View From the Left Row, 5/8/11
Volume 2 of this month's relentless View From the Front Row series covers the two most loaded days of hip hop music in recent memory. While the Greek Theater's colossal line-up of indie rappers will be the main focus of my writing here, it's worth noting that Berkeley's yearly free Hip Hop in the Park show occured in the early afternoon before the show, and I managed to bounce to that briefly as well. I missed most of the acts but caught the two main draws of the event: Eligh of Living Legends and Dibia$e of Green Llamas/Low End Theory. Only got to hear a few of Dibia$e's beats played live, but they sounded dirty and electronic, like an 8-bit video game with dust in the cartridge - in a good way! Eligh did his thing and brought the quality raps as usual, flipping a number of impressive flows and styles and also bringing out Scarub as a surprise guest. He shouted out Amoeba Berkeley and encouraged people to support their local record spots. Sunspot Jonz was also chilling watching the show and I could've sworn I saw Medusa in the crowd as well. Nice free music in the sunny park.
I didn't stay to the end of Eligh's set because I wanted to make sure I didn't miss any of the acts performing at the Greek Theater. Generally, rap shows start an hour to two hours late, but giant venues like the Greek have strict time frames that they abide by and sticking around the park would've been cutting it close. Sure enough, I arrived just as Sab the Artist was about to go on, so my timing was on point. Before I get into my impressions of the music, I should note upfront that large stadium music events are generally not my cup of tea. I think that a certain musical connection between the artist and crowd is lost when things get too massive, plus larger shows tend to increase the chances of running into annoying "too cool for school" fans who came for the headliner but couldn't give a damn about the rest of the performers. The crowd at the Greek was predominantly younger college students, with tons of smokers making comfortable spots to watch the show from few and far between. Since the stage was so elevated from the front row and the pit adjacent to it was loaded with smokers, I stood on the sidelines to the left of the stage for a change, which made for a different kind of concert experience.
Onto the music. Sab the Artist aka Musab was the first act to perform, and was the least impressive out of the Greek's line-up. Sab has been with Rhymesayers since their inception, but his albums have tended not to impress me and he's generally struck me as one of the weaker links of the Rhymesayers camp. Having said this, his new material as Sab the Artist seems to be headed in a good direction, as his recent songs have a very positive poppy vibe to the production that fits his relaxed style well. Unfortunately, this style didn't fit the live setting of the Greek well, and a number of his songs fell a bit flat on stage. Many of the Atmosphere fanboys in the crowd didn't even bother clapping, which left me bothered, but at least Sab seemed happy to be doing his thing in front of such a large crowd.
Grieves and Budo came on next, and they put on one of the stronger sets of the night. They seem to be getting popular these days, as they had the hardcore Atmosphere fans eating every word and cheering like crazy. The attention they received was well-deserved, as they've honed their set into an impressive blend of catchy hooks and solid live instrumentation. Budo played the synths, the trumpet, the tamborine, and the electric guitar. Grieves weaved through some excellent songs from his upcoming Rhymesayers full-length, as well as some older favorites like "Gwenevieve" and "I Ate Your Soul." No "Smile for the Blade" unfortunately, but they made up for it with an excellent performance of "Bloody Poetry" from the upcoming album. Lots of hand-clapping and raised fingers, plus not a slip-up in the whole set. Good stuff.
DJ Abilities was spinning and doing some impressive scratching between each of the sets, and it should be noted that after Grieves and Budo got off the stage, Jel of Themselves/Anticon came up as a surprise local guest to work the drum pads while Abilities scratched. The result felt like watching the turntable and drum pad equivalent of improvisational jazz music, with the two masters of their respective crafts working off each others notes. Most of the crowd was too young and Atmosphere-oriented to know who Jel was, but it left me excited and happy never the less.
