When Yasiin Bey stepped on stage at about half past midnight, the crowd was hungrily awaiting his arrival, freshly energized from an impressive set by Binary Star and ready now for the main event. Dressed in fitted white slacks, white collared shirt, navy blazer and designer-print ball cap, Bey dipped like he just finished playing croquet on a yacht in the Mediterranean: It's classy, nostalgic elegance, like a Slim Aaron's photo, and perhaps a stylistic nod toward Bey's efforts to transcend the mores of hip hop -- an idea he frames with his performance. For the next ninety minutes, his set deconstructed the essence of hip-hop as an art form -- live sampling from across cultures and eras, and reconstructing the pieces into a musical narrative that becomes a sermon on life, civil disobedience, pleasure, morality and empowerment.
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Paying homage to the Jamaican MCs tradition of toasting, his initial presence bordered on the ecstatic revelry of dancehall. Barely a full verse into the show, he shifted into patois and called for the DJ to rewind, much to the crowd's delight. "You could be anywhere in the world, but you're right here with us," he said, echoing Jay-Z's between-song banter from Hova's Unplugged performance in 2001. The beat for "Auditorium" dropped and the crowd was swept up into Bollywood sample chops.
As his set unfolded, traditional song structure was disregarded. There were no hook-verse-repeat assemblies of songs. It was bebop, exploring the confluence of sound and structure, or it was classical theory, like Goldberg's variations on Bach. Whatever it was, it was high art created as Bey lost himself in the moment.
Becoming a vehicle for the music whose essence flows through him rather than being produced by him, he unleashed the melodic vocalizations that have increasingly redefined his flows since Ecstatic, as if his voice is an instrument instead of just a means of communication. He crooned looped snippets of lines and flied into improvisations, expanding from loops into variations, extending notes, utilizing the two DJs set up behind him the same way James Brown guided the JBs. He orchestrated drops, restarts and cuts that transform songs into live remixes, all the while gliding across stage with moves adopted from R&B singers of the mid-to-late-'60s.
"Boogie man," "universal ghetto life," or "what it is?" -- words, not songs -- are elevated from bits of language to musical phrases. It's a sonic collage. He ripped a verse acappella and paused as a snippet of early '70s Detroit proto-punk (Death's "Politicians in My Eyes") shredded the silence, finally giving way to Bey leading a sing-along of Biggie's opening verse to "Juicy" -- "It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up magazine..." snapping the moment shut on the line "You never thought hip-hop would make it this far." The DJs dropped a remixed version of Slick Rick's verse from "Auditorium," a tight narrative from the perspective of a soldier in Iraq, which led to Bey spitting a remixed version of one of his verses from the tune over the new beat.
The show's execution mimiced prog rock as themes opened up, gave way to improvisational interludes and then returned to the phrase suddenly, as if the crowd had all experienced a beautiful lapse in the fabric of time. Fittingly, in a nod to the rock influence, the DJs drop a snippet of Frank Zappa's "Peaches n Regalia." Just as suddenly, the crowd gave a soul clap while Bey swirled deftly sung notes over top of drums, rising and falling in bursts like a Charlie Parker solo.
Pleased with the energy in the room, Bey pulled out a burned CD and took it back to the DJ. "I like this song," he says. "Y'all never heard this. I just made this motherfucker. This shit is raw. I wanna hear this loud." It turns out to be one of the new songs born from his collaboration with legendary New Orleans-based producer Mannie Fresh -- an unlikely but altogether awesome pairing.
The song is a super trap march and he was so amped to hear it on the system at Cervantes that he dove into the crowd and surfed several rows out before riding the current of hands back toward the stage. His flip of Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch the Throne anthem, which Bey turned into a meditation on suffering in the third world, "N***as in Poorest," kept the crowd moving, seguing into a sliced up version of the track's pounding drums that once again provided fodder for Bey's engaging vocal experimentation.
As the set evolved, classic material, like the radiant "Umi Says," the DJ Premier-produced gem "Mathematics," and the hip-shaking, internationalism of "Quiet Dog" all emerged from the audio ether. The floor of Cervantes was packed and despite the fact that it was the first properly cold night of fall, the A/C kicked on to battle back the heat of the feverish crowd.
And then things were winding down. It almost seemed like there should be a group hug or something. We've all shared something. "Thank you, thank you, and thank you again," he told the crowd, having clearly enjoyed himself as much as the audience did. "More than your money, we appreciate your time -- you spending your time with us."
The energy in the room for Bey's set was in no small part thanks to a stellar set from Binary Star, who mixed in older gems like "Masters of the Universe" with a handful of selections from their yet-to-be-released-but-coming-soon record, All in One. The new material they performed was nice. They also engaged the crowd with call and response during interludes and spit a couple of fire a cappellas showing off ever-tighter rhyme constructions. While I've enjoyed several of their albums, the energy of their live show definitely exceeded expectation.
DJ Cavem did his thing, too, holding down set breaks and backing Binary Star on the ones and twos. Between the opener, Scarab, and Binary Star, Cavem strung together a killer set of classic hip-hop sample records, including the Charmels "I'll Never Grow Old" and Grace Jones' "Jamaican Boy," to name two of a dozen or more, that was so smooth it almost certainly resulted in some form of immaculate conception.
Personal Bias: I haven't always agreed with the artist formerly known as Mos Def's choices as an actor, but his hip hop cred has always been sterling in my book.
Random Detail: This is the second show in a row where someone has come up to me and asked me if I was police because they saw me scribbling notes on a pad.
By the Way: True friendship is propping up your wasted buddy on a stool and using the arm your supporting him with to keep him nodding along in time with the music. I wasn't involved directly, but I saw it happen.
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