Concert Reviews

Over the Weekend: The Upper Echelon Tour with Myka Nyne

The Upper Echelon Tour with Myka Nyne
The Green Elephant
Sunday, February 7

Better Than: The poetry that your English Lit teacher thought would inspire your love of words.

To see a Myka Nyne show is truly an experience. Nearly absent are many of the conventions that sadly reemerge all too often when speaking of live hip-hop--the mindless call and response with the crowd, the entourage of unnecessary hype men, the yelling. Instead, what the audience is treated to is an experience more closely related to improvisational theater, the ad libbing no doubt aided by the fact that his equipment and laptop were stolen while the tour was in Atlanta.

Myka Nyne is no novelty act, but a true transitional entity in the narrative of hip-hop. And it's impossible to grasp the extent of his importance without a history lesson of sorts, so let's dive in.

It was roughly 20 years ago that Myka Nyne sowed the seeds of what eventually became a rap revolution. The transition years near the onset of the '90s had music of every ilk scrambling to find something new, and separate itself from the pomp and glitz of the previous generation. Nowhere was this phase more important to a genre than in hip-hop, which had graduated to a legitimate industry after spending the 1980s in the evolution stages. Hip-hop had grown up and had some decisions to make about who it would be as an adult. Two distinct tracts emerged, and the separation is still a clear point of contention in the genre.

Thanks to the appearance of Dr. Dre and his crew N.W.A.'s game-changing record Straight Outta Compton, from the same stomping grounds as Myka Nyne (born Michael Troy) in Los Angeles, gangster rap came out as the real money-maker for big industry and is responsible for the image many non-rap fans take from the genre as a whole. But the flip side of that coin is the sound championed by Troy and his cronies in the Freestyle Fellowship crew, a sound that was far more faithful to the roots of hip-hop with its main influences trickling down from the wandering griot poets of West Africa, jazz and jazz poetry, scat, Jamaican dub, funk, and soul. Troy and a tight contingent of rappers honed their skill at LA's Good Life Cafe, which was primarily based on lyrical skill and pushing the limits of improvisation much in the same way that the popular jazz musicians of the 1920s and '30s did. The Good Life was an early '90s weekly open mic that spawned many of southern California's influential rhymesters including Busdriver and Jurassic 5.

The music industry chose the less esoteric of the two rap camps, leaving true wordsmiths like Myka Nyne to shine like an undiscovered gem and, thankfully, hone and expand on his numerous vocal talents. Those talents were immediately apparent as soon as he took the stage--those in the know quickly clamored to the stage to better hear the rapid-fire polysyllabic onslaught that pepper Myka's flows while the uninitiated revealed their status as such with bewildered looks, grinding conversations to a halt once their attention was diverted to the entity that at times seemed wizardly with his microphone prowess.

Last night in Dallas, his show combined a capella showcases of his vocal skill, visits to some of his famed verses from early in his career that helped him gain prominence in the underground hip-hop world, smatterings of some of his newer material, and, of course, freestyling. Long-time fans were also rewarded for their gratitude to hip-hop with the artist's approval as he periodically quizzed the crowd on their knowledge of some of the seminal rap lyrics of his own upbringing penned by artists such as Rakim and LL Cool J--"you guys are the taste-makers," the rapper complimented, seemingly surprised that Dallas had a contingent of underground heads.

The performance began with Myka rapping over the intense rumble of dubstep, and saw him touch on a variety of genres as he played to the mood of the Green Elephant's attentive crowd. He got started gradually, as he interrupted himself to break into several vignettes that saw him slowly unravel the extent of his microphone prowess. He clearly had those who had never seen him perform in mind. He was extremely accommodating and friendly with his audience, even jumping into the crowd at one point and repeatedly mentioning that he was "just having fun," something far too few hip-hop acts will be accused of doing.

A medley of Freestyle Fellowship classics got many in the crowd riled up, but it was in his exploratory approach to the performance that the artist most clearly show of the many dimensions of Myka Nyne. During some points of the act he simply told DJ Nemoz, who comes from Queens by way of Barcelona, to "just play something" as he got comfortable and proved that he was perhaps most comfortable when not following a script.

This loose, unrehearsed gamesmanship with the DJ came off extremely polished--a true testament to the man's skill and experience in keeping a crowd engaged. He even reached out to the emcees in the room to finish out the set with an open mic cypher, a nod to his days of emergence in the humble surroundings of The Good Life.

Overall, hip-hop fans at the Green Elephant last night were given quite a treat, enjoying a level of prowess not often associated with Dallas, Texas. Why was Myka Nyne's performance in 2010 important to us as local patrons of hip-hop? Well, it's not hard to see the parallels between early '90s Los Angeles and present-day Dallas, with the wide gap that exists between the two distinct brands of rap around here--the lyrical vs. the gimmicky. The fact that Myka Nyne is still producing music--good music--and still holding the throne when weighed against any emcee in the genre, gives hope that there just might be room for the two schools of thought to coexist happily, each enjoying success within its own demographic.

Critics' Notebook

Personal Bias: Obviously a huge fan of the man and his hip-hop heritage, this critic would like to see more artists influenced by the like of Myka Nyne in his home town of Dallas.

Random Note: More than a few in the audience were hip to the magnitude of a Myka Nyne performance in Dallas. Last will go down as one of the better documented local hip-hop events in recent memory as several cameras were rolling and tons of photographs were snapped. Be on the lookout for more from this night in the near future around the world of the Interwebs.

By the Way: For those who wish to continue their lesson in the lyrical tract of hip-hop music, check out more info of the previously mentioned Good Life Cafe. An excellent documentary called This Is the Life also does quite a fine job documenting this scene. We highly recommend it.

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Nic Hernandez