Live Report: Elements of Hip-Hop Tour

Tramps, New York, January 20, 1998

Club soundmen are rarely called on to mix eight turntables, so the crowd gathered at Tramps Tuesday night to see the Elements of Hip-Hop Tour wasn't all that upset about the short delay due to technical difficulties. Indeed, the booing only started when an unnamed MC started rapping before the X-Ecutioners set about a "real freaky bitch" who "comes out at night."

For a musical genre still thought of as cutting edge, hip-hop artists and audiences are hyper-concerned with upholding tradition, and talking smack about freaky bitches was not a tradition this particular crowd wanted to uphold. Instead, the Elements of Hip-Hop Tour -- a three-week tour featuring Chicago rapper Common, New York turntablists the X-Ecutioners and Roots member Rahzel -- was all about musical tradition: human beatboxing, spinning the wheels of steel, MC-ing in front of a live band and collaborating with old friends.

Rahzel kicked things off with forty-five minutes of beatboxing, eliminating any doubts as to whether the vocal technique can be as subtle and sophisticated as any instrument by simultaneously imitating deep bass lines, chest-thumping kick drums, echoing snare shots and ticking hi-hats. Once establishing a groove, he began, quite unbelievably, to sing or rap over it, thrilling the crowd. His mimicry of vinyl scratching, of turntables slowing down or speeding up, of little dogs barking -- of almost anything -- was so exact and wide-ranging that it seemed he could record an album as dense as "It Takes a Nation of Millions..." with just a four-track.

Element number two, spinning records, is the province of the X-Ecutioners (formerly the X-Men until threatened with legal action). Sharing the stage with a group of rappers trading off rhymes on two mikes, the four turntablists unleashed a dense torrent of murky funk reminiscent of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew." Spinning records is a physical act, and each of the X-Ecutioners wowed the crowd by scratching behind backs and over shoulders, creating a pastiche of unknown and familiar beats and hooks.

X-Ecutioner Mista Sinista returned to the stage for headliner Common's set, joining a loose, blues-inflected band of drums, piano, double bass and acoustic guitar. Working the stage in a green, knee-length raincoat and a cap pulled down over his ears, Common ("See-to-the-oh-double-em-oh-en," for spelling enthusiasts) flowed in an easygoing, conversational style while spinning his performance conceit: the Hotel Common, where guests are encouraged to enjoy the myriad moods while respecting their neighbors.

Songs at the Hotel Common lasted only a verse or two, which kept the pace fresh and lively, and a guest appearance by De la Soul ended the show on a sustained note of committed collaboration. But Common's best moment occurred during "I Used to Love H.e.r.," about a relationship attenuated by money and fame. Wedging jazzy instrumental choruses between spoken verses, Common and his band elevated their hip-hop, and pointed a way to an organic future by drawing on a shared musical