I thought about going to the Saturday evening hip hop show at the Vera Project but I was leaning towards not going. Dana and I were planning on going to a friends house warming party, and it was the day before my birthday, and I'd already been to a show on Thursday (Diamond Rings, PS I Love You and Noddy). On the other hand my cousin's son was going and spoke very highly of the bands - but I was still leaning towards not going until I got an e-mail from Tristan asking if I could help with security. They were expecting a big crowd, the hip hop crowds tended to be a little more aggressive and drug and alcohol impaired, and the security volunteers so far were a smaller 16 year old kid and a couple of young women. Nothing wrong with them working security, but the obnoxious drunken frat boys at the show would tend to ignore them and when drunk they can be fairly difficult to handle. So I agreed to work security, and I'm glad I did. I suppose that sounds fairly ageist/sexist or even sizeist (is that a word?) and I apologize for that, but in fact drunken young adults usually do respond better to older and larger authority figures - not always, but usually.
Hip hop isn't my first choice for musical genres for various reasons. My tastes were formed in the sixties and early seventies before it existed, and it's emphasis on beats with frequently minimal melodies makes it somewhat less appealing to me. On the other hand there are some classic tracks like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five doing the Message or White Lines that I quite enjoyed. Grandmaster Flash in particular was associated with an interesting memory for me. One summer back in the early eighties I had been working in the middle of nowhere in Indiana on a robotics project, feeling far away from home, and I finally got to head back to Seattle after several months. I was still feeling alienated like I hadn't quite returned home when I hopped into the car to go somewhere and turned on the radio in my piece of crap car. I only had AM radio, so KJET (1610 "all the way to the right on your radio dial") was about the only useful musical option, so I turned it on. The DJ said "I just got a pissed off call from a listener saying "Quit playing that rap BS" so this one goes out to you!" and the opening strains of White Lines started and suddenly I felt at home and much more comfortable.
More recently I've volunteered at a few Vera shows and the Capitol Hill Block Party and seen some performers like Macklemore, Blues Scholars and Mad Rad that I quite enjoyed. The audiences were energetic and enthusiastic, much of the lyrics were explicitly political when they weren't party anthems, and the misogyny and gangster stuff which never appealed to me was at a minimum; the pervasive drug references didn't bother me too much, as I still sort of remember being a teenager in the seventies.
I got to the Vera a little late, around 6:45 (traffic was tough as usual, and the parking was horrible) and there was already a line out front, which surprised me some.
After a brief preparation we hung around and listened to the sound checks wrapping up, then opened the doors at 7:30, with an DJ scheduled to start at 8. The line by now stretched up the stairs and out of sight and we worked furiously to get everyone in before the show started. We had plenty of pre-sales, so it didn't take us long to sell the venue out, much to the disappointment of the 5 or 6 people who didn't quite make it in. After checking on the guest lists and will call I think we were able to get most everyone in after all and the venue ended up being full but not overly so.
I saw my cousin's son and said hello, he and the whole crowd were excited and positive, looking forward to the show. The positive energy was fun and added quite a bit to the experience.
The DJ was interesting, spinning some older tracks and quizzing the audience. He'd play 5 seconds and ask if the crowd knew who it was, and they mostly got it, except when he tricked them by playing an original that had been sampled in a more famous later release, everyone recognized the later track, not the original. He also played some Trinidad music, since that was where he was from; the contrast in sounds was interesting, with more complex beats in the Trinidad stuff he played.
The crowd was into it, but it was also getting into more questionable activities - I confiscated some whiskey from some bonehead who was making a big show out of drinking it; the Vera is an all ages venue and that is not allowed. "But I'm 21, I've got ID" he kept repeating. "This is an all ages venue and it isn't allowed, if you want to drink you'll have to leave!" was my reply.
The hip hop performers were active, letting lots of people into the green room, especially the cute ladies (no surprise there!). They also took frequent trips out of the venue through the back stage exit, coming back with red eyes, but at least they kept it out of the venue.
Kung Fu Grip put on an active and fun set with plenty of crowd participation - lots of arms in the air waving and call and response interaction - "When I say Kung FU, y'all say Grip!" "Kung Fu" and the crowd roars back "Grip!" Being on the show floor with lots of arms in the air makes the performers harder to see in the videos, but it added a lot to the energy of the show.
Next up was Real Rodgers, who talked up a new mix tape he had coming out within a day or two; if I caught the details in one of my videos (a web site reference) I'll have to go check it out. I'd never heard of Real Rodgers or Language Arts before the show, so I'm not sure which one I got on video here:
Next the DJs and MCs asked "Who wants to spit? Raise your arms if you want to spit!" and they brought up 6 or so people from the crowd and had a freestyle battle - first time I've ever seen one. It was quite fun watching them thinking up insults on the fly and making them rhyme.
I also had to push through the crowd and confiscate people's pot. Fortunately nobody was too tanked, so they didn't argue too hard. We also had to clean up puke a few times which wasn't pleasant, I think I prefer the potheads over the drunks, and that's without even considering the aggressive drunken behavior.
Language Arts took the stage next. The "beats" - the recorded music he and other performers rapped over - are mostly bass, drums, and a little keyboards sprinkled over it, very heavy on the bass end of the spectrum. That works well with the rapping, since you can clearly hear the voices, except when they get the bass so dang loud that your ears distort and you can't tell what the heck is being said. I've never understood why people play the bass so loud in their cars that it makes my ears hurt in a different car, and there was some of that at this show. Even with my hearing protection in the bass was close to painfully loud, and almost nobody in the crowd or on stage had ear protection - most of these people are going to be hard of hearing by their forties, which is sad.
Finally Knowmads took the stage. I hand't listened to them ahead of time and was surprised to see that they had a violinist playing with them; if I had bothered to look I probably would have noticed that they have quite a few tracks available for free downloading. It seemed like an odd choice, but it actually worked very well with the low frequency "beats" - the violin punched right through and added interesting embellishments as they rapped.
I was quite impressed by the Knowmads songs. The crowd obviously knew the material, singing and rapping along with their favorite bits and participating enthusiastically - I've never seen so many arms raised and moving in time to the music for song after song, I suspect many in the audience had pretty sore arm muscles by the end of the show. The energy and pleasure the crowd got from the performance definitely enhanced the show - the band fed off of it and worked harder still to keep that positive vibe feeding back and I enjoyed the heck out of it.
I was also struck by the political approach, even some of the pro-pot tunes like "How We Live" had a distinct political edge, identifying with the underclass and the outcasts, making the case that you do what you have to in order to survive in a tough situation.
"The River Runs Deep" was a standout track, it's imagery of being out on the Seattle streets, walking because it's too late to catch a bus (been there!) and the challenges of trying to make it ahead while being tempted and distracted by drugs, and it's odd yet brilliant turnaround in the final verse, finding a drugged out person bleeding and dying in the street and realizing it was himself, suffering the consequences of making some decisions differently - I found that moving and powerful, a brilliant piece of writing that haunts me a bit. Having lost some close friends to the effects of drugs - both to deaths and to permanent mental impairment - I know that that lyric and the "there but for the grace of God go I" sentiment is frighteningly accurate. Surprisingly insightful for a modern hip hop outfit with writers/rappers who aren't old enough to drink legally. It took me a bit longer to realize just how dangerous some of the substances I toyed with were, and just how lucky I was to get out of my adolescence and early adulthood without much damage. Major props to Knowmads for getting that message out to the kids, these guys tend to have a lot of influence with their audience.
Update: This was easily the best hip hop show I've seen all year, and now Knowmads are doing another show at the Vera Project next Saturday, April 30 - a benefit for Japan with Real Rodgers and Rawlo, I'll make sure I don't miss it and you should be there too!