To plan or not to plan, that is the artist's eternal dilemma. One can free their self from restraint but risk buckling under disorganization. Or, the artist can embrace the practicality of punctuality but skirt the possibility of predictability. Musicians, in particular, grapple with this when regarding approaches to performance. Seldom the "detail-oriented" sort, they often favor the chaos of unrestraint. In some cases it is the artist's choice, because he or she believes the artistic spirit should be allowed to roam free and be spontaneous. For others it is a case of "lost in translation"; or, as Howard Gardner may suggest, in-depth logistics planning requires another form of intelligence. Yet certain artists find a balance of organized chaos. It is a meeting point between control and chance. It is the hallmark quality of Duke Ellington's rehearsals, Bono's ZooTV prank calls, and Supernatural's audience-prompted freestyles. And it is a Shangri-La for the artist who masters this in the live performance.
So, imagine my intrigue when Lyrics Born, Cut Chemist, and Edan and Dagha, three progressive and inventive hip-hop artists, passed through Webster Hall on November 10. Each artist explores complex yet entertaining visions of music. Based on their recorded output alone, it's reasonable to expect a corresponding live show. Given the common perception of hip-hop shows being disorganized and disengaging, this bill promised a welcome counterpoint. In many ways, the show lived up to the expectation: Each artist presented a custom-tailored version of hip-hop. However, all three acts also wore detailed scripts on their sleeves. They demonstrated how hip-hop can be timed, arranged and quantized like any other type of music.
Producer/emcee Edan opened the show with high hopes, bringing his psych-fantasy rap album Beauty and the Beat to life by wearing the Troutmaskreplica. Jumping from turntable routines to acoustic-guitar romps to rap odes to LP covers, he and co-emcee Dagha strung together a motley band of ideas. Though curious and novel as vignettes, each song transitioned without subtlety and read like a scatterbrained script.
Cut Chemist fared better, recreating his sample-heavy productions from behind a jumble of turntables and CD players while Brian "B+" Cross looped and cut visuals. Opening with "hits" helped, but the performance soon lost steam as Cut hunkered down with his preplanned set. The occasional flub broke the sense of routine, but hardly sparked any sense of spontaneity -- they were mistakes, after all. The lack of direct interaction with the audience certainly didn't help either. While Cross's projections split time between cheeky archive images and close-ups of Cut's deft handwork, keeping the focus on the deejay/producer, the set was fundamentally no different than any other deejay/producer performance. It suffered from the curse of limited direct contact with the audience. The artist may believe he or she is connecting by playing instruments (and Cut treats his turntable platters like conga heads at times), but the audience sees them as operating machines. After all, playing a record of drum hits is not the same as a drummer hitting a drum.
Lyrics Born closed the show with a final grab at promise: a five-piece funk and soul band. As heard on his previous tour (mostly small club dates) and his recently released Overnite Encore concert album, LB's live show proved capable of bringing a roar of energy to his obsessively dense solo material and injecting new life into his tried and true Latyrx catalog. And though he and his band performed well, their approach was not tailored to the venue's cavernous space. Inexhaustible energy and endless efforts to pull the audience in turned into excessive volume and clichéd antics, making the set feel flat predictable.
To their credit, most of the artists seemed aware of the need to balance planning with improvisation. Lyrics Born gave his band ample solo time to stretch his songs in different directions, but he inexplicably did not allow himself anywhere near as much time to rip through his charismatic freestyles (or, if he did, it was completely inaudible underneath the wall of sludge). Cut Chemist devoted his show closer to the chance of crowd participation. Videotaping three audience members screaming their shout-outs, he proceeded to video scratch the sound and image to the beat of his steadily accelerating "Alphabet Aerobics." A meta re-up of the TRL sound-bite life, Cut brought a fresh spin to an intentionally obvious act -- which is exactly what makes a show good. But a ten-minute segment in a three-plus-hour concert is hardly enough to a break a show free. That said, each artist's careful attention and inventive takes on performance broke open new possibilities for what a hip-hop show can be. Certainly, it was a trip. Now, let's just give it a funkier beat so I can bug out to it.
Lyrics Born: http://www.lyricsborn.com/
Cut Chemist: http://www.cutchemist.com/
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