The Kings of the Mic Tour has repeatedly been compared to a big classic-rock arena show -- old timers busting out riffs familiar to a graying crowd. But that's the wrong comparison. The Kings of the Mic Tour is more like if Chuck Berry went on tour with Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. This is the story of hip-hop Genesis, not some mid-New Testament book involving many forgettable pages of lineage.
You don't really need a reminder of the credentials involved here, but they're fun to sample: De La Soul, who opened this thing, blew away the sonic limitations of hip-hop and remain some of the wittiest MCs to ever take up microphones. Public Enemy released the greatest hip-hop album ever (now you know my bias). Ice Cube, as a core member of NWA, helped invent gangsta rap. And LL Cool J, more than pretty much anyone else of his era, proved that hip-hop had commercial viability.
So there we are. A lineup for the history books, without a doubt. But history books don't always make for the most thrilling reading. Would this show be little more than a nostalgia trip? Would these great rebels be reduced to the rallying cry, "Respect your elders!"?
No, thank God.
De La Soul bounded cheerfully onstage shortly after 7:30. "There is no show without a crowd there to have a good time," said Pos about halfway through the set, and that's pretty much the theme. They engaged the crowd, still finding its way to seats, in the usual ways: Call and response, pitting one side against the other, urging everyone to put their hands up. But unlike many other artists who do that (and some later on in this exact show), De La Soul are genuine and generous. You will hear no patter about how this is the best stop on the tour and it will never cross from getting people engaged to feeding the outsized ego of the artist.
"I think the party's on this side," said Pos. Mase (wearing a Run DMC shirt, incidentally) was supposed to defend the other side, but instead he said, "My mic tastes like pancake syrup." And that got more people laughing and cheering than whatever he was going to say would have anyway.
As they have elsewhere on this tour, De La Soul conducted a cheer-based survey to determine the age of the crowd. "Cheer if you're under 20" got more laughs than cheers. 20 to 25 got a few yells, and Pos quipped, "Stop lying, stop lying." The loudest group by a wide margin was 35 and up. Last night was a good night for babysitters in Dallas.
If everyone brought one 10th of the joy and expertise to his or her work that the members of De La Soul bring to theirs, life on this planet would be ... well, a field of daisies.
The battle cry that is Public Enemy has lost exactly none of its potency in the last 20-plus years. We're down a few members (how's the ostrich farm coming, Terminator X?) and Flavor Flav did not come out of his extended dunking into reality TV clean, exactly. But whatever. Chuck D is the most authoritative voice hip-hop has ever known and he hasn't lost a single decibel of those magnificent windpipes. And the Bomb Squad productions are as shockingly abrasive as ever -- even more so piped over a giant PA, as they were last night. Public Enemy featured a guitar, a bass, a drum kit and a set of turntables and much of the time it was impossible to distinguish the microphone feedback from the tracks from the live instruments, and the cacophony was exhilarating.
Public Enemy were also the only artists on the bill to resist the urge to point out the exact vintage of their prime material. Everyone else did some version of, "Let's take it back to 1989!" The closest PE got was when Chuck D said, "This ain't no hologram shit," and then they kicked off "Don't Believe the Hype."
The best call and response of the night was the one Chuck D initiated right before PE's final song: "When I say, 'De La,' you say, 'Soul.'" And so on down the lineup, then, "When I say, 'hip' ... you know what to say." We did. We also knew every word to "Fight The Power."
Flavor Flav, of course, was the last member of the band to cede the spotlight.
Ice Cube, along with his NWA counterparts, is the single greatest contributor to your grandma's fear of hip-hop. There is no surer sign that art is accomplishing something than when it earns the mistrust of older generations, and NWA flipped over some mean hard rocks to show the world the cold things crawling underneath them. Through their music (and Ice Cube's early solo work, which is similarly vital) the streets of Compton went from a passing statistic, easily shrugged off on the evening news, to an irrepressible nightmare. NWA's music is so volatile it started riots.
Ice Cube still mean mugs better than anyone in any business, but he's not about to incite any riots. The music's still hard and his delivery is still potent. Context matters, though, and when you're playing a parody of your MC persona in movies and performing in front of a middle-aged crowd in a giant, corporate-sponsored theater, some of that bite turns to bark.
Public Enemy's set was different. It maintained some degree of spontaneity and either way the songs have held up better. Ice Cube was putting on a musical about gangsters in L.A. There were videos of his younger self projected 20 times his size on a screen behind him. Enormous inflatable hands held up the West Side sign. Over and over again, he told us about how great we were, how much better than the other cities on the tour, and I bet they all heard the same. "This is the part of the show," Cube said. "when DJ Crazy Toones lets us know how he feels. If he's feeling good, he'll play some good shit. If he's not, he'll play some bullshit."
DJ Crazy Toones, you'll be shocked to learn, was feeling good. He played "Today Was A Good Day." Obviously he was going to do that anyway, and I appreciate that the whole setup was a teaser to that specific song. It still felt patronizing.
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Still, though, we got to see Ice Cube rap his verse from "Straight Outta Compton," and given that the rest is quibbles.
At last, the giant LL Cool J emerged from his mechanized raised platform at around 10:45 p.m. (got to get into the office tomorrow morning). Let's just say he wouldn't get top billing if this were the hip-hop pantheon. But it's not. It's a concert tour in 2013, and there's no doubt LL is who the crowd wanted to see most. After the righteous scowls of Public Enemy and Ice Cube, LL looked downright Disney, every bit the crossover star he always was.
But lest we forget, this man arrived on the scene at the birth of Def Jam. He was handed little and earned a lot, both through his underrated lyrical abilities and his correctly rated million-watt charms. He did not do "Accidental Racist" last night, but I bet if he had he could have had everyone singing along.