Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 2K11 in Hip Hop Terms?

The Lowdown, 5/31/11

Hmmm... Well, to be honest, there were not a whole lot of hip hop releases from May that really stand out in my mind. May was an excellent month for rap shows, but as far as full length albums go, I'm trying to brainstorm recommendations and am drawing blanks. I still need to hear Destro's "Ill.ustrated" album and Iame's "Lame" jam, both of which are probably dope, but for now I'm just gonna highlight a few titles dropping in June that I haven't heard, but that you might wanna be excited about:

1) Vakill "Armor of God" (Molemen)

Vakill's been putting it down for years with the Molemen and has yet to release a weak joint in my book. His lyrics and metaphors are so twisted and elaborate that he's probably the only rapper these days that can make a song loaded with punchlines and get away with it. I actually look forward to hearing his battle rap verses every time, but he's also known for flipping crazy concepts and dark personal narratives just as nicely. "Armor of God" has been a long-time coming and features beats from the Molemen and Jake One, here's hoping it's worth the wait!

2) Co$$ "Before I Awoke" (Tres)

Official full-length debut from long-time Blu affiliate Co$$ aka Ca$hu$King, with production by Exile, Cook Classics, Chief, and a gang of other talented folks. Given the quality of this guy's free albums, I've got a feeling that his debut is gonna turn a few heads. He's got a nice soulful voice and lots of love for Leimert Park, both of which are a plus. Bet it'll be dope.

3) k-the-i??? "Synesthesia" (Fake Four)

Latest from the almighty Fake Four is gonna be this new instrumental RPM-ish project from hip hop oddball k-the-i??? This guy's projects have generally been interesting and eyebrow-raising, plus Fake Four is on a roll this year and I doubt they're gonna miss a beat with this one. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the beats get pounded out quite a bit with this release.

4) Grieves "Together/Apart" (Rhymesayers)

Grieves has a great understanding of song structure and hook-writing, and his producer Budo has been killing it for the last couple years. Plus, Rhymesayers tends to release the definitive albums by artists on their roster, and Grieves + Budo already have a couple of high quality releases under their belts. The first three leaks have been excellent as well. Count me in.

5) Gel Roc "Beautiful Tragedy" (Abolano)

Can't forget my LA brethren up in heeerre. Gel Roc and EX2's albums have generally been dope, and this new one is produced by the talented Xczircles of Escape Artists. Had a chance to skim through an advance of this and it's definitely continuing Gel's tradition of quality releases, plus it's got a massive posse cut with some really serious verses from Zagu Brown, Neila, Kail and Lord Zen amongst others. Don't miss it.

6) Acid Reign "Diversity" (Uncommon)

More rampant, stylistic LA talent to be on the lookout for. These guys are masters of that energetic "chop shop" style of rapping that tends to breed in the LA scene, and this new album showcases their skills while also offering up some Project Blowed posse cuts for the heads. Features some stellar Myka 9 verses as well.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Stellar Bat Qwaazars

The Latest Greatest, 5/28/11

New collaborative EP from Qwazaar of Typical Cats/Outerlimits and Batsauce of The Smile Rays (group from Florida with Paten Locke). Entitled 'Style Be the King," this project has got dope written all over it and drops July 7th exclusively through Fifth Element in Minneapolis. It's been a while since we've been treated to a solo joint from Qwazaar, who's kind of criminally underrated as a rapper, and Batsauce is a promising match-up for his style. Check out the tracklisting and download the first leak "Shake" below:

1. Run It
2. To The Death
3. I Remember
4. Mind Murder
5. Summer Fly By
6. Rule feat Chefket
7. Shake
8. Still Hurts
9. Style Be The King

Qwazaar & Batsauce "Shake"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Who Pissed off Mr. Martinez?

