For better or worse, radio personality Peter Rosenberg is one of the last generals standing in the war on “real” hip-hop. His late-night slot on New York’s Hot 97 mimics classic underground hip-hop shows of the Nineties that broke emerging artists and could be trusted to skewer commercial rap in lieu of the organic, lyrical, real live shit.
And when he jabbed at Nicki Minaj’s ambidextrous juggling of pop and rap at this year’s Summer Jam, he ignited a firestorm of debate about the state of the genre and its increasingly fragmented audience. So when Rosenberg curated “A Night of ‘Real’ Hip-Hop” at Best Buy Theater Thursday night, it was with both a firm stance and a knowing wink, a battle fought well after the war had passed.
Headliners Odd Future wasted no time turning Best Buy Theater into a writhing mass of flying bodies, shoes, bottles and swear words as Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt launched into “AssMilk.” Fresh from Frank Ocean’s sold-out show earlier that evening, the entire Wolf Gang stalked the stage, trading mics and stage-diving to their nihilistic hearts’ content (Nakel hitting the Chappelle’s Show robot dance was the highlight of the night).
There are few live shows in popular music that are as overwhelming as what Odd Future present with seeming ease: Taco mashed buttons on an MPC as the crew snarled through their full catalog, and violent mosh pits sprouted throughout the sea of bodies on the floor. Earl Sweatshirt seemed like he’d never left, commanding the crowd by himself through his flagship “Earl” and even stagediving – fans held down his Army fatigue bucket hat so it wouldn’t fall off as he was tossed to and fro, a sign of the upmost respect.
Ealier in the evening, after respectable sets from New York stalwarts Nitty Scott and Smoke DZA, Asher Roth took the stage with a full band and shoulder-length hair, a far cry from the smirking sophomore of years passed. Still, his time spent in the trenches of basement frat parties has left Roth a true master of ceremonies. Two stage dives in, and he was rapping barefoot with the crowd chanting his name. Since his 2009 slacker anthem “I Love College,” Roth remains a cult hero to the masses of stoner bros whose lifestyle he narrated throughout his early material. He brought two square-jawed teenagers onstage to help him drop references to blumpkins and MILFs on the still-knocking “Lark on My Go-Kart.”
“Does anyone know what a blunt cruise is?” he asked later as Action Bronson emerged to throw bags of weed into the crowd. Still, Roth’s skill as a lyricist has always taken a backseat to his stoner charm, much to his dismay. When he dropped his new track “Turnip the Beet,” released as a gift to Rosenberg this June, the hook “Boom bap, original rap, refreshing when you hear it, hard rap is all that” felt almost like parody. He wrapped up tightly, albeit visibly jaded, with “I Love College”: “We weren’t gonna do it, but fuck it,” he disclaimed, a last-minute decision for the better.
“Just call me Rae,” Raekwon announced as he sauntered on stage to raucous applause. Raekwon and the Wu-Tang Clan will forever be synonymous with the idea of anti-commercial, “real” hip-hop, and it’s a title he doesn’t take lightly: “How many of y’all – really look deep and ask yourselves – how many of y’all really love hip-hop?” he asked before opening strong with catalog hits “C.R.E.A.M” and “Ice Cream” to a sea of diehards holding Ws in the sky.
The oldest act on the bill, Rae was conservative on stage, letting the power of his past hits carry much of the show. However, his music is still decidedly youthful, the stories of extreme rebellion and adolescent angst – smoking woolies and shackled on a bus to Rikers, all before his 17th birthday. His set waned as he delved into his latter catalog (“It’s Yourz” live was a rare treat but was lost on much of the audience), and a rumored special guest never showed. Ultimately, though, Rae didn’t need the help.
Odd Future, when they took the stage, scrubbed mentions of rape from their lyrics, a sign of the group’s own slow maturing. But cuts like “Bitch Suck Dick” and “Rella” still offered up the emphatically offensive and sinister air they’re infamous for. Of course, fame changes things.
“Let’s get this out of the way,” Tyler sighed before dropping “Yonkers,” and let the crowd roar the entire first verse back to him. They closed with “Radical,” and as masses of kids bellowed along throughout the theater, the question of “real” hip-hop seemed to matter less and less.