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Good Times, Gangsta Style

The Hard Knock Life tour puts on a happy face.

On the surface, the timing for the Hard Knock Life tour, a hardcore rap showcase that hit the Denver Coliseum on April 27, could hardly have been worse. A number of concerts had been canceled as a result of the April 20 killings at Columbine High, including an April 24 date with Sinbad, a comedian who went to college in Denver, and many of the gigs that went forward attracted audiences still shell-shocked by the

lamentable events and the unrelenting media coverage that followed them. At an April 23 Bluebird Theater appearance, Eddie Spaghetti, the bassist/vocalist for the Supersuckers, the band that headlined the show, tried to loosen up the torpid attendees before him by asking, "What's with this crowd? You act like there's been a shooting around here." The stony silence that greeted these lines begged an obvious question: If a mere joke upset locals, how would they react to songs dealing with random murders and heavy weaponry?

Very well, as it turned out. The hip-hop boosters who nearly packed the Coliseum have had precious few opportunities to catch even one thug-life icon in person, so the opportunity to see a quartet of them--Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man and Redman--temporarily shook the sadness from their systems. The tunes cranked out between sets by New York mixologist DJ Clue? were party-oriented, and so were the stars' turns. That didn't mean that musicians chose tunes free of potentially objectionable subject matter: "Bring Your Whole Crew," performed by DMX, includes the cheery declaration, "I got blood on my hands and there's no remorse/I got blood on my dick 'cause I fucked a corpse"--a sentiment that Howard Stern could probably understand. But given the Coliseum's wretched acoustics, plenty of nasty rhymes went right by those in the throng who didn't already have them memorized, and the infectious beats compensated for the rest. The result was a seeming oxymoron: feel-good gangsta rap.

The excuse many promoters offer for their unwillingness to book large-scale hip-hop events is the violence they supposedly attract, but the racially mixed assemblage at the Coliseum was strikingly free of troublemakers: Tattoos and tough poses were in great supply, but compared to the patrons at the average Jimmy Buffett concert, the fans were as well-behaved as Emily Post acolytes. I saw a number of encounters between security staffers and people dancing on chairs or in the aisles, and not once did attitude rear its engorged head. Neither were there any problems around the stage, which was guarded in part by members of the Nation of Islam clad in their trademark suits and bow ties. And if rival crews got into scraps that night, they did so far enough from the venue to ensure that their actions won't be used against other rappers by the music's many detractors.

Method Man, of Wu-Tang Clan fame, and Redman used this benevolent environment to their advantage. During their time in the spotlight, they embraced the usual cliches: The first words they chanted were (I'm not making this up) "Put your arms in the air! And wave 'em like you just don't care!" But they infused these hoary gimmicks with a tongue-in-cheek exuberance that actually freshened them up--and the goofiness didn't end there. The combination of a doo-rag worn over one side of his face and a backward cap partially covering it left Redman looking like a rap Snoopy preparing to take off in his Sopwith Camel, and his banter was frequently hilarious. For example, after hyping up devotees with questions about their love of hip-hop, pot and the like, he issued a bizarre non-sequitur: "How many of you watch The Simpsons? Don't you just love 'em?"

Method Man, resplendent in a Fubu gear ensemble, was even more entertaining as he urged his lanky frame from one side of the performance space to the other. His herky-jerky dancing and sandpaper voice enlivened Reader's Digest versions of the early Wu fave "Method Man" and solo ditties like "Bring the Pain" (from 1994's Tical) and "Suspect Chin Music" (on the new Tical 2000: Judgement Day). He also added strategic shouts to Redman's "Time 4 Some Aksion" and the wacky-tobaccy tribute "Pick It Up" ("If someone drops a bag of weed on the floor/Pick it up! Pick it up! Pick it up!"). Dope anthems like this last number segued perfectly into the evening's coup de grace: "How High," a Method Man/Redman duet (first heard on Redman's 1996 CD Muddy Waters) that the pair delivered while attached to trapeze-like tethers that allowed them to spin, flip and yo-yo over the folks on the floor. Method Man, in particular, was simultaneously graceful and wasted. Coming to a theater near you: Stoner Man.

DMX didn't attempt any acrobatics of his own. Instead, he spat out the words to songs drawn largely from his breakthrough disc, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, with throaty authority. But "Fuckin' Wit' D," "We Don't Give a Fuck" and the rest don't exactly flow--they're choppy and abrupt--and DMX's trademark bark (he refers to himself and his disciples as dogs) is uni-dimensional as it can be. What prevented boredom from digging in, then, was a surprising onstage persona that was as much hunk as goon. At the midpoint of his set, he stripped off his two T-shirts to display glistening abs and sweat-soaked pecs that he displayed with pride to the women in his thrall. His strutting peaked with, of all things, a prayer, which DMX issued like a prison-bound R. Kelly, complete with the occasional actorly sob. Afterward, he crossed his arms to form an X as hellish flashpots exploded around him. Talk about your mixed visual metaphors...

Coming after this moment of high (and slightly ridiculous) drama, Jay-Z got theatrical himself via a filmed segment that showed him and his posse allegedly escaping from police custody and racing to the Coliseum. But the mini-flick was lame even by music-video standards, and by the time Jay-Z emerged from a hole in the stage, a bigger-than-expected percentage of the crowd was already heading for the exits. This partial desertion of the evening's headliner didn't make much sense from a sales perspective: Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life was one of the most popular CDs last year, and six months after its release, it remains among the top twenty most-popular discs in the country, with sales in excess of four million copies. But the material on the album has been overplayed for so long that even those who see it as a work of genius are probably sick of it by now, and Jay-Z's lackadaisical performance style didn't help matters much, even on tracks as catchy as "Ride or Die," "Nigga What, Nigga Who" and "Can I Get a..." Using Master P as an apparent role model, he came across like a hip-hop CEO, seldom taxing himself and farming out responsibilities to his minions as often as he could. His segment of the show was only about forty minutes long, and over five of those were given over to one of the dullest turntablist displays

in the genre's history. Even Jay-Z didn't stick around to see it.
Still, he redeemed himself in the end. Between "Money, Cash, Hoes," an ultra-stupid salvo that paired him with DMX, and "Hard Knock Life," which rides atop a sample from the ultimate gangsta movie, Annie, Jay-Z announced that he and the other men on the bill were donating the proceeds of the concert to a charity, the Healing Fund, created to assist victims of the Columbine catastrophe. (At least one other national group, Eve 6, did likewise at a separate show.)

The gesture stood in contrast to the vigorous hucksterism that took place throughout the show. (Staffers waved placards advertising current and future albums by the players, and DMX's arrival was preceded by an actual commercial for a new compilation issued under the name of an umbrella organization called Ruff Ryders.) But it also made a certain kind of sense. Hip-hop has been blamed for so many criminal acts that the rappers were probably thrilled that they weren't taking the fall for this one. Besides, the Hard Knock Life tour has gone far smoother than most observers anticipated. "This is going to open a lot of doors for other groups to come through," Jay-Z said, "and we're definitely coming back."

The concert was not without contradictions: Method Man's "Dangerous Grounds" featured the sound of a shotgun being cocked and fired, and Jay-Z's final chant of "Peace!" was accompanied by a bomb-like explosion. But to the delight of everyone present, no other blasts were heard inside the Coliseum that night. Maybe hip-hop isn't that dangerous after all.

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