By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
I often prefer bad rappers. Or at least unknown, unloved, inexperienced young MCs forced to woo the public via awkward battle tracks calling out the mechanically competent big-shot rappers the public actually knows, loves, and will pay money to experience. Where to go for such a stew of ambition and despair? Where else? Jersey.
"Whassssup . . . Newark?" Thus did Boston trio Project Move hesitantly kick off the climax of the Rock Steady Crew's 29th anniversary party, a four-day hoedown for the legendary Bronx breakdancing crew that featured B-boy/-girl competitions, celebrity basketball games, and DJ/MC events like this one, a free all-day Lincoln Park blowout on a late-July Sunday afternoon. Brick City citizens were thus well represented onstage and in the pit, but plenty of NYC peeps made the subway-train-bus sojourn as well. "It took me two hours to get here," bemoaned one of our hosts from the Lower East Side crew End of the Weak. That's W-E-A-K, as they reminded us 15,000 times throughout the day while jovially shepherding a lineup ranging from who-dats like PackFM (nice Akon-dissing routine) and Many Styles ("Yo, this joint is called 'Dungeons and Dragons' ") to our star attractions, including Rhymefest, Big Daddy Kane, and in his new superstar-DJ guise, Q-Tip.
Can we start with him, actually? Have you heard Q-Tip rap in person? Does he sound an octave higher than on record, or was that some kind of mic glitch? Can a dude's voice actually do that? Or are his decks just elaborately disguised tanks of helium? Initially the Tribe Called Quest frontman merely spun clips of "White Lines" and what have you, but he finally indulged us and burst out front to rap through Tribe's "Award Tour," "Find a Way," and "Check the Rhime," letting the euphoric crowd fill in Phife's verses, or at least the parts we could remember: "Ummm a tidbit/Ummm a smidgen/Whosawhattagleebleglobblesomethinsomethingpigeon." Crowd went apeshit.
No surprise Phife cameo, alas; earlier, Chicago's Rhymefest had politely curbed our enthusiasm by making sure we knew that colleague-patron-underwriter Kanye West would not burst from backstage during his set, which climaxed when he leapt into the crowd and barreled around freestyling for a while. It ended when he delivered, a cappella, the missing third verse to Kanye's "Jesus Walks," which he co-wrote. (Cutting the stuff about having to shop at Payless Shoe Source was probably the right call.) Between Rhyme and "Rhime," Wise Intelligent's spazzy dancehall beats pummeled us, while Lord Jamar tried to teach his MySpace minions what a "5 Percenter" is and Large Professor revisited the insanely catchy "Looking at the Front Door." Then there was Freddie Foxxx (a/k/a Bumpy Knuckles), who actually did have a surprise special guest (DJ Premiere) and led us all in a menacing chorus of "Real/Nigga/Real/Nigga." ("Don't do nothin' to the white boy if he sings the hook," Foxxx warned the crowd.)
Freddie's set was full of "This is real hip-hop shit" japeshe talked up his forthcoming American Black Man record by hinting at all the big-name rappers he'd confront and deride. Part of this mentality arose from an impulse to honor the Rock Steady Crewhip-hop in the classic "preRun-D.M.C." sense, as one MC put it. So we got some live graffiti on the grounds, some breakdancing both onstage and off, and lots of shout-outs to Rock Steady luminary Crazy Legs and accompanying pleas for a return to, well, real hip-hop shit. Curiously, the show's first few hours, full of unknown up-and-comers, was also punctuated by real hip-hop yeah no fuckin' around this is the raw shit braggadocio and stinging barbs at super-famous and thus of course completely shallow and unworthy MCs who were probably not within earshot. Whether you're a veteran with industry respect but few magazine covers or a com plete unknown with neither, the paths to super-fame converge: Join the big boys by taking a few down. Like 50 Cent did with "How to Rob." Or hell, look at Rhyme- fest, whose battle victory over Eminem at 1997's Scribble Jam, back before either was remotely famous, dominates his press now that Em's ascended and Rhyme's finally got a major album out.
That struggle to escape anonymity often makes unknown rappers more compelling than the big dogs whose careers they covet. Higher stakes, maybe lesser talent, definitely fewer certainties, but higher highs and lower lows. Maybe that's why our Newark day trip's highlight occurred at a point exactly between the have-nots and have-somes: End of the Weak ("That's W-E-A-K") showcased the unique approach to MC battles they invented and showcase weekly (not weakly) on the L.E.S. From a handful of the competing who-dat rappers the crew brought onstage emerged the day's single best line ("I got girls on my nuts like George Washington Carver") and best sustained gimmick: During one round, instead of freestyling by battling each other, the contestants took turns rapping while reaching into a box and pulling out random objects, which they then had to incorporate into their rhymes. Sample muses: a deodorant stick, dominoes, a roll of masking tape, a dog chew toy, and a bottle of steak sauce. Inspiring.
This experiment resulted in a lot of hesitant "Oh shit, it's . . . a paper plate!" lyricism, but it makes for surreal, compelling drama when a hardass dude looking to outshine Big Daddy Kane is forced to wax rhapsodic about . . . a rubber ducky. When Big Daddy Kane himself took the stage hours later, he first politely rattled off the titles of all the demos, mixtapes, and DIY releases he'd been handed throughout the day, giving the feverishly self-promoting unknown studs a brief moment of celebrity. Then he ripped through "Ain't No Half-Steppin' " to rampant crowd elation. A little half-steppin', though, can sometimes be more fun.