One thousand or so bands (give or take a few shaggy haircuts) hit New York City every fall for the CMJ Music Marathon, a five-day band-a-palooza where new acts get noticed (see Arcade Fire) and scores more get drunk at open-bar showcases. For the next few days, Rock Daily will be bringing you reports on the bands we consider most worthy of your time after CMJ has packed up and moved on:
Hip-hop is already pretty scarce at the indie-rock focused CMJ, so it didn’t help matters that the fest’s two best rap lineups were scheduled for the exact same time on Saturday night in different parts of town. At the Lower East Side’s 205 Chrystie, hot underground Pittsburgh MC Wiz Khalifa (a former RS Breaking artist) was holding it down with mixtape-circuit star DJ Green Lantern. But further uptown, at the Highline Ballroom, an indie-rap all-star team proved to be the stronger draw. Sweet-voiced female MC Psalm One from Chicago kicked it off, followed by a solo set from Dilated Peoples’ Evidence.
But the place didn’t really erupt until albino legally-blind Muslim rapper (yeah, take a minute with that) Brother Ali brought his fiery rhymes to the stage. With a preacher’s cadence and poetic couplets on everything from his failed first marriage to civil liberties (he calls himself “Howard Stern meets Howard Zinn”), the MC, who recently released The Undisputed Truth on Rhymesayers Entertainment, had the crowd screaming “A-li! A-li! A-li!” “Imagine a chubby albino kid from Minneapolis,” he said from the stage, cutting off the chant. “KRS-One is more of a father to you than your own dad. Melle Mel is your uncle in you mind, and you memorize every word Rakim ever rapped. You start making rap records without any record contract and you finally make it to New York, where all of your heroes come from and the crowd is chanting your name.” Louder: “A-LI! A-LI! A-LI!”
Headliners Little Brother came up next and described the night’s show up to that point the best they’d ever played. MCs Big Pooh and Phonte lacked Ali’s vocal clarity, but it didn’t matter, since most of the fan-packed house knew every word — even to songs on their new album Get Back, which doesn’t come out until Tuesday (Phonte acknowledged that he himself leaked the record — which wasn’t much of a surprise since the â€œgenreâ€ category on leaked tracks comes up “Don’t Ever Say Phonte Never Did Nothin For Y’all Niggas … lol Enjoy!”). Phonte mixed up the set with his trademark comedic interludes on everything from T.I.’s recent arrest (“Dude should have said he was stocking up to fight Osama”) to their departure from Atlantic Records (“Kunte Kinte got his papers!”). It was certainly the hip-hop highlight of the fest (sorry Tip), but of course, it didn’t have much competition.