Rakim, GZA, Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab, and Murs all hold microphones, but their respective eras and missions are diverse amongst each other. And at the Paid Dues Independent Hip-Hop Festival in New York’s Nokia Theatre on June 4, each of them represented his niche like he couldn’t help it.
Kidz in the Hall, Buckshot and 9th Wonder, and Yak Ballz occupy their own particular spaces, as well, and started the concert no doubt entrenched. The former two groups are behind two of the best hip-hop albums of the year thus far, the Kidz shaping a modern and vibrant record with The In-Crowd, Buckshot and 9th utilizing some of the best-sounding samples yet known to mankind on The Formula.
In his lane, Murs crafts detailed stories of focused self-expression, rapping in a strong but nearly crackling voice that throws sadness, humor, and boasting all around the room. His voice kept strong as he rhymed through several songs that the crowd knew word for word. He fed off the audience’s recitation of his lyrics and dug deep, the highlight being “The Pain,” one of the few rap songs to lament not finding a girlfriend. Murs gives it in a nutshell when he says, “I’m more Coldplay than I am Ice-T.”
But whereas Murs is straightforward, Blackalicious are self-consciously into verbal and rhythmic experimentation, even in a live situation. Gift of Gab has a mental-patient, rap-savant vibe, and he lit it up a few times on his own — but his freaking of the flow might be better suited for the headphones than a concert hall. He brought out emcee Lateef for a few bold stabs at funky interplay, the East Oakland native notable for his contributions to cult icons Latyrx. He at times had the delivery and style of a classic New York City hardcore singer, if that singer was rapping. Blackalicious didn’t fully ignite, but they deserve accolades, as always, for attempting to push boundaries.
GZA brought the whole Wu-Tang vibe with him, traveling through Wu history as well as through his solo work. As expected, the songs from Liquid Swords caused pandemonium, and as a surprise, “Crash Your Crew” from Beneath the Surface was an especially dope turn of events. GZA is a real writer in hip-hop, but his hard-crafted lyrics translated live due to his firm but smooth voice and confidence in controlling the stage. GZA echoed the ’90s, a legend from rap’s second golden era, who new generations of fans will perpetually discover.
That left Rakim to represent the first golden era. Typical to his cool persona, Ra was in no hurry to get to the concert. The crowd got restless, but finally Kid Capri showed up and got the crowd hyped for one of the icons who changed the game forever. Opening with some of his late-’90s material from The 18th Letter, Ra maintained his old-school swagger, only deviating once in order to have a moment of silence for a deceased friend. He went through his storied back catalog, delivering “In the Ghetto,” “Paid in Full,” “Microphone Fiend,” and most of the crowd pleasers, but he was unable to get to “Eric B. Is President” and “Know the Ledge,” a consequence of the theatre’s curfew.
Cut off, Ra slammed the microphone to the floor and compensated for his tardiness by jumping off stage to talk with the crowd and shake hands. The love somewhat made up for the abbreviated set. But we have to understand the source: Rakim comes from a time when rap was in parks and clubs and an enforced 1 a.m. curfew was unheard of.
Indeed, times have changed, and Rakim is one of the reasons — he’s one of the reasons festivals like this can take place today. He pushed rap artistically from a staunch individualist’s point of view, thereby giving GZA, Blackalicious, Murs, and countless others the courage and space needed to pursue their respective visions, all of which were on display last night. Eclectic within the genre but straightforward as far as their blueprint of microphones and beats, Rakim and his contagious passion for craft ultimately linked all of the festival’s performers.