Photos by Neil Maclean. Please support.
If I didn’t look out of the window onstage at Washington, DC’s Liv during the performances at the hip hop extravaganza Thursday night and closed my eyes, I could’ve sworn it was 1990 instead of 2009. Instead, I looked out of the window briefly, and saw streets laden with hipsters in skinny jeans and residents of a gentrified U Street area heading out for a rain soaked night of revelry. Therein lay all of the answers to the questions of why this event wasn’t packed to the gills with nary an inch to move, but instead felt like a tent revival for only the most fervent of believers left in a religion that once dominated the land.
Dres of the groundbreaking and classic hip hop group the Black Sheep, supreme lyricists Tanya Morgan and the DC backpacker union of the “Food Chain Collective” performed on Thursday night to a paltry and progressively unmotivated crowd which deterred some acts, but for some others, only motivated them to win everyone in the room, converting a building in the process.
The event began with DC’s answer to the Roots’ hip hop jam band mentality The Five One (Red, Blue, Green and Gold – named by the colors they wear onstage), teaming with the supergroup of local backpacker trending, eschewing gimmicks for a belief in the potency of lyricism outfit, The Food Chain Collective. At any point, the collective consists of the following: Cubbiebear, Ardamus, Double Plus, Caverns, Educated Consumers, Flex Mathews, Mathpanda, Jade Fox, Blak Lungz, Future, Cuer, Teddy Faley and Rosetta Stoned. The stage became a mess of bodies, all engaged in a peaceful game of “can you top this,” which is certainly entertaining, but, from a visual standpoint reminded me of every bad cliche about hip hop, a there were literally eight dudes onstage and three mics. While the freestyle cipher was fantastic, from a visual and energy standpoint it sucked a lot of the energy out of the room as the emcees rocked it as if it were the last episode of Yo! MTV Raps instead of a venue that holds 250 holding a fraction of that, with more established acts coming on soon. That being said, Flex Matthews is a lyrical monster and a longtime performer in DC hip hop circles, a cipher battler like Papoose who as hip hop moves further away from lyrical content’s ultimate importance, becomes a relic and less of an important impact player. Watching this man kick it tor two minutes at the end of the set without The Five One’s backing riffs and kicks as if his life depended upon the whoops, screams and claps from the crowd exhorting him forward was one of my top live hip hop moments of the year.
Tanya Morgan followed and kicked the night into high gear with a 45 minute set that made me remember why I love hip hop. The “Brooklynati” (yes, half Brooklyn, half Cincinatti, OH) trio of Donwill, Ilyas and Von Pea came onstage and rocked it, showing their clear and obvious talents, and, if it were 1990, appearing to be auditioning for full time membership in the Native Tongues. It makes sense for a hip hop trio that met on the OkayPlayer message board to be completely fluent in the art of kicking a waterfall of effortless rhymes over classic jazz samples in an ultracharismatic manner. If hip hop had never become commercialized and homogenized, Tanya Morgan would be giant celebrities. If the art form were still welcoming of a classic style that was filled with tons of swagger and party vibe and not meandering and intensely self-reflective, Tanya Morgan would be giant superstars. Instead, they’re on the bubble and cusp of stardom, hoping for the moment that the world’s eyes finally turn to them, that they’re ready to shine. With tracks like “Bang and Boogie” and “Hardcore Gentlemen” containing infinitely catchy samples and hooks, there is hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel of underground buzz. Clearly, in a room filled with artists themselves, alongside friends and family of the gigantic “Food Chain Collective,” and classic hip hop fans who remembered the Black Sheep, Tanya Morgan stood in the face of that and converted an entire population.
As far as the sun sadly setting on an artist, thus and so was the tale of Dres of the Black Sheep as a headliner on this night. A crowd that had been sliced and diced by the Wu-Tang Clan style presentation of the Food Chain Collective and rocked and swayed with Tanya Morgan’s effortless attempts at awesome, pretty much wanted to hear “Flavor of the Month,” “Strobelite Honey” and the legendary “The Choice is Yours,” and be allowed to go to sleep blissfully. Oh, but if that were only the case. Having left the limelight long ago, separated from his partner in crime Mr. Lawnge, Dres performed a 45 minute set that at times would be at it’s worst points described as a laconic attempt at self-reverential hype for new material, with angst in the face of growing dismissiveness. At the best moments, you get to see a lively storyteller and ultimate emcee, a true party rocker and lyrical talent at work, again, someone who, once the industry turned against his style and craft, clearly saw it as the industry turning against him, and is searching. His new and latest material from 2006’s 8WM/Novakain and a yet to be titled release expected in 2010 are not terrible, but likely in front of different crowd, not expect a legend to be forward thinking instead of past greatness reflective, it would have been a better event.
Overall, it was refreshing to see classic hip hop still alive and mainstream ready in 2009. As a whole, the event definitely succeeded, if in anything, making me wax nostalgic. A remembrance of things past, and hopefully not things lost.