There was a salient theme throughout the night, across the sets of most of the acts, and that was a message of being healthy, both physically and mentally. "Healthy is the new gangsta," said stic.man of dead prez near the middle part of the show, just before he went into one of his solo songs, "Back On My Regimen." On that tune, he invokes the words of Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, which was, of course, a key influence on Bad Brains. That song segued perfectly into the dead prez song "Don't Waste It," a track that suggests that getting intoxicated is what keeps the community weak. M-1 told us this wasn't just a concert, and he was absolutely right.
stic.man wore a hoodie with the words "Bruce Lee JKD" (the latter presumably standing for Jeet Kune Do, the martial art created by Lee). M-1, meanwhile, wore what he probably goes around in every day -- but that's part of the point of dead prez: being one of the people and showing solidarity. And the songs performed at this show were filled with lyrics that reflected every day struggles that anyone who doesn't have it too easy -- in an economic and social sense -- can relate to, elevated by poetic sensibility flowing inside the presentation.
Both M-1 and stic.man had great one liners. Some brilliantly subtle, others more absurdly overt that you just had to laugh. At one point, stic.man told us he had been completely clean and sober for a few years. Someone in the audience joked about marijuana, and stic.man good naturedly joked back, "You stay high. I'll stay hydrated." Even more than the banter with the audience, the lyrics revealed a broad spectrum of interests between stic.man and M-1, not only the aforementioned Napoleon Hill book but also references to Carlos Castaneda ("self-aware like Don Juan"), naturally, well renown radicals of the '60s ("Malcolm, Bobby, Huey") and others.
Whatever the subject matter, the jokes or the messages, M-1 and stic.man were powerful MCs that drew you in whether or not you were down with what the duo had to say. At the end of the show, DJ MC Mike Flow got to come out from behind his deck and do a little rapping. With no real outro, dead prez left us on a high note.
This show was curated by the poet and filmmaker Jai Harris, who not only performed poems between sets, but also did cuts from her excellent Disconnected Volume 1 mixtape. Especially interesting was the poem/song called "Smoke Signals." At first, the song seems to suggest it's about a return to (and reconnection with) spirituality in a more conventional sense. But then, it steps out of that into a spiritual awakening of a paradoxically more personal and universal kind, not tied to a specific religious tradition, and not in a sense of "spiritual" meaning something supernatural.
Ill Seven followed Harris with beats that wove in bits of pop songs like you might not expect to hear, like "Riot Rhythm" by Sleigh Bells. His vocal delivery was also somewhat reminiscent of Ishmael Butler during his time in Digable Planets, and Ill Seven's rhetoric about revolution and awareness as a route to inspiration and a healthy life also fit in well with the tone of the show.
The group 2MX2, meanwhile, employed a live drummer (Kinetic Xound), as well as a DJ (DJ R Skwared) and two MCs, Rol Pley and Juice El Tio Hugo. The two MCs came on stage dressed in all white but changed into more formal outfits for other parts of the show, less formal for others -- all seemingly suddenly like they were magicians. Mostly the guys rapped in English, but it got better and more heightened when they switched to Spanish. The rapping had that kind of rapid high and low style resonant with early dead prez.
Bianca Mikahn, a veteran of Slam Nuba, is an MC who is clearly more informed than most. You have to admire anybody who can reference Stockholm Syndrome (though in this case, reversed, "Syndrome Stockholm") in a song and make it poetic. At one point during her set, she commented that she was a weirdo. But the way she embraced being a so-called weirdo made it not seem at all weird, and in one of the songs, she deftly, and correctly, pointed out that "There's no such thing as normal."
Before DJ Cavem's set -- or in conjunction with the beginning of it -- Jai Harris performed after a bit from the film Boyz n the Hood, where Laurence Fishburne's character says, "Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children." Cavem doesn't just take the impulses requisite for a "conscious artist" to the next level. Both his songs and what he advocates give his listeners not just good music but music with practical advice about eating healthy and pursuing an active lifestyle as the foundation of a healthy, productive life.
Cavem's energetic and diverse performance incorporated guests such as 2MX2, Harris of course, Bianca Mikahn, a gifted R&B vocalist named Janae and Soul Rebel, the son of local hip-hop luminary Jeff Campbell (aka Apostle). In one song, Cavem gave a shout out to Qknox for a beat -- easily discernible with the jazz inflections that is the signature of Qknox's beats.
Mid set, Cavem brought Theo "Lucifury" Williams to perform some poetry. First he joked about him knowing what we were thinking -- that he was the love child of DMX and another hip-hop celebrity whose name got drowned out a bit by laughter from the crowd. Then he performed a fake news item imitating the voice of Barack Obama talking about things in a way Obama never would but it was amusing in the way that those fake news items Public Enemy used on its albums could be.
Bias: First heard "Animal In Man" in 2000 because a co-worker was listening to it. Been a fan of dead prez since.
Random Detail: Ran into Doris Brown (formerly of the Haircut) at the show.
By the Way: dead prez has a deluxe edition of its latest album, Information Age, which we were told includes five new songs and is coming out on January 29.
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