The Latest Greatest, 5/25/11

As if we didn't have enough dope music to put a dent in our budget next month, it would seem that Josh Martinez is finally returning with his much-delayed "Pissed Off Wild" project. This album pits The Josh against a live rock band backdrop, which could result in some ill crossover shit or could result in some not-so-ill crossover shit. I remember hearing word of this thing about a millenium ago though, so it ain't just some quick fling recorded in a day or anything... this one's definitely been on the backburner for a while. My fingers are crossed that Josh Martinez will bring the quality that he generally does. This is coming out on Camobear Records as early as June 7th according to Access Hip Hop, so we'll know soon enough! Tracklisting and first single below:

1. Cheeseburger 23
2. P.O.W
3. Arrow
4. Innercity Summer
5. Outlaws
6. Break Everything
7. Hawaii
8. Strange Small Man
9. Day Olde Soul
10. Miracle Worker

Find more Josh Martinez songs at Myspace Music

Rappers are About to Pass Away Naturally

The Latest Greatest, 5/25/11

Lots of exciting indie rap music dropping in June, starting with Open Mike Eagle's new album "Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes," which surfaces June 7th on NoCanDo's Hellfyre Club label. The Swim Team affiliate has roped in an interesting cast of producers and MCs to assist him with the project, as one can clearly see from the tracklisting below. Where else are you going to find P.O.S and MC Paul Barman on the same album, with producers ranging from Loden to Willie Green? OME's relaxed style of rhyming and pop culture laced lyrics are original in their own right, so my bets are on this album turning out ill. Tracklisting and lead video single below:

1. The Processional (The Funeral March) prod. E. Super
2. Nightmares prod. Willie Green
3. No Body Nose prod. Loden
4. NH2 (Grins and Lies) feat/prod Alpha MC
5. Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes. Prod. E.Super
6. Why Pianos Break feat. P.O.S. prod. Taco Neck
7. Rent Party Revolution prod. E. Super
8. Kings feat. VerBS and Real8 prod. Awkward
9. Exiled from the Getalong Gang feat. MC Paul Barman prod. The Kone
10. Right Next to You (for the neighbors) prod. E. Super
11. Dishes prod. Dak
12. Bright Green Light prod. B-Bop
13. Natural Causes Reprise prod. OME
14. Old Member Reclamation prod. E.Super

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Medusa, Sellasie and More at Club 6, SF

View From the Front Row, 5/21/11

The other night, I went to Sellasie's annual "We All We Got" event starring Medusa at Club 6 in San Francisco. The "We All We Got" series is meant to showcase local undiscovered talent, but the main draw of this event for me was Medusa, who put on an absolutely stellar show when I saw her open for Myka 9 in San Francisco last year. I had so much fun watching that performance that it was impossible to turn down another opportunity to see her play in the city, despite getting off work late and forgetting my camera at home (blurry pics here provided courtesy of my iPhone... haven't been having much luck with clear pics lately).

In typical Club 6/hip hop event fashion, the show hadn't even started by the time I got there around 11 PM. I'm not going to cover the opening acts (Milla, Nix, AudibleSol, Da Govamint, etc.) in great detail because, frankly, their sets felt a bit like watching Amateur Night at the Apollo. Not pointing any fingers since this blog doesn't revolve around hating, but there are a few lessons that could be learned about what not to do at live shows from some of these performances:
  • Don't brag about how your single is being played on the radio and dedicate a track "to the ladies" when there are only a handful of people in the audience. Your prime objective should be to engage those few folks!
  • Don't, under any circumstance, rap over your tracks when your vocals are all over said tracks. Highly unprofessional and defeats the purpose of trying to impress people with your rapping. It also makes performers sound like back-up vocalists to their own shit!
  • If you throw money at the crowd, and the crowd picks it up and gives it back to you, do not throw the money at the crowd again! Chances are they don't want your dollars and change.
  • If you're being paid by an international water company to promote their product, please do not hang their poster on the wall and perform a song advertising their shit. Surely, you get paid enough for recording the track and giving it to them?
  • If you actually choose to play a song advertising a product, do not follow the song up with a diss track to haters of those kinds of advertisements. You're probably alienating the crowd in doing so!
The highlight moment of the opening acts was the final song performed by AudibleSol, which was intended as kind of a throw-back to Tribe Called Quest and succeeded at getting a party vibe going in the club. The songs that Sellasie performed between sets were pretty good as well... at least he had the energy and stage presence to pull a decent live performance off, unlike the majority of the acts that opened for Medusa.

