LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, De La Soul Bayou Music Center July 3, 2013
Classic-rock acts who were never more than B-list tour every summer and pack amphitheaters by the thousands. It takes four of the most important acts in rap history to fill up Bayou Music Center. Something seems off there.
Nevertheless, a predictably older and diverse audience ready to get their July 4 break off on the right foot flocked to Bayou Place Wednesday night.for LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul, dubbed the "Kings of the Mike" tour. If things didn't quite go off without a hitch, it did keep the crowd's heads nodding and hands in the air for four solid hours, providing dozens of opportunities to shout back their favorite lyrics and tossing in P-Funk godfather George Clinton and Black Sheep MC Dres as added value.
DJ Chuck Chillout did what he could with a mix of Biggie, Slick Rick and Bob Marley, taking it all the way back to "Rapper's Delight," but a late sound check meant a half-hour delay before De La Soul took the stage just before 9 p.m. The Long Island rappers struggled to engage the crowd early on, but DJ Maseo's heavy boom-bap from and the effortless back-and-forth between MCs Posdunos and Dave loosened their resolve with cuts like "Potholes on My Lawn."
Even though they fell back on the familiar "this side of the room vs. that side" ploy, both men very much came off as just a couple of regular dudes who happened to be unusually agile rappers. They were a little playful too; at one point Dave had a call-and-response going using only meows.
One Native Tongues shout-out later, Dres came onstage to rap through "Fever For the Flavor," and stuck around for the familiar "engine, engine, No. 9" that signals the opening of "Me, Myself and I," and the first point Wednesday's crowd officially lots its collective shit. All the pieces were there: a floor-thumping foundation, that great bluesy shout of a hook, Dave leading a "party over here chant," Maseo's nimble scratching. Indeed it was a party, at last.
Fans barely had time to run to the bar before the sirens went off and Public Enemy bum-rushed the show. The Strong Island-formed assemblage must have been still buzzed about their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year (or something), because their no-quarter barrage of plutonium beats and savage scratching -- with DJ Lord up for the challenge in for the one and only Terminator X -- with a fatback-funk backbone sounded more than potent enough to kick in a few doors at various halls of power. In fact Flavor Flav, who dedicated his performance to Michael Jackson before plugging his YouTube tribute to the King of Pop, said their recent induction was the reason he was currently clockless before launching a rafter-reaching "yeeeeeeeeah boy!" and lighting the fuse to "911 Is a Joke."
It was a little crowded up there with Flav, Chuck D, Lord atop his imposing DJ tower, a live band and the fatigue-clad S1W security detail, and got more crowded when Chuck welcomed Dr. Funkenstein to the stage for "Caught, Can I Get a Witness?", but PE spent zero time on formalities. The group ran through most of their better-known tracks -- "Public Enemy No. 1," "Can't Truss It," "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype" at a military-drilled clip that made it seem like breakneck is the only speed they have. (They did let Flav have a little fun on bass guitar during "Welcome to the Terrordome, though.)
It's tempting to wonder what they could do with more than half an hour. More new material like "I Shall Not Be Moved," no doubt. PE may be a Hall of Fame act now -- and were always Hall of Fame caliber -- but their ferocious set made it clear they're hardly resting on their laurels. Chuck D repeatedly acknowledged that PE was running short on time, but it would have been uncharacteristic of him to leave before before lobbing one last lyrical Molotov at Texas, saying, "This motherfuckin' state has killed too many fuckin' people" before closing with a good and satisfying "Fight the Power." So what if it made the concert run a little longer?
Alas, PE's furious effort to get things back on track time-wise were scuttled by the lengthy transition into Ice Cube's set. (Sound issues?) It didn't really matter at that point; everyone was locked in, and Cube locked them down further with a set full of menace that retained a certain steely charm. "Can we keep it gangsta tonight?", he asked the crowd
True to his word, flanked by Lench Mob semi-comic foil W.C. and two enormous inflatable "W's" on either side of the stage, Cube opened with "Natural Born Killaz." Bathed in red light and backed by imagery of red lights, flames, crime scenes, and Boyz N the Hood-style house parties (featuring frequent co-star Mike Epps), he boiled that song and the ones that followed -- "We Be Thugs," "Check Yo Self" -- into the essence of being a motherfucking badass.
DJ Crazy Tunes' beats were equally simple and threatening, with the rest of the songs reduced to a thick bass line or single sample like "The Message." Efficient, effective, gangsta -- even before a N.W.A mini-segment of "Straight Outta Compton" and "Gangsta Gangsta" had the the crowd more riled up and singing along than at any other point of the evening. Houston loves N.W.A., apparently, and Cube gave the love right back by acknowledging the Geto Boys, whom he acknowledged as being right there with the Compton pioneers.
But while he's never less than scowling in his rhymes, Cube couldn't help but crack a smile between songs. He tossed in "We Be Clubbin'" and "Put Your Back Into It" for the ladies -- or the ones likely to have "asses jiggling and titties wiggling," anyway -- and shot down anyone who (absurdly) might have thought he was "Coors Light-ed out." "I'm never gonna retire," he said before "It Was a Good Day," imagining himself at age 70 in some Vegas showroom with a "tuxedo and a TelePrompTer." Don't put it past him.
As Wednesday pushed into Thursday, the crowd started to thin out, but LL Cool J and DJ Z-Trip did their curfew-threatening best and opened with the furious bravado of "Mama Said Knock You Out" and "Jack the Ripper," Z-Trip's scratches perfectly synchronized with LL's rhymes. Like Cube, LL's other pursuits (Grammy host, NICS: Los Angeles) have done little to disguise his origins as a girl-crazy B-boy from Queens, and someone who did as much as any one artist apart from Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys to brand that bangin' Def Jam sound into the world's collective brain. Wednesday, however late it was, LL seemed like he was ready to rhyme all night and into Independence Day.
He nearly did, but he also seems to have learned a few tricks from his Grammy gig, and first welcomed Chuck D to the stage for the furious duet "Whaddup," which closed this year's show at approximately the same hour. (If it's unfamiliar, check it out; LL said it was too hot for radio, and it sounds it.) After the love jams had started, next was none other than Flavor Flav to help out on "Headsprung," as well as a passel of ladies who must have decided they liked it up there, because they stuck around through "Big Ole Butt" and a cover of Doug E. Fresh's "Lodi Dodi," where one young women all but gave LL a standing lap dance.
Still to come were "Around the Way Girl," "Jinglin' Baby," "Goin' Back to Cali," "Radio" and a completely unexpected "I Need Love," not to mention his judging an ass-wiggling contest while Z-Trip cut up the Commodores' "Brick House" and late cameo by Southeast Texas' own Bun B (of course). But really, LL's lateral shift into a hip-hop Hugh Hefner was the apex of the set, and one more high point in an extremely long but satisfying evening.
"I'm having a lot of fun up here," he said.
Personal Bias: I'm not a tremendous rap fan these days, but these four artists are most definitely my idea of "real hip-hop." I'm also glad this show was not one minute longer than it was.
The Crowd: Older, evenly split between black, white and brown, and clad in everything from gangsta attire to cargo shorts and clubwear. I thought I'd seen it all, and then one guy approached the stageside bar wearing a three-piece suit.
Overheard In the Crowd: "How you gonna act like that when you at a fuckin' concert?" -- a woman scolding her man right after the lights came up.
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Random Notebook Dump: What was George Clinton doing there? Supposedly he's been in town recording with Chris Longwood at SugarHill Studios.