Rap is a cultural celebration of telling, through music, what it is real today, right now; not what was real two years ago as happened on June 19, 1865 when word finally reached Galveston that President Lincoln had freed the slaves... two years previous.
At midnight on Juneteenth (this year), the inside of Warehouse Live looked more like Fitzgerald's downstairs stage on a Friday night than a venue at which one of hip-hop's greats would be performing.
"There's only 15,000 people here," the DJ said. But barely 200 people were loosely packed into Warehouse Live's four walls. Surely more people came, we thought, so we checked outside, thinking they might be outside, smoking last-minute cigarettes or simply carousing around. Nope. Aftermath stepped back inside and surveyed the scene, wowed by the small number of people in attendance at what we assumed would be a huge show.
The fans in attendance were true-blue, core hip-hop fans. How do we know that? Because the city government was sponsoring free, family-oriented Juneteenth parties and celebrations all day and night for free. One does not usually schedule a concert with a cover change when the government is sponsoring competing events for free - July 4, for example - which the government rarely does.
The DJ admirably tried to hype the crowd - "All the pretty women in the house, make some noise! Rest in peace, Pimp C! If you from Texas, make some noise!" - but to no avail, really. He gave it one final shot before Raekwon finally took the stage: "I've been a lot of places, but Houston has the very best weed."
To this, the crowd finally cheered. Aftermath has a few friends in California who would beg to differ, but they weren't stuck with the task of hyping an overly apathetic crowd, so we'll leave it alone.
One fan, hindered by crutches, had no trouble making his way to the front of the stage. It's not that we would have preferred he stay in the back, but anyone who's ever gone to a concert knows how difficult it should be to get to the front once the headliner has taken the stage.
At 12:20 a.m., Raekwon finally appeared and, in an attempt to increase the crowd's energy, began his set with a few verses from "C.R.E.A.M." to a backdrop of growing marijuana plants. While his salience seems low, at least judging by lack of walk-ons by local rap luminaries, Aftermath praises Raekwon's sans-background-vocals performance. While most rappers perform over their pre-recorded vocals, the former (future?) Wu-Tang Clan member let his voice soar over the backbeats, making his live performance feel much more genuine than that of other rappers.
By the sixth song, though, Raekwon and his crew began to get sloppy, slurring words together to the point that already near-unintelligible lyrics were completely lost in the mix. After the slurring ended, Raekwon went on a rant about the sound engineers on duty, claiming that he was losing his voice, and saying it was the engineers' fault for not turning his mike up (as he had requested in between each and every song). To Aftermath's ears, the mix sounded fine, but far be it for a rock star (of sorts) to take blame for a poor performance.
And right after we had made note of his lack of background vocals, they came into the mix. Maybe it's because he was losing his voice, but regardless, the performance lost some of its authenticity.
"Y'all need a classic," Raekwon said after his seventh song. The beat for "Pop Shots" began, and the crowd began to bob its collaborative head. After one verse, the beat died, and Rae gave a shout out to all the fans "getting' they smoke on, gettin' they drink on, and everybody feelin' good."
He must not have been able to hear himself at all through the monitors, because his voice was beginning to sound raspy and tired. "Imma' sue this nigga'," Rae said of the sound engineers. He chuckled, but he was clearly unhappy with the situation.
From that point on, the backup vocalists drowned out the man of the evening, while bass-heavy, unintelligible screaming consumed the rest of the show. Rae began to ask the crowd to wave at the cameraman who was walking around the stage. "I'm making a music video," he said. "Y'all gon' be in it." Finally, a few dozen people packed into the front of the stage; whatever works, we guess.
About ten songs in, Raekwon began to give monologues, which grew lengthier and lengthier as the evening continued. His first soapbox speech was about family, and the importance of resolving disputes within them.
Maybe Raekwon should have followed the example of NWA's Ice Cube and become a producer. Very funny, no? Aftermath can't help but think that, with the lavish lifestyles rappers tend to lead, Rae's got a few bills past due.
"What I've noticed about a lot of today's MCs is that they make good hits for the radio, but not good albums," Raekwon said, beginning his fifth or sixth speech. "But you, Houston - you love hip-hop. Y'all in it for the long run."
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But for Aftermath, the most entertaining part of the evening by far was watching half a dozen or so kids get kicked out for underage drinking, one of whom vomited as he walked/was forced outside.
About 18 or 19 songs in - we lost count - the show was usurped by the DJ, who proceeded to spin a bevy of well-known Houston rap from Paul Wall and Slim Thug to Big Pokey, Scarface and (surprise, surprise) Pimp C. Then there was a short interaction between the crowd and Rae about who was drinking what, the importance of staying in school and the negative effects of smoking cigarettes - really? It was like an after-school special, a la Fat Tony's RABDARGAB but with far fewer screaming fans and not nearly as witty wordplay.
"When I'm not here, I might be in London, Hawaii, New York City..." Rae said, listing off a dozen other cities that he's been to. It wasn't until he listed Houston that a few members of the crowd cheered. He then spent about five minutes talking about Wu-Tang's success, as well as his success since. Perhaps this was an attempt to validate the evening's performance, which for his sake we hope was a fluke.
Houston, you apparently know nothing of the Wu. That, or you just don't care.