Concert Reviews

Hip-Hop Show or 420 Festival? Nas and Black Star Draw the Herb at Red Rocks

Yasiin Bey
Yasiin Bey Brandon Thrift
Last night’s July 31 hip-hop extravaganza at Red Rocks with Nas, Black Star, Brother Ali, Royce da 5'9" and the Reminders could have easily been mistaken for a 420 festival. For hours, a carpet of fog, like a thick ganja soup, settled upon the amphitheater, intoxicating every living organism that relies on breathing.

I bring this up first because weed set the vibe and pretty much defined the experience of a long-anticipated hip-hop mega show that included some of the titans of East Coast conscious rap. Before going to the show, I had wondered if we were going to get any provocative political messaging, any challenging calls to action, any inspirations for resistance. Because let’s face it, if you’re paying a modicum of attention, times are heavy right now, and for decades, Nas, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Talib Kweli have been nothing if not outspoken about oppression, violence, racism and American imperialism.

Instead, the concert was reminiscent of those times in high school, back when we had Illmatic in the CD player — or for truly old-school fans, on tape — and would hotbox the shit out of our friend’s hand-me-down coupe and drive late at night through the city, Nas’s voice spitting through blown-out speakers while his background jazz samples paired so perfectly with that street herb that our bodies felt like they were melting into the upholstery.

Ditto with 1998’s classic Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star.

As Tuesday’s concert got under way, it quickly became apparent that we were reconnecting with this more intoxicated nostalgic experience. Suddenly the pockets and backpacks jammed full of joints made sense.

What was perhaps most surprising was that Red Rocks allowed this. I’ve been at plenty of shows where Red Rocks ushers were all buttoned-up about toking and descend on any plume of smoke like buzzkill cadets. Last night, they simply gave up. There were so many joints — throughout the whole concert — that at a certain point during the night, people around me were just giving away extra J’s to anyone who’d take them, anyone who wanted an extra puff to get them into the stratosphere.

The Reminders, then Brother Ali, were the first to mesmerize the stoned crowd with fine displays of rhymesaying. The audience could generally be described as being 65 to 70 percent dudes, multiracial but with the Colorado bro, backwards-hat look. Not too many dreads; this was a crowd apart from the Rastafarians and Sonic Bloom wooks.

click to enlarge The Reminders opening things up on July 31. - BRANDON THRIFT
The Reminders opening things up on July 31.
Brandon Thrift
But then, a twist! Something newsworthy!

Pusha T canceled.

This comes right on the heels of the MC, formerly of Clipse, canceling nine other shows in his North American tour in support of his latest album, Daytona, which came out in May out of whatever weird scene Kanye is running up there in Wyoming and featured a particularly brutal takedown of Drake, suggesting that the sad but stylish Toronto dad is father to an illegitimate child.

That dis toward Drake is unsubstantiated, but what’s obvious is that Pusha T is having plenty of problems of his own. He has not announced why he has canceled tour dates or why he was a sudden no-show last night in Colorado.

Fortunately, Black Star did not skip a beat. Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli do have a fun, natural interplay on stage, and they broadened their set beyond tracks off their 1998 album to include some solo material, like Bey’s (or Mos Def’s — never sure how to address his old material) “Auditorium,” off The Ecstatic, as well as, intriguingly, some material from a new Black Star album coming out sometime this year.

click to enlarge Black Star - TRISTAN NISKANEN
Black Star
Tristan Niskanen
Before their set, the two spray-painted the word “Summit” — along with “2018” — onto a white banner in front of their DJ, and while it was not made clear what this means, I suspect that will be the name of the new album.

Yasiin Bey, for his part, sounded a little muffled during the set, but did earn Cirque du Soleil cred for acrobatically spinning in circles upwards of fifty rotations at a time. He did this twice, looking something like a hip-hop whirling dervish.

And finally, Nas! Or I should say Nasir, since that’s what his latest album, also out this year after being produced at Kanye’s Wyoming cult, is called, a reference to his full name, Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones.

At the age of 44, Nas was looking energetic, wearing a signature black T-shirt, shades and necklace. He appeared like a less-tired version of his once-rival, Jay Z, and seemed to have an easier time with altitude and not losing his breath compared to Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli before him.

We heard a wide range from Nas — plenty from 1994’s Illmatic, but also cuts from across his career, and new songs like “Cops Shot the Kid,” from Nasir.

His sound and delivery were much cleaner than Black Star’s, aided by the presence of a live drummer, though Nas’s commentary between songs left something to be desired and was, at times, confusing or meaningless. For instance, before launching into his “One Love,” Nas declared, “I used to write letters to my homeboys in jail. Now they have email and Instagram. ... One Love, y’all.”

Uh, cool. As if Instagram has made mass incarceration more palatable?

Another uninspired ditty: “Colorado…it’s number one, yo. Hard to come close.”

We’ll be happy to welcome him when he moves here.

Nas’s biggest error, though, was leaving the stage after “Hip-Hop Is Dead” for such a long time that people thought the show was over. This, it turned out, was a break before an extended encore, but it lasted long enough that a third of the audience left the amphitheater, figuring the whole shebang was finished.

Those who stayed, however, got to suck in plenty more of that secondhand weed smoke before leaving. Looking around, it was hilarious to see so many dudes rapping along with their idol and using all sorts of hand gestures to go along with the rhymes, deliveries clearly practiced many times in front of mirrors and in cars and showers while listening to Nas’s records over the decades.

It was a hazy, fun, and kind of stoopid — in the stoned sense — type of night. But then again, so were many of those nights back in high school and college. This concert did a fine job of re-creating that.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker