Hip-hop is an elusive mistress.
She takes on so many forms these days that it's a lost cause trying to pin her down. The art form once branded a fad has matured into a complex, well-endowed empire, one that's skewing younger as it grows older, haunting the inner cities as it absorbs the suburbs. Trying to delve into the heart of hip-hop is almost an impossible undertaking. But amid the shopping-mall sprawl and wage-working monotony of Broward County, putting a finger on its pulse is easy -- though it may not always show you what you want to see.
Thanks to the hip-pop that's crunking up national airwaves, everyone's wondering if there's any truth left in the music. Folks out to see the mighty Mos Def at Revolution two weeks ago were expecting the real deal.
After an all-too-short MC battle, Def stormed the stage, and that's what they got. Sort of.
Def, born Dante Smith, made his national debut six years ago with Talib Kweli as one half of Black Star. He's dwelled near the soul and intellect of hip-hop ever since. No doubt the brother is one hell of a performer. Without wasting a moment, Def had the crowd going berserk, his charisma radiating into the room, pulling hands into the air and putting bodies in motion.
"I am the most beautiful boogieman," he sang in a brassy voice during his first song. And he was, all wise eyes, clever tongue, and urban slack dress code. But even with the camo netting over the keyboards and DJ stand and his hype man's bandito-style bandanna, there was more skill than scare in this monster talent.
The audience rapped along verse by verse and chanted "I am hip-hop!" at Def's command. He took the mouth percussion from Pharrel and Snoop's minimalist "Drop It Like It's Hot" and rapped his own verses to it. He tagged the Pharcyde's "Passing Me By," a cappella, to the end of his "Ms. Fat Booty." Both modifications proved hip-hop's liquid adaptability to be one of its most thrilling assets.
For an hour, Mos Def brought that "roots culture ghetto gangster magic," and hip-hop nirvana seemed close at hand.
But something struck me halfway through the show. Dude behind the keyboards hadn't hit a single note all night. Minnesota, Def's hype man, was mute, dancing silently like a wiggling toy. And the DJ had his arms folded across his chest, looking bored while Def stalked the front of the stage.
"What I spit and I write is real, cuz my life is real" he rapped from "Life Is Real" off his recent The New Danger album. And I believed it till I saw the DJ press "play" on the CD, synching up the next track. Shit. Religiously devoted to the tenets of hip-hop, Mos Def was rapping over aluminum instead of vinyl.
No big deal, right? Wouldn't be if you weren't a superstar MC who claims his utter realness. But this is Mos Def.
I was deflated, and I noticed that the crowd's energy level had waned too. Without any musical interaction between rapper and DJ, the show slumped. Def's albums are full of instrumental DJ breaks and full-on, hard-rock jams, but none of those dynamics came through the simple pressing of a button. As larger than life as his persona is, Def never brought his stage show to its full potential.
When it comes to South Florida's own Jaheji Records crew, there's nothing but potential. A flier advertising "The Up and Coming Kings & Queens of Hip-hop, Reggae, and R&B" had been sitting on my desk for weeks, and I damned sure wasn't going to miss that, even if the show was on a Monday.
The Jungle, an old R&B club in Lauderdale Lakes, is a beautiful, newly renovated space, far larger and more ornate inside than its stucco strip-mall exterior lets on. With its sinuous bar, wide stage, and spacious dance floor, it seemed like the perfect place for a showcase of emerging local talent.
As I sat through a glut of hard-rhyming junior thug lifers rapping to producer STZ's Pro Tools tracks, I kept thinking back to Mos Def's digital DJ. Just like that night, the most organic, genuine musical moment of the night came from the early MC battle. Tonight, it was a rapper named KT who took the prize, engaging each comer with an easygoing flow and wicked, debilitating insight.
Hours passed. Groups like the R&B quartet Too Deep, guy-girl tag team Thug Passion and Embee, the stoner-crunk M.O.B. crew, and hardcore reggae rappers Not Nice performed over their own vocal tracks. Plenty of raw talent here, but far from technically precise. Every dropped lyric let the prerecorded backing vocals break through. Most of these guys had never performed in front of an audience, and it showed.
Finally, at 2 a.m., the "special guest" was ready to take the stage.
"EmJay is the one to watch tomorrow night," STZ had told me the day before in the studio. "This guy's really got it."
Looking like the kind of young dude you'd see hanging at Sam Goody or in line at Subway, EmJay didn't come with any fancy bling or audacious swagger. He was there with his older brother, Trigga, who took the second-man spot behind EmJay, and two girls, one of whom danced while he was on stage. After two hours of anxious rappers flubbing lines and missing cues, EmJay's confidence and authority were impressive. He was clearly the most well-rehearsed, intent, professional rhymer of the night.
With a short, three-song showing, EmJay's final number was the clincher. The backing track was produced by Scott Storch of Snoop Dogg and Beyoncé fame. Called "Don't Stop," it's all trunk-bumping funk, upbeat, aggressive, but more nuanced than your typical Dirty South engine roar. And totally ready for radio. The beat trailed off, and EmJay thanked the meager crowd.
Off-stage and eager for a critique, EmJay told me he was finishing his last year of high school and still working two jobs at the Broward Mall. But hip-hop is his life. "I'm serious about it, 100 percent," he said. "But I'm gonna go to college and get a degree too." Humble, driven, and clearly in love with the music, this is the kind of personality that will make a mark on local hip-hop.
That's part of the problem -- and part of the beauty -- of chasing hip-hop. In its finest form, it's often found where you least expect it. It's all about staying in the race.
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