It’s hard to know what to expect from a hip-hop show anymore. Everybody’s got back up dancers. Crews tend to swallow up a stage in a type of visual schizophrenia that lends itself more to a headache than a headnod. And well, there aren’t a lot of rappers with stage presence, which is how often-materialistic rappers (cough, cough, Jay-Z) get over. Still, hip-hop fans endure it all –from the late starting times to the often overdone call and response staple of: “When I say ‘Rock’ you say ‘Me'”– just to see if emcees who can really hold their own on a stage still exist.
There’s good news for us all: They do.
Audiotistic isn’t/wasn’t meant to be purely hip-hop, though. Billed as the Future Sound Festival in Southern Cali, it’s typically been a cutting edge sort of venue with electronica and house at the center of its agenda (last year, there were only a few hip hop acts like Common and J5 billed). But this year, the festival boasted several big names of all kinds, from Mystic to King Britt, Living Legends to Outkast.
It was enough to make my head spin — but that was mostly just getting there.
Touted as the largest DJ/turntablist event in the world, a few of the DJ sets seemed to take a back seat to the hip hop area, which was filled with 35,000 sweaty ravers, sucking on pacifiers or waving their bongs in the air. One would think, with four areas to choose from — House, Techno, Drum and Bass, Hip Hop and a Skateboard contest — there’d be room to breathe. No such luck with Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots and OutKast in the house. I was lucky to have enough room to nudge the drunk backpacker beside me before he fell asleep standing up — but the later it got, the less room there was to move.
In the past, Audiotistic has been more focused on turntablism and electronica — so this year’s 12-hour music fest marked a significant change in the venue, which was probably both good and bad. Good because, well, the world can always use more quality hip hop. Bad because the crowd didn’t seem quite sure how to respond beyond waving their hands in the air — which, in most arenas, is still acceptable.
Still, Mos enchanted the audience when he emerged in a fedora, gray suit and blue pumas, fresh from his new play, Top Dog/Underdog. He didn’t waste anytime getting into the Black Star songs that made him infamous before that MTV “Carmen” accident or the “Rock N’Roll” song began his quest to reclaim rock as black music. He also spent a considerable amount of time grooving like somebody’s grandpappy, his ‘fro mashed into hat hair once the fedora disappeared; he then launched into “Ghetto Rock” with his side band, Black Jack Johnson — a band full of swaying dreads and loud electric guitar wails. Mos’ live rendition of “Ms. Fat Booty” included the same whimsical flow as the studio version, but included a slow, funky segue into the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain”.
At the end of his set, after the much-loved “Umi Says”, Mos addressed the haters (whoever they are) with an a capella freestyle, displaying his honed microphone skills. But before all was said and done, in typical rock star fashion, the flickering “A” which lit up the stage all night flashed like a cracked out strob light. He screamed, squealed, then dropped his mic.
Saul Williams picked up the microphone, but he didn’t pick up the energy (anyone following Mos would have had a hard time — but the spoken word current was a bad idea: the energy was far too amped and Williams was way too mellow). The highlight of his performance was his loud introduction of Northern California’s Quannum –DJ Shadow, Poets of Rhythm, Lateef Tha Truth Speaker and Blackalicious — as “Oakland’s Finest.” Gift of Gab kept his breathtaking lyrical precision in tact on “First in Flight” a retro-70s soul-type cut from their newest release, “Blazing Arrow”. Lateef took the crowd commands a bit too far (at one point there were commands given for five minutes straight that were never used), but the set was still enjoyable with the blend of Gab with a regal trumpet sample on “Make You Feel That Way” – a song, Gab said, about things that “make you happy, things that make you smile.Why not?”
That said, the rest of the show was indeed a happy, exuberant experience.
Talib Kweli was about as rousing as a man on tour can feasibly be, and he contributed his usual flow with “Move Somethin'” and despite Mos’ early departure to catch a matinee performance in New York, he managed to maintain the energy of songs like “Respiration” and “Brown-skinned Lady.” And while Talib commanded the stage, he seemed lackluster compared to the ferocious rhymes of Black Thought, who emerged worked up from the moment he arrived on stage. The Roots weren’t particularly ground breaking but no one said they needed to be, and the crowd wasn’t disappointed — an energetic version of “Next Movement” and the hip hop staple “You Got Me” were recited gracefully, while “Rhymes and Ammo” with Talib Kweli and “It’s What You Want” were possibly the best songs of their set. Even when Black Thought broke into his slightly off-key version of Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay” the performance was a typical Roots achievement.
But as usual, not much can provide preparation for OutKast. Typically, Andre3000 wore an outrageous get up — a white wig, a yellow canary plastic/terry cloth pants, and a new age backpack — while Big Boi quietly commanded the stage with his usual jeans and shirt. They were the only group of the night with back up dancers, who freaked their bodies to “Rosa Parks” and “Ms. Jackson” and, naturally, “Bombs Over Baghdad”. While it’s always enjoyable to see Andre3000 engage the audience, OutKast didn’t deviate much from their set list, weren’t really as outstanding as their image has become — but were still a sight to see. In an anti-climatic move, however, OutKast left the stage before their set ended and allowed their dancers to perform a few more routines as the crowd headed, in herds, to the exit.
It was a once in a lifetime line up in Southern California, that only the young can afford (and manage) to do ever again. Just heed this warning: If you go next year, be sure to bring your own portable chair so you won’t be standing up for 12 hours. Trust me on this.