Anyway, regardless of the openers feeling like one generic rap audition tape, Medusa still came through and delivered the goods in full. Her set started with two of her LA friends kicking a verse each - the blunt-smoking dude that started things off I'd never heard of, but the other gal in attendance ended up being none other than Neb Luv of Project Blowed, who kicked a heated verse that had Sellasie and others fiending to hear more. While Neb was a welcome surprise, Medusa was still clearly the Queen of the evening's performers, as she brought her trademark soulful vocals and vibrant personality to get the crowd super open. She performed a number of the classy standards fans have come to hear from her live, as well as one or two new songs from her long-awaited "Whr's the DJ Booth?" album. In addition to her being a talented vocalist and a complete spectacle to watch live (think mohawk, Monster tanktop, major chain bling), one thing I love about Medusa as a performer is that she can gage the crowd's reactions extremely well. The minute she senses that the crowd is the least bit hesitant to get down, she'll do something like cut the beat off and grab people's attention with a powerful verse accapella. Precisely the kind of live talent you'd expect from Project Blowed's Gangsta Goddess, made up for the less-than-stellar cast of other performers. My only complaint is that the set was pretty short for a headlining act, running about the same amount of time as her set opening for Myka 9 last year.

And thus ends May's slew of View From the Front Row postings, unless I'm mistaken. Whew. Back to yer regularly scheduled blogging.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cunninlynguists, Homeboy Sandman, Tonedeff & Blue Sky Black Death at Slim's SF

View From the Front Row, 5/19/11

Part 4 of this month's View From the Front Row series covers the Cunninlynguists' "Oneirology" tour stop in San Francisco. I've never been a huge fan of the Cunninlynguists' music or of Slim's as a venue for that matter, but the major draw of the event for me was Homeboy Sandman, who put out one of 2010's most impressive albums and is one of the more original-sounding MCs out there today. I got to the venue extra early and found that a little crowd of younger people was already parked near the front, so I grabbed my drink and made my up there while the DJ spun records. I ended up waiting with people a while because the show started later than one would expect from a venue like Slim's, with things running around an hour off-schedule. I saw one of the venue organizers freaking out and buzzing people on phones one the side of the stage, so one can only imagine the drama that went down in that regard.

The first act of the evening was Tonedeff, a member of the Cunninlynguists' QN5 family who has been featured on a number of their songs and whose rep I was somewhat familiar with. I was not even close to being prepared for Tonedeff's phenomenal live show, however. Where to begin in describing it? He started things off by introducing himself in a comic manner, and immediately engaged the crowd with the "QN5 water game" in which the crowd was supposed to cheer every time he took a swig of water, but had to cease cheering the moment he stopped or he tossed water in their direction. He then had the DJ play one of his favorite songs, which involved a country-style singer talking about dry itchy pussy, and used the track to lead into his song "Pervert." The song started ill enough with Tonedeff's melodical flows and singing, but thing's started getting really crazy when he chose a girl out of the crowd and brought her up on stage for his second verse. Tonedeff wandered around the girl and examined different parts of her body as he speed-rapped through some insanely elaborate verses, going so far as to crawl under her legs and stare up at her face without missing a beat. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand from there on out, engaging them with personal anecdotes and wowing them with his well-crafted flows. One highlight was when Tonedeff explained that he was going to show the crowd his "party trick" by rapping really, really, really fast, and started jerking around like a malfunctioning computer to a glitchy beat before busting out some incredible fast raps as promised. Another highlight was when Tonedeff had the entire crowd hush and squat to their knees in the middle of his final song, only to gradually bounce back upwards as his flows got more intense until the whole room was jumping up and down. This was Tonedeff's first visit to San Francisco, and he stage dived near the end of the track, with the unsuspecting crowd barely catching him despite everyone's hands being lifted to sky. Everything from Tonedeff's rapping and song selection, to the ways he got the crowd involved, to the way he moved on stage just screamed "consummate performing artist." I was stunned. Amazing set!

