Last night's Black Star show at the Fillmore Miami Beach wrapped up the local Rock the Bells mini-concert series. The series of tour stops -- this one, plus an earlier appearance by Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Mobb Deep -- was meant to serve as a salve for the lack of an actual Rock the Bells festival in our market.
Last night served that purpose well. The show was billed as a performance of Mos Def and Talib Kweli's first and only Black Star album from 1998, ostensibly straight through from start to finish.
Rather than letting the show serve as an exercise in nostalgia, though, Mos Kweli proved that despite their robust solo careers, there is still very much a creative spark between them that begs further collaborations. (In fact, a follow-up Black Star record, some 14 years in the making, is said to be due out next year.)
Despite the lack of mystery overall about the set list selections, the night still revealed a few surprises. Here are a few of them....
The show featured a local opener. The Fillmore, as a big-budget, Live Nation venue, usually mounts a traveling tour package as-is. This show, last night, was a rare occurrence there to feature a local opener, Black Bobby, backed by fellow DMV-to-Miami transplant DJ D-Up and accompanied by hype man Teagus Mayne. Though the crowd was still trickling in during his (unseasonably early for hip-hop) 8:30 p.m. set, those who were there politely paid attention and, unsurprisingly, seemed to most appreciate the dubstep-backed song "Miami Ave."
There was nothing particularly "local"-seeming about the performance -- which is to say, a good sound system, proper stage, and lighting does wonders for an up-and-coming artist. Will this start a trend of area acts getting on the Fillmore's stage? Maybe not, but it was a refreshing change.
The audience started out sparse but ended up pretty robust. Things did not look that good, initially, when Black Bobby went on. The Fillmore was arranged in one of its smaller configurations, with half of the floor seats blocked off by curtains, but still the rest only half full. The show was not a sellout -- surely ticket prices, $50 to $65 before fees, were partially to blame.
Still, by the time the headliners took the stage, there was an appropriately thick sea of bodies and waving hands. Guess the crowd went with its best judgment and arrived on hip-hop/Miami time. (There went the usual almost two hours between the end of the opener and the arrival onstage of the headliners -- though for hip-hop, that still really isn't too bad.) Also, unlike at other sweaty-dude-fest hip-hop shows, females made up a healthy faction of the crowd.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli offered absolutely no merchandise for sale. Sure, that isn't really a hip-hop thing, but at a fancy theater tour commemorating a landmark album, there was surely ripe opportunity to sell shirts, reissues, whatever. That extra avenue of income could possibly offset an easing of ticket prices, no?
Pharoahe Monch's "Simon Says," M.O.P.'s "Ante Up," ODB's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," and Sister Nancy's "Bam Bam" still get a golden-age hip-hop crowd riled up and ready to party. Oh wait, that's not a surprise. Just wanted to throw that in there. But J-Rocc, the legendary Beat Junkies turntable jockey, kept things entertainingly moving during the long wait between Black Bobby and Black Star. Other selections included the usual requisite hands-in-the-air selections like Wu-Tang's "C.R.E.A.M.," Dre's "Nuthin but a G. Thang," Tribe's "Oh My God," Busta's "Woo-ha," and so on. He also threw in a quick tribute to Miami with a few snatches of freestyle and electro before eventually going on to serve as Black Star's show DJ.
Black Star chose to rock the stage with just a DJ. Many grownup-type hip-hop acts like to show their grownupness by performing the hits with a full band and other fancy stuff. Not Mos and Kweli, who rocked things old-school with just J-Rocc on the decks, and a couple of vintage microphones matched to their sharp outfits.
Mos Def apparently sometimes turns Caribbean when he speaks on important issues. During past Mos Def performances, he's definitely sounded more New York than JA during his onstage patter. So where did the mystery accent come from when he asked people to videotape a special message for YouTube?
Whatever, the delivery was weird, but the content was not. In a serious moment, he urged BET Awards organizers to consider carefully their choice to host the upcoming ceremony in Atlanta, the site of Troy Davis' recent execution. If the taping goes forward there as planned, he asked that a moment of the show at least be dedicated to honoring the event and Troy Davis' mother. More on that over at Crossfade.
The material doesn't sound dated. Well, it certainly sounds of a certain late-'90s, hip-hop renaissance time period, especially in contrast to today's mainstream hip-hop landscape full of fatiguing synthy club beats. But at the same time, Black Star's sometimes mellow, sometimes exuberant tracks, mostly produced by Hi Tek, also sound timeless.
Mos and Kweli, both still just in their mid-30s (which means they put out the Black Star album in their earlyish 20s!), are young and still as on top of their game as ever. And most of Black Star's lyrics, with larger spiritualish and philosophical themes, don't seem tied to any particular era, unlike their flossy late-'90s peers. The only thing that stood out -- it's hard to imagine Kweli these days taking, as he raps in "Respiration," Brooklyn's notoriously hipster-filled L train.