“It’s official,” mumbled a disgruntled bohemian chick at the Breed Love Odyssey Tour’s stop at B.B. Kings in December. “They have sold out. First the GMC commercial, now a tour sponsored by Sony Playstation.” Before I dismissed the girl as your typical Okayplayer hater, could it be possible Talib Kweli and Mos Def, the vanguard of progressive and political hip-hop, have sold out to the almighty dollar? Unlikely. They may have moved on from ciphers in Washington Square Park to the silver screen and MTV, but they’re still the same dollar-van-riding, Nkiru bookstore-owning, Brooklyn-bred emcees we became enamored with in the late ’90s.
But it’s not hard to see why that bohemian chick was skeptical. To say the least, corporate dollars and underground hip-hop make strange bed fellows, and it was strange to see Sony representatives trying to peddle PSPSs to the backpackers, hipsters and thugs who went to see Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch and Jean Grae.
As the opening act, Jean Grae took the stage trying to coax the subdued N.Y.C. crowd into vibing along. Grae lacks the catalogue of the other acts on the bill, but she more than made up for it with her uncanny crowd control, raising hands, eyebrows, lighters and cell phones as she breezed through unreleased joints off her Phoenix and Jeanius albums. A relatively sort set, her time ended like an abbreviated Sunday service, putting the spirit in a number of converts while they restlessly waited for Kweli and Mos.
Jean Grae, Kweli and Mos have hit the tour circuit hard in recent years, but Pharoahe Monch has remained relatively quiet, only resurfacing on occasional tracks and as the subject of rumors in regard to his free-agent status. One of the most talented emcees to grace hip-hop, Monch did not dig back to his Organized Konfusion days. Instead, he gave life to Internal Affairs tracks such as “Queens,” “The Light” and “Simon Says.” During his set, Monch laid down the line of the night on a new track called “Desire,” addressing his absence over the past few years: “Slave to my label/ but I own my masters.”
As Monch’s time wound down, Kweli rushed to share the stage for the Quality gem “Guerilla Monsoon Rap.” Trading verses with Pharoahe, Kweli commanded the stage, and the crowd slowly began to warm-up. For anyone who had seen Kweli perform in the past, it was a welcome change to hear new tracks such as the dope DangerDoom cut “Old School” and the title track from his Right About Now mixtape. Although Kweli’s strongest material comes from his days as part of the dynamic duos Black Star and Reflection Eternal, Beautiful Struggle gems “Never Been in Love” and “Lonely People” carry a melodic groove, especially as they are rhymed over Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly.”
Throughout the Breed Odyssey Tour’s run there have been a number of un-scheduled guest appearances, and the tour finale was no different. Kweli’s Reflection Eternal counterpart producer Hi-Tek, dripping in ‘Nati red, jumped on for “The Blast” and, more important, provided credence to the rumors that the duo is working on a new project. But the moment of the night goes to the freestyle session with Kweli, Craig G, Rass Kass and Mos Def rhyming over “Get ‘Em High,” followed by a brief appearance by Slum Village.
With the mike left smoking, Kweli and Mos shared the stage for a brief Black Star set. Nearly eight years removed from recording their eponymous debut, Kweli and Mos Def still share chemistry like brothers from another mother, hitting the crowd off with new tracks such as “Supreme, Supreme” and oldies “Definition,” “Respiration” and “8th Light (Astronomy).” As large as Kweli and Mos may get, they will always be remember and loved for that thirteen track LP released back in ’98 that revitalized the Native Tongue movement.
There was an obvious and noticeable difference between Mos Def and his Black Star brethren. Kweli has honed a precise stage show while Mos tends to meander between old material and new material, singing and rapping. Mos’s talent alone can carry a show, but after nearly three hours of music, even the faithful grew weary and tired. But as much as they may have “sold out” by accepting those corporate dollars, you can’t fake it in front of an N.Y.C. crowd. In many ways, the Breed Love Odyssey tour was like a high school reunion. They may have gotten older and their priorities may have changed, but they are still the same artists we grew up on.
The Breed Love Odyssey Tour’s Web site