Homeboy Sandman got up to play next, and my anticipation for his live show was running high. While I'll be the first to vouch for Homeboy Sandman's recordings (they're awesome, check'em out!), I have to say that his set this evening left me feeling a little disappointed. This is not to say that Homeboy Sandman didn't put on a good show, but I guess that I was expecting something along the lines of a Myka 9 performance, where incredible verses are flipped in ways you didn't know were possible. Instead, I got the impression that Homeboy Sandman's super clever ideas in the studio don't always transfer well to a live setting. Verses like "The Carpenter" and "Table Cloth" were substantially less impressive live than on record, as Boysand had to pause for breath a bit and let his voice play on the track for certain lines in the background. He tried to have a thing going with the crowd where he assessed their volume on a ten point scale, but it fell a little flat compared to Tonedeff's brilliant schemes, to the point where Sandman actually offered to continue the water game that Tonedeff devised. Having said this, he did have his moments, and rocked the hell out of "Lightning Bolt, Lightning Rod" and "Yeah, But I Can Rhyme Though." The best moment of his set may have come when he had the crowd clap their hands to a certain rhythm and just kicked a really sick flow over the clapping hands in unison. Pretty good show, but definitely eclipsed by Tonedeff's performance and a bit under the quality of what I expected.

The Cunninlynguists came out to perform next, leaving me a bit puzzled about what happened to the super production duo Blue Sky Black Death. Kno, Deacon the Villain and Natty all did their thing on stage, performing their verses well and getting the large crowd of Cunninlynguist fans hype. Much like the last time I saw them a few years back on the "Strange Journey" tour in Berkeley, Kno was the livest of the bunch on stage, and was even sporting a "Thank You Based God" Tee this evening in honor of the Bay. On the flip side, Kno was a bit of a jerk to some of the people in the crowd, addressing a guy in the front directly about his refusal to get rowdy to their weed songs and hosting an annoying "who's the biggest Cunninlynguist fan" game in which two selected members of the crowd had to guess what the name of the song was the second it started. Their true fans in the crowd were left looking very happy, but I have to say that I have yet to really be converted to the cause and thought that the set dragged on a bit. The best moment of their performance to me was when Tonedeff joined them on stage and they decided to kick the track "Love Ain't" for the first time in years, with all three MCs completely on point with the verses despite the lack of practice. At the end of their set, Blue Sky Black Death came out to assist them with the song "Enemies With Benefits" from their new album. It was fine, but I was a little bored by that point to be honoest. Standard Cunninlynguists set with a couple extra embellishments.

Once Cunninlynguists were done, Blue Sky Black Death stuck around for a belated solo set in what I'd consider a very odd choice of sequencing the acts. I imagine that BSBD were stuck at the end of the line-up because they were late to arrive or due to some other complication, but regardless the choice to have them at the end didn't work very well. Most of the crowd who'd come to see Cunninlynguists dispersed, leaving a significantly smaller group of people to cheer for them. I stuck around for the whole thing, but have to say that I was pretty bored and disappointed by their set. When I saw Blue Sky Black Death a few years back at Bottom of the Hill, their set with Yes Alexander and several live musicians was a massive success. Here, just seeing the two of them plug out beats on a guitar/drum machine/laptop didn't feel any different than hearing songs from their new album streamed over loudspeakers. There was nothing about their set that I feel like I couldn't have heard on my speakers at home. Kind of a dull set to watch.

