If, twenty years ago, I could have gotten the chance to see De La Soul, Public Enemy, Ice Cube and LL Cool J on the same bill, I think my teenage head might have exploded. To modern-day hip-hop fans, I’d liken that to seeing…I don’t know…Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Kanye and whoever else is hot right now play the same show. Like a rap version of an All-Star Game.
Not to say that the Kings of the Mic tour, which I saw a few days ago at its Boston stop, was an exercise in nostalgia. Well, it was. But that wasn’t all it was. All four acts, whose average age must be somewhere in the mid forties, brought energy, showmanship, and decades of hits to the Bank of America Pavilion, combining to give the venue 4 1/2 hours of quality and timeless hip-hop.
I must admit to having only heard (not seen) De La Soul’s set (thanks to a series of circumstances that I’d rather not discuss right now!) Despite being across the street from (as opposed to inside) the venue when Pos, Dave and Maseo played their hits, the legendary trio appeared to bring tons of energy to their set, rocking hits like “Buddy”, “Oooh!” (unfortunately, without Redman) and, of course, “Me, Myself & I.” As I’d been more excited to see De La than the other three acts, not being able to actually see them was something of a disappointment, but I guess being able to hear their set was the next big thing.
Ice Cube was up next, and even though he’s gone from sneering, scary emcee to hip-hop Bill Cosby, the man’s certainly got stage presence for days. With a tricked-out set including two ginormous hands sporting the infamous “W” sign, the West Coast legend led the crowd through a series of mid-career hits. He skipped most of his early material (NWA and his first couple of solo albums) to focus on hits like “Check Yo’ Self,” “You Can Do It” and, of course, “It Was a Good Day,” which he closed with. Given that Cube and Public Enemy were on the same bill, I was a little salty that they didn’t combine to perform anything from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, but I still wound up enjoying Cube more than I thought I was going to. I guess I underestimated him.
Three decades after forming, most of Public Enemy’s classic original lineup is still together, and in his mid-fifties, Chuck D. rocks a crowd better than most emcees 1/3 his age. P.E. were the only act on the bill that came out with a live band, giving their set a freewheeling, rock and roll edge. In between delivering his typically abrasive lyrics (still relevant after more than a quarter century,) Chuck ran around the stage, performed tricks with his mic, and acted as a true master of ceremonies, giving time to touring member (and old school legend) Davey DMX. Of course, Flavor Flav was on hand too, and although he delivered the night’s most head-scratching moment (he lip-synced “911 is a Joke,”) he also showed his musical acuity by soloing on both bass and drums. Seeing the racially diverse crowd giving the black power salute and jumping up and down to “Fight the Power” was a treat, and P.E. showed why they were voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (deservedly) earlier this year.
…and then there was LL. Long considered one of the gold standards for hip-hop performance, LL might be a little long in the tooth to rip his shirt off and flex his muscles (or maybe he just bares his pecs for CBS these days,) but Mr. Smith still knows how to rock a party. Opening with “Mama Said Knock You Out,” the legendary Cool J ripped through an hour of hits, covering all the points of his career (with only one song from his latest abomination of his album performed, thankfully.) DJ Z-Trip (who proudly announced that he was performing with real-live turntables and records-no digital accoutrements) ably backed LL as he ran through “I’m Bad,” “Big Ole Butt,” “Doin’ It,” “Headsprung” and even rocked a couple of deep cuts, like “Get Down” and “Eat ‘em Up L Chill.” He divided his set pretty evenly between party rockers and love jams, and the ladies certainly responded in kind. He got a pair of drawers tossed up to the stage pretty early in the show, and hung them up on his mic stand for the duration. He also invited a series of thick girls from the audience to show their stuff to the strains of The Commodores’ “Brick House” and slow-grinded with another fan later in the show. The consummate showman, LL closed his set with “Rock the Bells,” leaving the crowd spent and satiated.
Every time I see a show like this, I’m reminded of being a younger teenager, being told by family members, teachers and assorted elders that hip-hop was a fad and that it would never last. A quarter century after those statements were made (and despite many efforts made internally and externally to drive the genre into the ground) hip-hop not only survives, but thrives, and it’s great that some of the pioneers are not only here to see the progress that’s been made, but they’re still active participants in the culture. Hell, they could still probably show today’s emcees a thing or two.