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Rap of Ages Inc.

Who would have thought it? A middle-aged white guy responsible for this summer's premier live rap show? Unlikely, but true: House of Blues, the juke joint-themed chain restaurant and venue founded in 1992 by Isaac Tigrett (who had earlier co-founded, then sold his interest in, the Hard Rock Cafe chain), is hosting the 33-city Smokin' Grooves tour. More surprisingly, it offers the best and most diverse lineup of contemporary black music in years: R&B/rap chart toppers the Fugees; boho-rap luminaries A Tribe Called Quest; conscious funk-rappers Spearhead; hip-hop wild-styler Busta Rhymes; reggae's royal family, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers; and perpetually blunted hard-core rappers Cypress Hill. Not surprisingly, it has come to be known as "Hip-Hopalooza."

Smokin' Grooves came about as a sister tour of H.O.B.'s more rootsy Barnburner tour, which is also on the road this summer with Buddy Guy, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Radiators. Together, the shows draw a connection between the old-time African-American expression of the blues and the current forms of rap and reggae. To plainly -- perhaps over plainly -- illustrate the link between past and present, the Smokin' Grooves stage features a screen that, between sets, projects footage of influential black musicians such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Funkadelic and Bob Marley.

Smoking' Grooves may have been packaged and booked by a hired gun from the William Morris Agency, but the product belies that corporate connection: Smokin' Grooves specializes in that rare breed of rapper who knows how to put on a great show. Whether through the live instrumentation of the Fugees and Spearhead or the freestyling of A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes, the tour spotlights rappers who -- like the old-school showmen -- do more than just walk around stage looking tough, regurgitating old raps over pre-recorded tapes.

To some degree, social consciousness also ties the groups together. Michael Franti, leader of the seven-piece San Francisco Bay-area hip-hop outfit Spearhead, notes, "Every group on the bill has an interest in more than the music and is outspoken about what's going on in the world."

True, Franti is hardly a disinterested party, and rappers have rarely been known to be shy when it comes to self-promotion. But he has a point. Franti's first group, the Beatnigs, was more about political theater than rap, and his early '90s project with Beatnig DJ Rono Tse, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, took a similarly confrontational approach, inspired in equal parts by Chuck D and Gil Scott-Heron. Then, with the release of Spearhead's debut, Home, in 1994, Franti learned to put rhythm before rhetoric. "Before, I really wasn't thinking as much about the enjoyment of music as about getting an idea across," Franti says. "But at some point I said, 'I love listening to Sly Stone and Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye.' They were all saying something, but they would put it through music you could just listen to and enjoy."

On the Smokin' Grooves tour, Spearhead will air material it's prepared for an upcoming CD, Chocolate Supahighway. The new songs, Franti says, have a more hip-hop oriented beat and bass sound. On-stage, Spearhead's full-band funk will make rap music as it's rarely heard. For Franti, though, it's still pure hip-hop.

Another Smokin' Grooves highlight promises to be the Fugees, who incorporate Spearhead's live hip-hop dynamism with the street-friendly virtuousness of A Tribe Called Quest. The Fugees, who combine hip-hop electronics with roots acoustics, East Coast style with reggae and soul touches, gracious singing with energetic raps and a cocky swagger with intelligence and sensitivity, have almost single-handedly broken the dominance of gangsta rap. Though the success of the coed trio -- which features two Haitian-American cousins (Pras and Wyclef) and a Columbia University undergrad (Lauryn Hill) -- came as a shock to those convinced conscientious rap couldn't sell, their victory is less decisive when you consider they earned a mainstream audience through their mostly non-rap Roberta Flack cover, "Killing Me Softly." Still, with any luck, the Fugees' coup of gangsta rap's dark reign could signal a momentous shift in popular music.

"I think the Fugees have made a statement in hip-hop within the past two years," says Fugees rapper and multi-instrumentalist Wyclef. On-stage, he adds, "you might see me on the accordion, you might see me on the keyboards; you might see L [Hill] grab a guitar, Pras grab a bass. It's just gonna be real."

However real it gets, though, it'll be hard to forget that Smokin' Grooves comes to you courtesy of House of Blues, a rapidly expanding entertainment empire built around clubs, merchandising, radio shows, a record label and a production company. With its focus on packaging a sanitized version of Depression-era Blues Age, H.O.B. clearly has little to do with the modern-day real life of blacks. And head man Isaac Tigrett deserves a hefty flogging for his ludicrous claim that Smokin' Grooves "provides a taste of urban culture to cities that don't have a House of Blues venue." But if you can stomach the faux-inner-city/juke joint look of the Smokin' Grooves stage (complete with graffiti, corrugated metal siding and a chainlink fence), then chances are the music will more than compensate for the reconstructionist buffoonery.

Smokin' Grooves comes to Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion Sunday, July 28. Gates open at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25. For info, call 629-3700.

 
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