Overall, I felt that this show was a bit of a let-down. Thing's peaked very early with Tonedeff's performance (which alone may have been worth the price of admission), then gradually got less and less interesting as the show went on. Can't win'em all. A few videos for you:

Tonedeff's party trick:

Cunninlynguists & Tonedeff "Love Ain't" (not the full track - cam ran outta memory, sorry!):

Friday, May 13, 2011

I ♥ Neila Benefit, starring A-Team, OMD (Xololanxinxo), Exile, Speak Easy, Omid, Spare Parts 4 Broken Hearts & Tha Conclusion at New Gabah, LA

View From the Front Row, 5/13/11

And now, for a very special edition of this month's non-stop View From the Front Row series. Anyone who's been following my blog may have seen my Help Support Neila post a few months back, where I touched upon Neila's talents as an MC and her recent hardships. Since then, I've come to know Neila not only as a dope-ass vocalist, but also as an outstandingly sweet and thoughtful person, who sincerely cares for others in the most genuine ways and spreads love to everyone regardless of circumstance. When I got invited by a rapper buddy to attend the "I ♥ Neila Benefit Show" in LA, it was a pretty difficult thing to refuse despite the distance. Not only because I ♥ Neila big-time, but also because of the stellar line-up of LA underground acts that were showing their support. The list of performers read like something you might see at the Good Life back in the day: A-Team, Of Mexican Descent, Omid, Exile, Speak Easy, etc. So, I did something I rarely do and decided to travel out to see the show on a whim, roping my younger sister who lives in Newport Beach into the equation as well. I had my little list of goals for this event, and it roughly read as follows:

  • 1) Make the night a little more special for Neila by showing up unexpected and surprising her
  • 2) Rock out to the music I love in the front row, as usual
  • 3) Expose my sister to some seriously dope LA hip hop
  • 4) Get some pictures with rappers I idolize/friends of mine
  • 5) Document the event on my blog so that everyone can revisit it when they want to remember how awesome the whole thing was (a daunting task to balance with goal #2, but it's been done many times before!)

Anyway, enough with my little lists, on to the event in question. The I ♥ Neila Benefit show took place at a little venue called The New Gabah, which I guess is in the same place that the old Gabah used to be (you can't count on me when it comes to this info though... I'm no LA resident). I was a little worried that the venue would be a massive sprawling affair since the flyer listed two different rooms for DJs and performers, but it was actually as quaint and intimate a venue as one could have hoped for. My sister and I were two of the first non-artist people to arrive there, and I immediately greeted Neila with a hug. I don't know if "surprised" is quite the way I'd describe her reaction (if she was, she hid it well!), but she seemed happy about it and that was the most important thing. There was a merch table set up to raise money for Neila that featured not only shirts and music, but also a wide selection of kick-ass jewelery supplied by one of Neila's many talented friends. My sister ended up rolling away with a tasty pair of skull earings. Rad.

The music side of the evening started with a couple of Neila's friends DJing. One mixed together a bunch of Neila's favorite reggae songs as a dedication and another played some underground hip hop that got folks in the crowd grooving. These tunes eventually led to the first performer of the evening, Tha Conclusion, who took the stage to kick an extra-short set of aggressive hip hop. I'd never heard of Tha Conclusion before, but I appreciated his theatrical choice of stepping on stage wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask. Music-wise, I thought that his material was closer to something that Ill Bill might spit than anything Project Blowed-related, which caught me off-guard and made for kind of an odd start to the evening's performers. Still, he poured his heart and energy into his songs for Neila. Props to him for doing his thing.

