Translating hip-hop from the studio to the stage in a convincing manner requires as much panache and charisma as it does naked aggression and attitude. Witness tonight's lackluster performance by opening act Parental Advisory. Without the extra tracks and smooth production of the studio, the sound was reduced to two rappers shouting unintelligible rhymes over a bunch of wafer-thin samples. Hardly anything to get excited about -- let alone alarmed over.
But for every dozen failed live hip-hop acts like Parental Advisory, there's an exception to the rule: to wit, A Tribe Called Quest. Throughout their celebrated nine-year career, this Queens, New York collective has proven themselves to be a genuinely exciting live event. Tonight, with the group's fifth LP, The Love Movement, set to drop later this summer, the anticipation was palpable.
The house DJ cut the music and up-and-coming rapper Mos Def stepped on stage. The crowd blew up. When he introduced hip-hop veterans Jonathan "Q-Tip" Davis, Malik "Phife Dog" Taylor and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the three members of A Tribe Called Quest, he was grinning like a schoolboy. Tribe took the stage and ran through what amounted to a tour of their discography, masterfully avoiding the pitfalls of the live setting and never once letting the energy level dip below the red zone.
Tribe succeeded onstage because they recognize that a hip-hop show is more spectacle than musical event. They packed their set with more breakdowns than a teen slumber party, and only slightly fewer surprises than a White House deposition. Mos Def's role as the opening MC was the first of many unexpected treats. Rapper Q-Tip showed off his beat-boxing skills in several crowd-pleasing displays, at one point trading beats with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed on the turntable. And Busta Rhymes appeared out of nowhere to add his deep-throated growl to the growing melee. He remained on stage for the rest of the set, grabbing the mic again for the closer, "What's the Scenario?"
To compensate for the fact that the lyrics were all but indiscernible, Tip and Phife Dog illustrated their rhymes by pantomiming. During "Oh My God," Phife called out, "Who, me, sound pathetic? When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic?" and Tip appeared at his side to draw blood with an imaginary needle. Songs like "Bonita Applebaum" (a show highlight), "Jazz (We've Got)," "Phony Rappers," "Electric Relaxation" and "Steve Biko (Stir it Up)" benefited from the overblown delivery and hyperbolic body language. If the elegance and subtlety of Tribe's wordplay was lost, their physical intensity more than made up for it.
Tribe also showed a firm grasp of concert etiquette, making sure to give the audience plenty of old favorites, opening with "Buggin' Out" and "Oh My God, and closing with "Can I Kick It?," "Award Tour," and "What's the Scenario?" When they did play new tunes, Tip asked coyly for the audience's approval. The group even chanted, "Old shit? New shit?" before exploding into the venerable "Sucka Nigga." On the other hand, with Busta Rhymes beefing up the new "Steppin' It Up," the crowd seemed not to care that they hadn't heard the song before.
In the end, the most impressive aspect of A Tribe Called Quest's set was also the simplest. They had a blast onstage. No matter how much of a hard-ass gangsta you may fancy yourself, most people don't enjoy being scowled at for an entire set. Tribe has never based their style on bad attitude. Tip, Shah, and Phife can smile onstage without damaging their street cred. And so could their guests: Mos Def grinned from ear-to-ear, and Busta Rhyme's flash-bulb smile nearly brought down the house when he made his first appearance of the night. The good vibes were deadly contagious and by the time Tribe tucked in the last chorus of "What's the Scenario?" there wasn't a frown in the house.