Run, D.M.C., and LL Cool J Bring Christmas and Larry Smith Tributes to Brooklyn
LL Cool J, noted bell-rocker.
Better Than: That Christmas episode of All That with Run-D.M.C.
Friday night's Christmas in Brooklyn show at the Barclays Center (presented by Hot 97 and WBLS) was a fulfilled Christmas wishlist of a show: Run and D.M.C. shared a stage in New York for the first time in more than a decade, and LL Cool J seemingly condensed an entire music festival into a single set.
There was a sad note going into the show, as earlier Friday morning, legendary hip-hop producer Larry Smith died at the age of 63. Longtime Run-D.M.C. devotees will best remember him as the Larry who put Run "inside his Cadillac" in "Sucker MC's." Smith was the group's longtime producer, as well as a producer for Whodini and Kurtis Blow.
After a long wait getting through Barclays security, stepping inside the arena instantly seemed like the Rocky Hip-Hop Picture Show. It's telling how iconic both Run-D.M.C.'s and LL's images are based on how many people dressed in their likeness: Rap cosplay was in full effect in a sea of Adidas tracksuits and red Kangol hats. From teenage female DMCs to middle-aged men in gold chains, the fans reflecting such admiration in a genre usually so reversed about fandom was unlike anything I've ever witnessed at a hip-hop show.
While sponsor stations Hot 97 and WBLS have gotten their fair share of criticism from self-professed hip-hop purists for "not playing real hip-hop" over the years, Friday's lineup was a rap fanatic's dream-team. Even between the acts, the crowd was treated to stellar old-school DJ sets from Kool DJ Red Alert, Funkmaster Flex, and Marley Marl, who brought out surprise guest Craig G to perform "Droppin' Science" and his verse from legendary hip-hop posse cut "The Symphony."
Opener K. Michelle, from Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta, seemed to surprise the crowd with her sultry set. Along with a voice that filled the arena, she showcased two background singers on a medley of En Vogue's "Something He Can Feel," The Jones Girls' "Who Can I Run To," and Sam Smith's "Stay With Me." It was an excellent way to win both classic soul and new-school audiences over. K. Michelle made the event truly feel like a stadium show, and the receptive crowd made it feel like the world's biggest Christmas party.
Then came LL Cool J's set, possibly the greatest live hip-hop show New York's seen this year. While Run-D.M.C. have often been referred to as "The Beatles of rap" for the hysteria and impact of their heyday, you could make an argument for LL Cool J being rap's Rolling Stones for his decades of hits and ability to weave it all into one incredible live show. Backed by turntablist extraordinaire Z-Trip, Cool J came out to gold fireworks raining on the stage and immediately began with "Mama Said Knock You Out." The NCIS: Los Angeles star set it off by yelling, "Don't call it a comeback!" It was fitting, as Cool J proved nothing's changed but the date, bringing the audience on a journey that ranged from his first 1984 single "I Need a Beat" through his 2000s hits like "Headsprung," and even debuting some new material from his forthcoming G.O.A.T. 2 album.
And Cool J brought out some guests too. Let me preface this by assuring you that, yes, all of this did actually happen.
Our first special guest didn't appear until about halfway through Cool J's set, when he brought out EPMD for the classic "Rampage" single. All three rocked the house -- had this been the only guest, the crowd would have been more than satisfied. But then Cool J just kept the guests coming. Raekwon, Murda Mook, and Troy Ave weren't even the biggest surprises.
At one point, Cool J stopped the music to say, "I've been in a lot of battles in my time. And, well..." and brought out longtime nemesis Canibus to join him for "4,3,2,1," the collaboration that led to their infamous 1998 falling-out. The crowd looked on in momentary disbelief before going insane, with Cool J telling Bis at the end, "I love you, Canibus. Yo, your career's starting again!"
Then, during a rapid-fire medley of lesser-known hits (yes, LL actually performed a bit of "Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings"), Z-Trip put on Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" instrumental. Cool J cut him off, telling Z-Trip that if he was going to play it, they were going to have to do it right, which led to him actually bringing out Bell Biv DeVoe.
Cool J then began winding his set down, taking the audience on a full journey and performing "I Need Love" while throwing roses to women in the audience. After closing with "Rock the Bells", he kicked his custom mic stand, splitting it in two and knocking it to the ground.
It looked to be an impossible act to follow, but if anyone was going to, it would have to be Run and D.M.C.
Taking the stage to "Rock Box," it was surreal to see such a legendary group on such an enormous stage. Despite only performing together a handful of times since Jam Master Jay's passing in 2002, their chemistry was unbelievably sharp. After this opening number, Run stopped with a spotlight on him to make something very clear. "There's Reverend Run and then there's Run. Reverend Run couldn't be here tonight. That motherfucker's home sleeping." The crowd exploded at hearing the man we'd grown so accustomed to as a Reverend cussing, letting the Brooklyn crowd know they were in for something special. Run told us to throw our "goddamn hands up," and we did, and they continued through "It's Like That," "It's Tricky," and "Hard Times."
Once the duo promised something specifically for the old-school heads and performed the 1984 non-album cut "Here We Go," they managed to blow the speakers out, rendering their raps and the turntables a faint whisper, which they didn't realize until halfway through "Beats to the Rhyme." Once they were alerted to the problem, Barclays staff took to rectify the matter, and five minutes later, when power was restored, Run and D.M.C. went right back into "Here We Go" to perform the affected songs the right way.
Run handled most of the between-song banter with the crowd as D.M.C. hid mostly in the shadows, which he said gave him "his power." In speaking with the audience, Run took a moment to address Larry Smith's passing:
My man Larry Smith, he produced these records. It's sad but fitting he passes away on the day I return to a big stage like this...I love you, Larry. I hope you're watching from Heaven and I'm making you proud.
I didn't catch much of the dedication and tribute to Jam Master Jay from D.M.C.'s children, Jay's son Jam-Master J'son (who'd been backing Run-D.M.C. on the turntables all night), DJ Scratch, and DJ Hurricane, as a fight between two men and Barclays security erupted on the stairs next to my seat. While it was a small moment of violence that was squashed by the staff with seemingly no real harm happening to anyone, it's unfortunate that such a moment had to happen during a tribute to someone who lost his life over needless violence.
But that wasn't enough to deter the night as Run and D.M.C. closed with "Christmas in Hollis" and "Walk This Way." While their set had nowhere near the guests of Cool J's, getting the tremendous fortune to see Run and D.M.C. perform some of the genre's most important songs in their hometown was an unforgettable spectacle. It was a night of hits, a night of surprises, and a reminder that legends never die.
Critic's Notebook: Critical Bias: My two favorite genres are hip-hop and Christmas music.
Overheard: "LL brought me too far back! Radio? I wasn't ready to go back that far! 'Mama Said' 's as far back as I wanted to go, but LL's trying to hurt me!"
Random Notebook Dump: The announced introduction of LL Cool J made a point to mention his performance in 1999's In Too Deep. Between that and how deep he went in his catalog, I was half-expecting him to perform his "Deepest Bluest" song, from the perspective of a genetically engineered shark, that he penned for Deep Blue Sea.
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