Spare Parts 4 Broken Hearts, an all-gal rock band who I'd never heard of before, came on next and killed it with an extra live set that got the majority of the crowd bobbing their heads and cheering for more. The blaring guitars and bass progressions worked great, but hats off to the drummer of the band for really getting loose and swinging around her drumsticks like they were some kinds of medieval flails. LA emcee Zane One occasionally got on stage to kick a verse over the propulsive rock backdrops, which worked very well for the most part and offered some dope variety to the mix. My only qualm with the set is that I forgot to bring my earplugs, and like all rock sets it was extremely loud. Ah well, I probably won't need that much of my hearing when I'm 70 anyway! Neila dug the set so much that she got on stage to tell the crowd how great she thought it was, and from that point onward she sort of started co-hosting and announced the performers with Avatar.

Omid set up his equipment during the last few songs of Spare Parts 4 Broken Hearts' set, and went on right after they finished. He delivered a great set of psychedelic beats focused around Indian music, with lots of cool echoing vocals and bugged out sitar effects. There were not a whole lot of people up front watching him play his beats, but the atmosphere of the venue had changed to one of communal bonding as more and more talented LA musicians arrived at the spot in support of Neila. Amongst those in attendance were Matre, Gel Roc (why wasn't I introduced??), Riddlore, Existereo and a bunch of dudes from Grimm Image Records. As Speak Easy started to step up to perform, Omid dropped a really crazy beat that involved some strange children's music sample getting chopped to bits, and Bleek flipped out over how dope it was. Legendary LA beat-maker... meant to get a pic with him, but he left too early!

Speak Easy, possibly my sister's favorite rap group of the evening, were the next up to play and I was looking forward to seeing their set. In my opinion, there are certain groups that are just meant to be seen in a live setting to fully experience their tunes, and Speak Easy's drunken bar anthems fit the mold of a 21+ venue very nicely. Avatar is also a really nice dude in person and I'd never seen him perform live in this group before, so I was curious to see what he'd bring to the table. The set started off with Bleek trying to tell a story about how he and Avatar first met Neila despite Avatar and me both warning him against it, and when he finally got through trying to tell it it amounted to something like "So, they said you should meet this girl her name's 'alien' spelled backwards," which fell super flat in a seriously funny way. The hilarity ensued from there. Drunken pub anthems were played, beer was consumed, and the microphones were rocked. Speak Easy's set was unfortunately cut pretty short due to things running behind schedule, but they still managed to get "St. Patty's Day" in there at the end and it was good times. Very fun set, with both MCs on point.

Exile, who many of my friends adore beyond all reasonable measure, was up next to perform and got a good surge of people up to the front. I've seen Exile do his thing live before with Blu and wasn't really too impressed, but I've got to say that I was blown away by Exile's set this evening and thought that he brought 110% to the table. For starters, Exile introduced one of his new MC partners, whose name was Jonas if memory serves me right. Those who've followed Exile's work ethic know that this man does not fuck around when it comes to picking MC talent, and this Jonas guy was live as hell on stage, jumping and weaving and barreling through his verses like a true pro. Even with Jonas' excellent stage presence, the highlight of Exile's set was his solo finale, where he tilted his production equipment up for people to see and banged out some super impressive beats. He even flipped a sample of someone saying "Neila" and stuttered it out of his machine in a super ill way, which had the lady of honor and everyone around her laughing in amazement and bugging out. Super great set... I'm still fiending to hear a collab between him and Adad!

At this point in the evening, word had gotten around that a bad case of double-booking had caused 2Mex to be absent, leaving the Of Mexican Descent reunion no more. Hearing that was the biggest disappointment of the night for sure... for some reason, I'm cursed when it comes to trying to see super-groups live! Never the less, all was not lost as Xololanxinxo stepped up to the stage to perform an improvisational solo set with a live saxophonist backing him up. If there's one thing you've really got to appreciate about these LA underground rappers, it's their ability to improvise stylistically and come up with new shit on the spot. When I saw Busdriver a few months back, his set was saved from catastrophe and turned amazing because of the ways that he built off of the hiccups in his set and used them to his advantage. I feel like Xolo was on some similar shit here. He obviously hadn't had time to plan out a full solo set, but he improvised and he made it happen. I'm not sure how much of the set was freestyled and how much was written (I know I heard some joints from "Names" up in the mix), but I am sure that there was some LA underground love in the house, because Existereo, Riddlore, Verble and some others all got up on the stage to assist Xololanxinxo on the rhyming tip. Seeing how Existereo is one of my personal favorite rappers out of LA and how CVE kills it, I had very few complaints in this department. Some true Project Blowed shit that captured the atmosphere of communal love that was up in the spot at this point. A great performance that was better than the Xololanxinxo set I saw on his headlining tour with Neila and Avatar in SF a few years back.

