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.
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.
This tack, while nicely provocative, is also fairly one-dimensional -- and if it's managed to provoke the likes of Lisa Schwarzbaum, who attempted to make Eminem the poster child for societal decay in a blue-nosed cover story for Entertainment Weekly earlier this month, anyone who's really paying attention can tell it's just a pose. His introduction to "The Way I Am" only underlined this impression: He wondered, "Have you ever been so pissed off that you wanted to kill somebody?" -- and after those assembled did their Pavlov's dog impression ("ROAR!"), he told them that whenever they felt that way, they should go home and listen to his CD (which just happens to be on sale at a neighborhood music store near you). Later, he was escorted off stage by a couple of women dressed as streetwalkers, and when he reappeared, he insisted that we'd just witnessed a spontaneous prank by his crew, not "some played-out shit." Guess that tells us what the rest of his set was.
Not that there weren't some high points. In the middle of "My Name Is," the catchy but (very) annoying single that first brought him to prominence, he stopped cold. "Aren't you sick of that song?" he asked incredulously. "I am. Me and Dre was just playing when we made that shit." Such honesty will serve him well if he wants to outlast Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, the Insane Clown Posse and the rest of the easy targets he plugs on Marshall Mathers.
By contrast, the concluding salvo by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg was about as believable as that kiss Al Gore gave his wife Tipper at the Democratic Convention (eeewww!), despite all the pretensions toward "keeping it real." In the beginning, these guys were closely acquainted with the street, but a full eight years after The Chronic began Dre's transformation from a producer to a multimillionaire mogul, they continue to pump the same cliches, with Dre chugging from a bottle of Hennessey to the delight of his acolytes and Snoop prompting them to answer his constant queries about wanting some "sticky icky-icky" with "Oooo-eeee!" Worse, the amphitheater's vast size eliminated all possibility of appreciating the studio wizardry that is Dre's true legacy, reducing most of his tracks and loops to interchangeable, bass-heavy thump-thump-thumps.
In compensation, Dre and company presented enough sound and fury to leave William Faulkner trembling in his grave. The news peg for the tour was a quasi-reunion of Niggaz With Attitude, or N.W.A., the act most responsible for propagating the gangsta style in the late '80s; Snoop was chosen to substitute for the late Eazy-E, whose feuds with Dre likely would have prevented a get-together had he still been alive. However, Ice Cube, Dre's most famous N.W.A. collaborator (and director of Thomas in The Player's Club), dropped off the caravan before it hit Denver, leaving Dre and Snoop to make do with a slew of lesser guest stars: Nate Dogg, Xzibit, Kurupt. Yet few likely noticed given the multimedia assault offered up. Included were a short film in which the prime twosome cavorted with nude bimbos (the flesh display actually got the featurette banned in Detroit, Eminem's hometown) before blowing away some thugs; another film sporting simulated oral sex; frequent explosions and jets o' flame; and an enormous skull that solicited the gathering for "some motherfuckin' chronic" in an echoey, supposedly demonic voice. Iron Maiden meets Cheech and Chong.
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Sure, it was dumb, as was all the posturing throughout hits like "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" and "Forgot About Dre" (which attracted Eminem back to the stage) -- and the tributes to deceased buddies like the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, whose Dre-produced single "California Love" got the full treatment, were de rigueur, if not de rigor mortis. The artistry of hip-hop was smothered in stereotypes, albeit ones that have proven to have lasting appeal: The approach was about as fresh as decade-old bread, but thousands of Coloradans chowed down on it anyhow.
Admittedly, there were exceptions. While taking refuge in the restroom, my beloved, who accompanied me to the concert in the full knowledge that she could listen to her Jimmy Buffett CD when she got home (shudder!), ran into a woman chaperoning her kids who couldn't stop lamenting about how the spirit of the music was the polar opposite of everything "we fought for in the '60s."
This observation overlooks the fact that the '60s were as much about getting laid and taking drugs as they were about peace, love and understanding. Nonetheless, the woman was right to feel overwhelmed -- because on this night, at least, she was outnumbered like a motherfucker.