Blueprint got up next to perform, and he was probably the act that I was looking forward to seeing the most. Over the years, 'Print has performed sets that stand out in my memory as some of the best I've seen, with his opening set for Eyedea & Abilities on their E&A tour and his show with Greenhouse at the Li Po Lounge last year standing out to me very vividly. His new material is a completely different beast than his older songs, however, and with that comes a new stage show that takes new risks and impresses in different ways. In addition to his longtime tour DJ Rare Groove spinning behind the boards, Blueprint brought out a live bass player to assist him and experimened with instruments of his own - namely a keyboard and an awesome keytar. He poured his soul into every word of his verses as he tends to do live, but there were points where he struggled with mic volume and the crowd of kids was generally unresponsive. I was kind of pissed how few people were cheering for him, but at least the friends I went with were digging his songs deep. "The Clouds" and "Boombox" were two highlights of his performance, but my favorite bit was when he kicked his verse from "Alchemy." It remains one of his most impressive verses and I'd requested that he perform it, so that got me seriously hype and screaming every lyric. I was all ready for Aesop Rock to rush out on stage and do his half of the song, but unfortunately it didn't happen. Bummer... that's probably that's only opportunity I would have had to see them do the track together!
Speaking of Aesop Rock, he came on next with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz backing him. Despite being an enormous fan of Aesop Rock's music in my youth, the only time I'd seen him live prior to this was when he showed up as a surprise guest for Onry Ozzborn's set opening for the Shapeshifters in SF, where he did one verse on stage. Granted, I haven't been as big a fan of Aesop Rock's post-"Labor Days" material as some people, but I'm glad I was finally given an opportunity to see him do a full set with friends who are fans of his. While Aesop Rock didn't have a huge amount of stage presence or any great control over the crowd, watching him perform his verses live re-sparked my appreciation for the interesting ways in which he strings together words and summons cryptic imagery through his verses. Just hearing his deep voice and unique flow over the course of a full set made me smile over the consistently thick vocabulary and had me wanting to analyze it again as I did in my youth. He performed a number of songs from "None Shall Pass," a couple tracks from his awesome new collab album with Rob Sonic as the group Hail Mary Mallon, and a few older numbers that were a total throw-backs for me. No "Daylight" despite the audience requesting it, but he did cover "No Regrets" and "Big Bang," the latter of which I was very happy to hear since it's one of his best as far as I'm concerned. DJ Big Wiz did a scratch routine intermission mid-set that was also damn good, though not really touching DJ Abilities' skills behind the wheels. The crowd went nuts when Kimya Dawson came out as a surprise guest to collab with Aes on their Eyedea dedication "Bats" for the finale. Solid set.
As for the Atmosphere as the headliner, they're pretty much indie super stars at this point and they're doing it huge. In addition to their band (now an integral part of the group), they had stage props in the form of a Minnesota winter back-drop and leafless trees standing around stage. They also had a lot of excellent lighting that cut in and out at the snap of Slug's finger. The crowd was much louder and responsive for Atmosphere than they were for any of the other acts, including Aesop Rock who has a pretty significant fanbase of his own. They started off their set with some of their older "Lucy Ford" numbers, which included "Coffee & Cigarettes" and "Between the Lines," before heading into some of their newer numbers like "She's Enough." The band offered some pretty excellent re-interpretations of songs, the best of which were "Lovelife" and "God's Bathroom Floor," and Ant was grooving out to the numbers behind the boards with an extra-suave stage presence. Slug presented the songs in the form of a narrative, telling a story about picking Lucy up from the airport between each track and leading into each number with a segment of that story. He also preached to the crowd about how they were like family and the reasons that he commanded them to throw their hands in the air, but in my opinion there was a little too much of this preaching and narrative and it got tiresome after a while. Still, much respect to Slug for his creative ways of re-wording the lyrics of some of his songs to fit the Bay Area - those had me laughing every time. I've seen Atmosphere live countless times before and this was not the best I've seen from them (their tour for "Life Gives You Lemons" in San Francisco might have been, though), but still a pretty good set that had their hardcore fans going nuts.
And thus ended the Greek Theater show... but not the live hip hop music! The next day, Blueprint did a free in-store at Amoeba Music in Berkeley, which gave me a chance to view his new set from the front row in a more intimate setting. He covered some new tracks that he didn't play at the Greek, including "Stole Our Yesterday," which is one of my favorites off the new album and worked nicely in the smaller Amoeba setting. It was great to see 'Print work his magic up close and personal and the in-store was ill as hell. Quite a few guest celebrities dropped into Amoeba as well, including Ant of Atmosphere, Grieves, Budo and coincidentally Eligh and Scarub. It was quite a loaded week for hip hop in Berkeley! Some video of Blueprint performing "The Clouds" off his new one at the in-store below: