The Jeru the Damaja/DJ Shadow gig April 9 at Boulder's Fox Theatre should have been memorable for musical reasons. Instead, what will stick in the minds of most of those who were present will be the actions of a handful of knuckleheads who helped perpetuate the impression that live hip-hop shows can be dangerous for spectators and even artists. This one certainly was for Jeru, a recent Westword profile subject ("Damage Control," January 16); he was slashed on the arm during an onstage altercation and required thirteen stitches at a Boulder hospital to close the wound.
To set the scene based on the observations of a reliable eyewitness--me: It was a miserable night in Boulder, thanks to a spring storm and driving conditions that even someone in a Zamboni would have found challenging. Nevertheless, the Jeru/Shadow date was a sellout, and from the size of the crowd inside the Fox, it was clear that virtually everyone who had purchased a ticket had used it. By and large, the patrons were young and pleasingly multicultural; moreover, none of the various groups represented seemed to be at each other's throats. By all appearances, peace was the order of the day.
Not that those present were ready to accept whatever they were given. At half past nine, the opening act, DJ Shadow (lauded in "The Shadow Knows," April 3) stepped from the wings. But rather than offering up moody soundscapes of the sort that populate his fascinating new full-length, Endtroducing..., he remained in the background while two rappers from his crew, SoleSides, threw rhymes at the throng. The result was underwhelming; the pair displayed all the flow of hardened concrete. The attendees reacted with justifiable disdain. Although SoleSides wasn't booed off the stage, it didn't come close to earning an encore.
Jeru was another story; from the moment he moved into the spotlight, he was in charge. Clad in a puffy, Afrocentric hat and a cape tossed over his bare torso, he lit into material drawn largely from last year's Wrath of the Math album like the ebony Superman he claims to be. But what was most surprising about his turn was the way he leavened his trademark positivity with humor. The tone of the show was set early on, when he revealed why he had failed to appear alongside Tricky for a scheduled January show at the Fox: "Tricky was an asshole," he explained. As the performance went on, Jeru took regular breaks to hector anyone and everyone he did not feel was getting down enthusiastically enough. But his manner was good-natured and comic, not confrontational. It was hard to believe that anyone could take umbrage at his behavior.
Unfortunately, someone did. After an especially entertaining bit of audience participation, a fan named Art challenged Jeru to a freestyle contest. Such battles, in which emcees make up raps in an attempt to best their adversaries, are a hip-hop tradition, and Jeru was more than willing to compete. Art was given a chance to rhyme and did so vigorously but amateurishly. Jeru dispatched him quickly but without undue gloating; he and an associate (who said that Art had displayed "a lot of heart") even encouraged the people at the Fox to give the loser a round of applause. Before he could go on with the show, however, Jeru received another challenge, this time from a group of beefy young Caucasians in a section designated for those 21 and over--an area where alcohol was permitted. According to information gleaned by the Fox's Don Strasburg, these men had been trying to get Jeru into a freestyle duel since early in his show--and he finally acquiesced. One of the men, adorned in baggy pants and a knit hat, stepped on stage and immediately got in Jeru's face. He refused to rap first, and when he was goaded at last into offering up a few lines, he came off like Vanilla Ice's less talented little brother. Jeru responded by verbally roasting him, but the man refused to leave the stage. After a few seconds of jawing, Jeru gave him a second chance, but the best the kid could manage was a weak insult of the rapper's nipples.
Shortly thereafter, a situation that initially struck some observers (like yours truly) as a staged sideshow spiraled out of control. The man accused Jeru of being "hostile," a charge that struck the star of the show as absurd; shaking his head, he told the man's supporters that he was only "buggin'," not trying to precipitate a fight. Then he freestyled a response that ended with him trying to take the microphone from the man's hand. (A member of Jeru's posse had previously tried to retrieve the mike but had failed to do so.) The man reacted by taking a swing at Jeru. As they grappled, the stage suddenly filled with security personnel, roadies and perhaps others from the crowd--it was hard to tell who was who. The combatants were separated and pulled off stage in a matter of seconds, and a number of cooler heads, like Francois Baptiste of 3-Deep Productions, tried to calm everyone down. That proved easier said than done: At one point, Baptiste told some of the man's comrades, "You're in the 21 section, but you're acting like you're 4 years old."
Moments later, Jeru reappeared, his hand and arm wrapped in a large white towel, and announced that he had been "cut with a blade" that had taken a slice out of his flesh. He said he needed to get some medical attention, but before he left, he freestyled a boisterous answer to any doubters in the crowd, portraying himself as an invincible wordsmith. Afterward, Shadow returned to the stage for a previously scheduled exhibition of deejaying skill. But half an hour into the session, another scuffle broke out, prompting Fox personnel and police on the scene to pull the plug on the music and clear the theater for the night.
Despite the passage of time since that decision, many questions about the fracas remain--like, for instance, what actually cut Jeru? No blade or knife was found, and Strasburg, who points out that Fox security staffers searched everyone before they were allowed into the venue, doubts that such a weapon was used. He and Fred Dewey, the chief operating officer of Small Axe Productions, which promoted the date, believe that Jeru was injured by flying glass from a bottle that was thrown onto the stage during the melee. "I'm the one who took him to the emergency room," Strasburg says, "and to me, the wound was more in line with something like that. Besides, everything happened so fast. I don't think there's any way that kid could have pulled a razor blade out of his pocket, taken the cover off it and then slashed Jeru."