If Xololanxinxo brought an unexpected sort of dopeness to the table, then the A-Team pretty much brought exactly the kind of dopeness I was hoping for. Aceyalone and Ab Rude took the stage like the superhero MCs they are to the sound of the A-Team theme music and just threw it down, with Riddlore sticking around to assist them with some amazing verses. These fools haven't missed a beat live since the 90s, and they played mostly classic joints! Highlights included: "Me and my Main," "Rally Round the Home Team," "Deep and Wide," the list goes on... Riddlore even kicked some classic solo jams, getting folks to chant "Fee Fi Fo Fum" to his dope in the auditorium joint! There were points where the DJ equipment malfunctioned in absolutely horrible ways and Acey and Ab just kept holding it down acapella, refusing to let any type of technical difficulty stand in their way. Neila was grooving out and getting hype in the front for the songs, chanting along to the lyrics and throwing her hands in the air. One point which brought a smile to my face was when Abstract Rude was kicking his verse to "GB in Your Life" and started tossing Neila's name into it, which made her smile huge and gave her a serious kick. Anyway, bottom line is that Acey the Faceman and A.B Barracus held it down super hard for the Blowed with their set. The best performance of the evening in my opinion.

It was after 2 when the A-Team finished up, and the crowd had diminished a bit due to the late hour and the venue staff shutting things down. But what had not diminished was the atmosphere of love and support that lingered in the air, and the heartwarming feeling that the benefit had been a great success. It was awesome to see so many people come out to support such a good cause for such a dope show, and I'm happy that my sister and I could be part of it. Hopefully, this run-down does the show justice for those who were there and fulfills goal #5, despite goal #2 consuming the majority of my time!

A few video snippets to close things out with. They're short and the lighting ain't good, but figure I'll share away for memory's sake anyway:

Speak Easy "St. Patty's Day" snippet:

Snippet of Riddlore kicking a verse during Xolo's set over live sax:

A-Team "Deep and Wide" snippet:

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Atmosphere, Aesop Rock (with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz), Blueprint, Grieves & Budo, Sab the Artist... and more! Greek Theatre, Berkeley..

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:

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dessa, Sims, Lazerbeak & Sister Crayon at Bottom of the Hill, SF

View From the Front Row, 5/7/11

Let the May onslaught of View From the Front Row posts commence! Last night, I went and caught Dessa's "Into the Spin" tour, featuring Sims & Lazerbeak plus Sister Crayon at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. This was a special show for a number of reasons... It was part of Dessa's first headlining tour, it was the first time Dessa showcased her live band from Minneapolis in the Bay area, and it was at my favorite venue Bottom of the Hill, which happened to be packed with buddies and acquaintances of mine. It was also the only show that could've possibly made me turn down seeing Pigeon John and the Chicharones, who also happened to be performing in San Francisco that evening. Next time, I hope all these crazy ill hip hop shows can time themselves better!

The stakes were high since I knew I was missing Los Chicharones for the show, but thankfully all of the acts delivered nicely and the evening lived up to expectations. Sister Crayon, a vocal electronic quartet from the Bay area, opened the show with a pretty great set of angsty experimental music that wouldn't have felt out of place in Anticon's recent electronic line-up. Their songs were often dark in tone, but had enough lively energy and technical wizardry to get the crowd amped on their music. They mixed live drums and guitar work with synths and drum pads, occasionally spinning a sound byte in reverse to wail over. All the musicians did their part, but a particular hats off goes out to the lead vocalist of the group, who seriously knew how to strut on stage while pouring her heart and soul into it. It's that much liver when you can feel that music notes in the singer's stage motions. Strong opening set.

