Photo: Maya Hayuk
We stand strong to the finish like Willie McGinest
With the goal line stand to make your ego diminish
How embarrassin’—your helmet’s knocked off by Rodney Harrison
New England Patriots—no other squad is in comparison!
That’s how the Perceptionists rhyme on “The Razor”, a shamelessly irony-free paean to the Boston hip-hop trio’s favorite football team. It’s an out-of-left-field track for a group whose cuts are typically comprised of socially conscious lyrics spit by resident street philosophers Mr. Lif and Akrobatik. When I first read the lyrics to “The Razor”, a wince of sympathetic embarrassment overcame my face.
But I suppose that sometimes you just gotta have fun and forget about how it might come off. That spirit of fun—the kind can only be had by friends whose roots are deeply intertwined—is what drove eminent underground emcees Mr. Lif and Akrobatik to set aside their respective solo careers and form the Perceptionists. Another buddy, DJ Fakts One, fills out the ranks live and on the soon-to-be-released Black Dialogue.
I was seeing the Perceptionists in Indianapolis, which, as you might imagine, isn’t exactly a hotbed of underground rap aficionados. The crowd was predictably thin though it was soon supplemented by the arrival of several young white adults with dreadlocks and a sickly, malnourished look. You don’t ordinarily expect dreaded neo-hippies at a hip-hop show but tonight’s headliner, Sound Tribe Sector 9, plays a kind of quasi-spiritual, new age/techno/jazz amalgamation that agreeably accompanies a ditchweed buzz. Thus, the hippies were present and accounted for.
When the Perceptionists came onstage around 8:30, most of the bodies in the building were stowed away in the back or up in the balcony, asses firmly planted in chairs or, if standing, within arm’s length of the nearest bar. Mr. Lif, quite naturally, was having none of this. He immediately told the audience that if a hip-hop show was going to happen, people were going to have to cooperate and move stage-ward.
Reluctantly, the crowd began to move forward. The hippies, presumably itching to get that hippie sway on (you know the one), were the first to make the move toward Lif, Akrobatik and Fakts One. I suspect this was due, at least partly, to Mr. Lif’s prodigious dreads. I’d seen pictures before but damn, there should be billboards along the highway advertising Mr. Lif’s colossal dreadlocks. Imagine the biggest Afro you can. Now, imagine that Afro in the form of four natty, nappy dreads, each thicker than a banana, two of them resting atop Lif’s head like ram horns. Extraordinary.
After the requisite stock hip-hop entreaties to the audience, the Perceptionists opened with “Memorial Day”, an angry indictment of Bush and the Iraq War, buoyed by a Jurassic 5-esque chanted chorus that went “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?/ We’ve been looking for months and we ain’t found nothing/ Please Mr. President won’t you tell us something/ We knew from the beginning that your ass was bluffin’!”
The performance of this song to such a small audience—one that was, from what I could tell, pretty disinterested in politics—left a vaguely depressing impression.
This feeling was compounded by the largely unrequited energy of the band who, despite their pleas to the “party people in the house” to “put their hands in the air” and to “make some noise,” couldn’t seem to get the results they were after. One had to admire the ingenuity of their efforts: At one point in the night Mr. Lif created an invisible noise gauge, for which his hand was the needle, and the louder the audience screamed, the higher in the air went his hand. This strategy did succeed in getting the crowd to give noise-making the good old college try, but no matter how inventive the Perceptionists were, they ultimately lacked the power to increase the size of the audience. That was the fundamental problem they were facing.
That power lay solely in the hands of Sound Tribe Sector 9 on this night that, with their pleasant (if rather anodyne) blend of genres drew from the crowd the energy and enthusiasm which the Perceptionists, try though they did, could not.
The moral to the story if you’re the Perceptionists? Don’t tour with jam bands. Don’t play underpromoted shows in “not-quite-a-big-city” cities. And don’t shave Mr. Lif’s dreadlocks. Ever.