Rakim and EPMD Take the Arena Theatre to Church

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Rakim, EPMD Arena Theater January 31, 2015

It is written in the Great Book of Hip-Hop that any faithful fan of rap music, if he or she is able, must make the Pilgrimage at least once to a Rakim concert. Practically since the dawn of rap, the God MC has been among the very best at it, reliably turning promising talents into suckers with his sharp-witted lyricism for more than three decades. Classic albums with his DJ partner Eric B. such as Paid in Full and Follow the Leader made him a legend of hip-hop's first epoch, and by popular consensus, he's pretty much a first-ballot hall-of-famer.

That doesn't mean he's one of hip-hop's biggest stars, of course. The game doesn't work like that. You aren't likely to hear a lot of Rakim on 97.9 The Box, and he isn't pulling in hordes of young rap fans on this winter's tour, either. But you will most certainly hear his tunes on Houston's new classic rap station Boom 92.1, which made Saturday night's concert at Arena Theater an ideal even for the station to promote. It was a crowd of mostly middle-aged, mostly black hip-hop heads who turned out, with a few fresher-faced folks in the mix ready to study the master.

However old they were, they were dancin'. The Arena Theater is a cool place for a rap show. As the likes of DJ Rob G and Michael "5000" Watts spun cast-in-bronze classics from Slick Rick, Eazy-E, Scarface and dozens more, concert-goers could sit back and watch each other boogie from across the in-the-round venue, or hop up and join in. There was a festive atmosphere in the air as old-school dances like the Southside and the Wop spread like wildfire. I was convinced the Wave could break out at any minute.

Finally, a little after 9 p.m., the lights went down. First up were Long Island icons EPMD, who reminded the grown folks in the crowd that they've been coming to Houston since there was anyplace in Houston to come.

"I was at the Rhinestone in this motherfucker," proclaimed MC Erick Sermon, referencing the massive, long-gone Houston hip-hop club where local rappers such as Willie D and Ricky Royal once battled for supremacy. "Anybody remember the Rhinestone in here?"

Judging by the crowd's reaction, many in attendance did, indeed, remember the Rhinestone, where they probably heard EPMD's vintage hit, "You Gots to Chill." As they performed it, the duo made great use of the Arena's round, revolving stage, trading bars from across the platform and rapping simultaneously to two different sides of the building.

In between songs, EPMD lamented what had been lost in hip-hop since their heyday, citing a lack of thoughtful lyricism in modern rappers as well as a distinct lack of turntable talent.

"These new cats are making the kids dumber," spat Parrish Smith, and few in the crowd cared to disagree.

Story continues on the next page.

As if to school any new-jack wannabes who had wandered in to the show, EPMD's DJ Scratch put on a ridiculous solo clinic behind the 1's and 2's, riffing on the guitar line from Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" until he had twisted it into "Mary Had a Little Lamb." It was a rather incredible display of mixing that had the crowd rocking hard.

After the rapid-fire burst of 1992's "Crossover," targeting the lame lyrics and wack dancing of Dallas' favorite son, Vanilla Ice, the waiting game began anew. Rob G blasted the room with Biggie, a little Screw and then all the way back to Afrika Bambaataa as rows of fans reveled in the nostalgia. Folks danced in their seats, in the aisles and around the Arena's concourse; pretty much anywhere there was room.

After an hour of this, the man of the hour finally appeared, bringing the more chilled-out audience members to their feet at last.

"Make way, 'cause here I come," he rhymed on "Microphone Fiend" with his immaculate, unbreakable flow, the envy of MCs worldwide. As Rakim stoically slapped hands with the front row all around the stage dressed down in a hoodie, vest and beanie, it was hard to escape the notion that he's been invested by his fans with the very spirit of hip-hop, coming to embody the musical form that his listeners hold so dear.

Rakim came armed with the throwback jams that people paid to hear, but plenty of the heady lyricist's rhymes sounded as fresh on Saturday as they day they were written. "Don't Sweat the Technique" had former b-boys slipping back into their salad days, and when the crowd's energy dipped during one number, Rakim came right back with "I Know You Got Soul," practically shaming the audience into losing its mind.

Fittingly enough for a guy sharing the stage with a man named "Sermon," Rakim kept the countenance of a clergyman onstage, blowing through town on a revival tour and cultivating the faith amongst hip-hop's true believers. With the help of DJ 33 1/3, the God MC laid out an illustrative case as to why he remains as in love with the genre he helped to define as ever.

"This ain't no shit you just go home and hang in the closet," Rakim said. "I'm getting up there in years, and I just can't leave it alone. It's hip-hop, man. I just can't put it down."

And with that, the man dropped "Paid In Full" on our heads, fully justifying the admission price at last. The crowd rapped every couplet at one, in many cases reciting lyrics they'd memorized as kids. Now, even as grown-ass men and women, the slick wit of Rakim had lost of its power to delight them.

As the clock sped toward midnight, a lot of folks hit the door. They had church in the morning. But until Rakim dropped the mike on Saturday night, all praise was due unto eternal hip-hop. Hallelujah and hell, yeah.

Personal Bias: Light-skinned.

The Crowd: Grown and sexy.

Overheard In the Crowd: "I heard my own voice in my head saying, 'You're dying.'"

Random Notebook Dump: Rakim and DJ 33 1/3 know each other so well that they're able to actually play off of one another onstage. It's a rare treat to see a DJ and an MC actually jamming together in such a cold fashion. Soooo much better than current rappers' "press play" mentality.

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