To kick off the Doomtree portion of the evening, Lazerbeak got up on stage and did his thing solo for a bit. But rather than turning in tracks from his "Legend Recognize Legend" project, 'Beak plugged out a bunch of extra-sick beats live on his production equipment. The SF Weekly recently dubbed Lazerbeak "King of the Lavabangers," and though he was laughing over the compliment on stage that's exactly what the man delivered. Lavabangers! Some very bangin' beats that got a bunch of heads in the crowd cheering, myself included. The set worked better than Lazerbeak's rock-oriented tracks in a live setting; bring on the instrumental album!

Once Lazerbeak got the crowd properly warmed (read: melted) up, Sims (pronounced "see-ims," as trademarked by Dessa) took the stage wearing probably the most ridiculous sweatshirt ever seen worn by a hip hop performer. He performed his rap music and performed it well, wheeling through plenty of bangers from his recent "Bad Time Zoo" album and fitting a couple of older tunes into the mix as well. He kicked the set off on a contemplative note with "Like You Mean It," only flip it into some extra hype shit by following it with "Radio Opaque." Some major highlights included his performances of "Weight," "The Veldt," and "Key Grip" (which still works great live). And don't even get me started on how great "Burn It Down" was live, they really nailed that one and drove it home... especially with Sims in the center of the crowd moshing with folks. Lazerbeak pounded out all of the beats live, and Sims occasionally interjected tales of his extensive touring and artistic bond with Justin Beiber, or as Sims called him "the Beib." Really strong set. Sims mentioned he'd be back in the area in September, so we can only hope!

Dessa's live band, which included a guitarist/keyboardist, a drummer, and Sean McPherson of the Heiruspecs on bass, set up the tools of their trade and then Dessa stepped up to do her thing. The live band added a refreshing element of surprise to the mix, as their arrangements of Dessa's songs stood true to the original tracks while adding enough variation to make them sound different than what the crowd might expect. As if that weren't awesome enough, Dessa's talented singer friend Aby Wolf was also in attendance, and offered some great back-up vocals and collaborative tracks to the mix. Apparently, Aby was flown out to the West Coast courtesy of McNally Smith college in Minneapolis, who were so impressed by her performance with Dessa that they offered her plane tickets to any two shows of Dessa's tour. It's an honor that Aby chose SF as one of those dates, and it was awesome to see her contribute to Dessa's traditional Minneapolis mix. Dessa was on point and had the crowd enthralled as usual, seamlessly switching between her excellent rapping and beautiful singing over the band's quality instrumentation. She performed a number of interesting takes on my favorite songs of hers. "Matches to Paper Dolls" got the piano and bass treatment, "Go Home" sounded pretty as usual, "Sadie Hawkins" was extra lively and "Mineshaft" sounded very interesting with a rock guitar riff in the place of a violin sample. Dessa clowned on her inner-tour-van rivalry with Lazerbeak, who got up to plug his beats into a few of the tracks like "The Crow" and "The Wren" with Sims. I especially liked the way that Dessa and Aby tackled "The Bullpen," with the two ladies vibing to a really funky guitar arrangement from the band. Great set and the longest performance I've seen from Dessa to date - yay for headling tours.

Danced up in the front row of the packed crowd the entire time, as usual (well, not necessarily the packed crowd part, but the dancing part for sure). Awesome show, score another one for Doomtree! Check out some video footage from yours truly below:

The King of Lavabangers hard at work with a new beat:

Dessa and the band playing "Matches to Paper Dolls" (and me singing along badly to it, irk!):

Dessa and Aby Wolf's rendition of "The Bullpen" with the band. Really feelin this one!