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.
Random Notebook Dump: What was George Clinton doing there? Supposedly he's been in town recording with Chris Longwood at SugarHill Studios.