The culprits, in the meantime, remain at large. Dewey says that the man on stage with Jeru and two of his friends were kicked out of the theater after the incident, but they were not detained by security workers, nor were they arrested. Strasburg defends this approach: "At a time like that, we're more interested in making sure that everyone is safe than in arrests," he says. However, he admits that Boulder police were called to the scene on two different occasions that night, and a slew of Fox employees, musicians and ticket-buyers filled out incident reports. Leslie Aaholm, spokeswoman for the Boulder Police Department, says the case is likely to stop there. The reason?Jeru's decision not to press charges against the freestyler in question, identified by witnesses as (irony time) "African Sam."
Of course, given the Boulder cops' progress, or lack thereof, in finding the killer of a certain child beauty queen who lived in these parts, there's every possibility that no one will do time for last week's scrap. But whatever comes to pass, those involved in promoting and staging the concert make it plain that hip-hop, a genre linked in the mainstream media with violence of the sort that killed Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., should not be made a scapegoat for what happened. "The circumstances were unique to rap in a sense, because there aren't many other kinds of music where people from the audience might be invited on stage to perform," Dewey concedes. "But by the same token, there are certainly punk shows where people get on stage and start fighting. And nobody's talking about banning punk shows."
"If this had happened at a White Zombie show or a Jesus Lizard show, this wouldn't be half the issue it is," Strasburg agrees. "But because it happened at a hip-hop show, it's going to be seen in a different light."
This point is well-taken. Although problems have cropped up at plenty of concerts by musicians in other styles of music (a near-riot at a November 1993 Pearl Jam appearance is a prime example), the ones people tend to recall, for reasons that probably have a lot to do with racism, are those that occur in a hip-hop context: a DJ Quik visit to Mammoth Gardens in 1991 that degenerated into a sign-throwing, bottle-heaving brawl; a 1992 fashion show at the Fox that led to vandalism when fans learned that special guests De La Soul did not intend to perform; an October 1993 Cypress Hill bash at the University of Colorado-Boulder that resulted in nine ambulance runs and ten victims of injuries ranging from contusions to a broken bone. Such episodes only contribute to the feeling among a great many promoters that putting on hip-hop shows is simply too big a risk. Bill Bass, the head of Small Axe, acknowledges that this perception hits him in the wallet. "When I was going to do a Snoop Doggy Dogg/Dr. Dre show a few years ago, I was getting insurance quotes of two dollars a head," he reveals. "That's not good for the scene, but it's the kind of thing you have to put up with--because you have to have a good, strong insurance company behind you, for your own protection."
Still, neither Bass nor Strasburg has any intention of dropping hip-hop because of what happened to Jeru. Bass has already committed to bring the second volume of last year's successful Smokin' Grooves tour to Red Rocks on July 21; he notes, "We had 9,400 people there last year, and there wasn't a single problem." Strasburg, meanwhile, plans to put up barricades at hip-hop shows from now on as an extra measure of protection for artists. He adds, "Jeru is fine--and he wasn't even angry about what happened. All he said was, 'I guess I can't invite people to come on stage with me anymore.'"
Sherri Jackson celebrates the appearance of her new album, Sherri Jackson, at the Fox Theatre on Friday, April 18, and at the Bluebird Theater Saturday, April 19. I don't have the space to offer a full review of the platter (the first release by a new national firm, Hybrid Records) in this week's column, but until I can get into it in more detail, suffice it to say that it's an extremely promising disc by an extremely promising singer-songwriter.
By the way, the Denver act Saturation will henceforth be known as Offering74. Thought you'd want to know.
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But not in the biblical sense. On Thursday, April 17, at the Fox, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson discusses his latest run-ins with the law. On Friday, April 18, recent Westword profile subject Cabaret Diosa holds a masquerade ball at the Boulder Theater; the Indulgers, featuring Damien Promise, join the Commerce City Rollers and plenty of others for a Clone Club date at Franklin's; Laughing Hands shake at the Mercury Cafe; the Rok Tots and Boss 302 play loud and fast at the 15th Street Tavern; and the Gash Cats hold a CD-release party at Bart's CD Cellar in Boulder. On Saturday, April 19, Mike Vargas presents some adventurous solo piano-playing at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; Kim Coy lives up to her name at Penny Lane; the Descendents punk out at the Ogden Theatre, with Suicide Machines and Shades Apart; Linda Maich and Rekha O'hal blend at the Mercury; and Santa Barbara's own Cadillac Angels promote their new, self-titled CD during a turn at Ziggie's. And on Sunday, April 20, the Utopian Futurist Society, under the direction of Thomas Blomster, presents "Cars, Jungles and Bugs" at the Bug Theater; Jux County and MK Ultra venture into the Lion's Lair; and MusicLink presents a special profile of the Apples at midnight on KBDI-TV/Channel 12. Watching once a day keeps the doctor away.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@ westword.comMichael_Roberts@. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com