “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” (from their second LP Genocide and Juice), The Coup seemed to leave as quickly as they came, though the high percentage of the crowd that approached the group afterwards for an autograph or conversation showed that they made quite an impression.
The Pharcyde, nominally the headliners though most groups played about the same amount of time, also used a few live musicians, but in a more relaxed manner. In fact, everything about the group’s set seemed laidback and playful, especially the MCs’ stage demeanor. The Pharcyde as a group has changed greatly over the years, mutating from a ultra-goofy, highly weeded young quartet into a more serious, thoughtful trio which, on their recent third album Plain Rap, added a dose of soul music to their sound. At this show, the Pharcyde was down to a duo—Imani and Bootie Brown—plus a guitarist, bassist and keyboardist. They played a variety of songs, including both their two biggest hits (“Passin Me By” and “Runnin’”) and several lesser-known songs from throughout their discography. While on album the group seems to grow ever more introspective, on stage they mixed it up more, continually alternating between the serious (“Bullshit” ) and the silly (“Ya Mama”, “Pack the Pipe”). At times the latter seemed like their dominant motivating force, like when one of the pair dedicated two songs to “girls who wear sexy panties”. As the closing act to a night jam-packed with music, the Pharcyde’s light style fit perfectly, sending fans home with a smile.
The bulk of the performers rocked the house in bare-bones hip-hop style, with their voices, some mics, and a DJ with some turntables. Kut Masta Kurt was the DJ for the first two acts, both solitary MCs. Motion Man kicked off the show, performing his part of tracks he’s done with Kool Keith (as Dr. Doom) and some new material, including an upcoming single that he did with Kurt as DJ. Motion Man delivered his songs in an extremely friendly, good-natured way, cracking jokes and repeatedly calling the audience his “new best friends”. His rhyming style was a mix of gentle humor, enigmatic poetry no doubt influenced by his work with Kool Keith, and old-fashioned boasting. He was followed by Casual, one of three acts on the tour from the Hieroglyphics crew. Like many of the performers, Casual was out supporting a new album (He Think He Raw). With an ever-present grin (one that, to be honest, screamed “under the influence”), Casual nimbly rhymed through tracks off his new album, plus several from his 1994 debut Fear Itself, including “Me-O-Mi-O”, where he lead the audience to sing along. One of the most confident-seeming MCs of the night, Casual had as friendly a stage manner as Motion Man; even when the crowd response to his call-and-response exhortations was weak, he acted like it wasn’t. His laidback, raunchy sense of humor gave his songs, which are essentially snapshots from the life of a partygoer and ladies’ man, a light feel to match his good-natured demeanor.
Though accompanied by sidekicks to help them energize the crowd, both Rasco and Planet Asia (coming fourth and fifth in the show) took a similarly straightforward approach to performing. The pair, who used have recorded together as Cali Agents, performed completely separate sets. Rasco, the first of the two, followed the Coup, who rocked the house to such an extent that the audience members initially seemed like they were going to be underwhelmed by any one performing after them. When Rasco’s energetic first song received a weak reaction from the crowd, he turned stern, essentially telling the audience that hip-hop relies on audience participation. Though sometimes that sort of talking-to can turn onlookers off, it worked perfectly for Rasco: from the next song until the end of the set the crowd was into it. Playing songs from all three of his albums (including his fantastic new release Hostile Environment) and from the Cali Agents’ album How the West Was One, Rasco put on a superb display of hip-hop’s essentials, of the power of a lyricist with a mic backed by a DJ with some turntables. Planet Asia followed up Rasco with an equally up-tempo set. If he relied more on some of the clichés of a hip-hop show than some acts (bringing women on stage to dance, continually asking the crowd to make noise), he also showed off superb rhyming skills that demonstrated why his name has some critical buzz attached to it lately. Accompanied by two other MCs with whom he has a new group called Schoolyard, Planet Asia played a batch of songs from upcoming releases (a Schoolyard EP and a Planet Asia LP), plus a few from his previous releases. Though many of his songs centered around his own skills, he ended the set on a more serious note, with the meditative “Sounds of the City”, a thoughtful take on death that closed with a remarkable a capella section.
A pair of Hieroglyphics artists came next, preceding the Pharcyde’s closing set. First was Pep Love, who gave the shortest set of the night. Mainly hyping his new album Ascension by flying through some songs off it, Pep Love gave an adequate performance which seemed more like a quick warm-up for the next act than a complete set of his own. That next act, Souls of Mischief, took the energy level of the crowd up another notch, with many people loudly rapping along with every song. Though the foursome spent too much time trying to sort out the by now routine sound problems, they still put on an impressive set, rhyming back and forth through a back of songs from throughout their career. Ending with an updated version of the song that first brought them attention way back in 1993, “93 Til Infinity”, the group continually kept the focus on the art of rhyming, whether performing that well-known song or less recognized songs, like some from their cassette and vinyl-only independent release Focus.
The art of hip-hop was what the whole affair was about, and on that level it didn’t disappoint at all. Each act skillfully brought its music to the stage in its rawest form. That straightforward quality jived well with an implicit theme of the tour: that major labels and radio/video airplay aren’t needed to get your music to the people. Though a few of the acts have gone the major-label route in the past, right now each is on an independent label. In the case of the three Hieroglyphics acts, that label is their own, Hieroglyphics Imperium. A few of the acts spoke directly of economic issues, particularly the Coup, with their activist stance, and Casual, who took a more humorous approach to the struggles of the poor (an example lyric: “I’m making money like the U.S. Mint/but it’s slow money/another day another 55 cents”). But even the groups who weren’t as outright about it clearly cared about the way business is run in today’s world. That was evident by the low prices at the merchandise table, by the number of artists who stressed the importance of supporting independent labels, and, most importantly, by the fact that this tour was filled with musicians doing exactly what they want, how they want to, and making a living off of it, without worrying about fame or wealth.