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The Need for Weed

By aiming for the lowest common denominator, Up in Smoke went over like gangbusters.

Comedian Alex Thomas is like a profane George Gallup; he just loves taking polls.

On Monday, August 21, at Fiddler's Green, where the summer-long Up in Smoke tour took its final puff, Thomas, a veteran of The Jamie Foxx Show who served as the event's master of ceremonies, filled time between sets by doing the age-old crowd-participation routine. "How many Latinos out there?" he wanted to know, prompting a predictable response -- a throaty "ROAR!" Then, "How many niggaz?" (a "ROAR!" of about the same volume and duration). And finally, "How many white people?" (a crazed, deafening "ROOOAAAARRR!"). After this last response, he did a faux double take. "Shit," he said. "Don't start any fights. We're outnumbered like a motherfucker."

In truth, this ethnic breakdown was no surprise; it's the secret to the success of Up in Smoke, headlined by Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dre protegé Eminem. For hip-hop's first couple of decades, most mainstream promoters shied away from the form, fearing that if a gunfight erupted midway through a show, they'd be sued for their last pair of Guccis. But last year's Hard Knock Life jaunt, starring Jay-Z ("Good Times, Gangsta Style," May 6, 1999), played arenas across the country, including the acoustically challenged Denver Coliseum, without incident, laying the groundwork for Up in Smoke.

Eminem, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg were the stars of the Up In Smoke tour, presented by the ever-smiley Magic Johnson.
Eminem, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg were the stars of the Up In Smoke tour, presented by the ever-smiley Magic Johnson.

Presented by retired L.A. Laker Magic Johnson, whose benign, good-role-model image probably reassured venue owners still a bit freaked by the idea of hosting thousands of kids who are into songs about busting caps, the tour was booked into arenas and amphitheaters from coast to coast -- a first for rap -- and sold out nearly all of them. Moreover, there have been no reports of in-concert death and destruction along the way. On Monday, the second of two gigs at Fiddler's, the only violence I saw the young, racially diverse attendees commit was to their lungs via chestful after chestful of pot smoke. By the end of the evening, I had such a secondhand buzz that I would have robbed a Hostess truck just to get some Ding-Dongs.

Thomas's banter (favorite phrase: "That's what the fuck I'm talkin' about!") established that many members of the throng weren't hip-hoppers come lately. In a gambit he used at each stop on the tour, he gave the audience a playful quiz centering on lyrics old and new (from Doug E. Fresh to DMX) and vintage party rhymes ("The roach, the roach, the roach is on the wall/Don't need no Raid, let the motherfucker crawl!"), and a sizable portion of it passed with ease. Yet Up in Smoke wouldn't have gone over so well in a rap outpost like Denver, where demand for ducats was so high that the August 21 date had to be added, if it weren't for the demographic-jumping appeal of Eminem. Plenty of Caucasians are into hip-hop these days, but the reaction generated by blond bad boy Marshall Mathers as compared to the one that greeted his fellow emcees made it clear that a lot of the pastier folks at Fiddler's were there primarily to see him.

Understanding that, Thomas engaged in some good-natured race-baiting, goading two different white fans (one named Willie, the other Jason) into "representing" their "people" by rapping a Snoop Dogg line. Yes, even their people booed them -- but the only other such hoot followed the Thomas question, "What do you think of the police around here?" Mostly, the hordes were as lively as it's possible to be while blisteringly stoned, and for good reason: The revue's mating of hip-hop club culture with the kind of pricey production values associated with Metallica and Korn pushed every button they had -- over and over again.

Following Thomas's warm-up act ("How many women have tattoos?" -- "ROAR!"; "How many women have their clit, tongue or nipples pierced?" -- "ROAR!"), the evening was kicked off by TQ, an old-style R&B smooch singer who's updated his image to appeal to hardcore types; during breaks between a handful of smooth, erotically crooned but ultimately generic tunes, he wandered the stage clutching a bottle and proudly declaring that he was "drunk as fuck." That transitioned into an equally abbreviated showcase for Warren G., an early-'90s hitmaker (remember "Regulate"?) who only has a career anymore because he's Dr. Dre's half-brother. But the weakness of his offerings didn't precipitate mass walkouts by the easily satisfied flock, which was more than happy to cheer wildly at all 5,000 mentions or so of weed, fine-ass lay-dees, weed, titties and weed. Notice a theme?

Eminem, for the most part, had less lascivious thoughts on his mind. Backed by a huge reproduction of his name whose letters flashed and blipped with the beats, he played the same contradictory game that makes his latest disc, The Marshall Mathers LP, intermittently promising and a definite improvement over its predecessor, last year's The Slim Shady LP, which struck yours truly as a one-way ticket on the Trivia Question Express. But rather than challenging the multitudes with more cerebral stuff like "Stan," an unexpectedly complex portrait of a disturbed booster that KS-107.5 has wisely hyped into a smash (see The Message, this issue), he focused on material such as "Kill You," in which he says offensive things in a jokey manner and then dares the listener to decide if he's kidding or not.

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