Hip-Hop Live Featuring Brother Ali, Ghostface Killah, and Rakim Thursday, November 8 The Ogden Theatre
Better Than: Seeing some hippie group ironically cover “Microphone Fiend”
Hip-hop may be known for many things, but musicianship is not one of them. So last night’s “Hip-Hop Live” show – which featured Brother Ali, Ghostface Killah and Rakim backed up by the ten-piece Rhythm Roots Allstars – could easily have felt like a gimmick: Oh look, these wacky rappers are actually playing with a real live band! Fortunately, the MCs, and particularly the band, utilized the complete meaning of the word “live.” Never digressing into the wanky or pretentious, they simply performed the songs in straight-ahead arrangements courtesy of an expert group of players.
The Rhythm Roots Allstars opened with their own brief set, a percussion-heavy performance reminiscent of Ozomatli, a point of reference that delighted the crowd. Several times, the guitar, bass, and keys gave way to extended percussion solos by five members of the band, not including the three horn players who were shaking and clanging various instruments.
The climax of their exuberant performance segued directly into Brother Ali, who played the hypeman role to the T, promising the crowd, they “made a good decision by being here,” and touting his tour-mates more earnestly than obligatorily. In fact, all the artists seemed genuinely appreciative not only of their touring partners but the band, which reciprocated the love by playing tight and precisely. Ali, who earned his reputation in some circles courtesy of his live act, spit with the same urgency found on his albums and although he leaned more heavily on material from his most recent disc The Undisputed Truth, the crowd seemed more than casually familiar with his music.
They were even more rapturous when Ghostface and friends took the stage -- and by “friends,” I mean three other dudes most definitely not in the immediate Wu-Family. Ghost’s decision to fill the stage with more MCs than necessary was an understandable one: Coming off a summer tour with Wu-Tang, can you blame the guy for feeling more comfortable with a few extra bodies to pick up the slack on the final line of his stanzas? But it wasn’t the multiple hypemen that proved to be Ghost’s most unfortunate live cliché; that distinction was earned by the one-verse medleys that took the place of his actual “songs.” Even with a live band to keep things interesting by using soul classics “I’ll Take you There,” and “Soul Man” as the beat for the Wu-Classic “Ice Cream,” the performance felt somewhat incomplete instead of simply fluid. Which is not to say that it was bad: Despite a new album, The Big Dough Rehab, set for release on Dec. 4, he played plenty of early Ironman material and his onstage banter – particularly when talking about the Korn groupies that ate up all his Oreos during their recent tour – only added to his already charismatic stage presence. But tired routines like pulling at least 20 girls on stage to grind with his homies during “Cherchez la Ghost,” only perpetuated live hip-hop stereotypes when he should have been breaking them down.
Rakim finished off the night and, sadly, his set was probably the worst. Don’t get me wrong - hearing “I Ain’t No Joke,” “Microphone Fiend,” and “I Know You Got Soul,” performed live will stand as cherished memories for years to come, the same way that seeing the Rolling Stones is seminal for those who came of age in the '60s. But somehow it felt a little – and it pains me greatly to use this word – pathetic, largely because the 30-somethings seemed to be the only contingency able to recite his classic lines when he stuck his mic out to the crowd, which was often. The audience was certainly still enjoying the show, but the because they skewed so young and seemed more familiar with Ghostface’s or even Brother Ali’s music, Rakim’s set came off as somewhat anti-climactic (not helped by the fact that he didn’t perform an encore). Still, it would hardly qualify as a bad set, and I sincerely believe that at least part of the crowd’s muted enthusiasm can be attributed to what I’ve dubbed the Casablanca Syndrome: Rakim is like the Benjamin Franklin of hip-hop quotables, so when he drops “kick a hole in the speaker, pull the plug then I jet,” it’s use in countless other songs dilutes the impact of hearing it in it’s original context.
All in all, the show was good, but probably only great to hip-hop newcomers who had no idea hip-hop and live instruments could make such sweet music together. -- Mark Schiff