Fusion Regime

“This one’s for all the beautiful young ladies with big tits,” declared the frontman of Panamanian ska-mongers Rabanes of a ditty titled “Señorita a Mí Me Gusta Su Style.” The female revelers at Hammerstein Ballroom wailed in excitement—even the small-breasted ones—at the trio’s Spanglish odes to sexy mamis. Their festive anthems last Wednesday rode an energetic mix of merengue, mariachi, punk, and techno at the third annual Latin rocanrol showcase-turned-cause that is the Watcha tour.

The hearty sancocho of fusions became extra playful with Argentine collective Bersuit. The eight members blended ska, salsa, banda beats, loungeadelic grooves, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink into a contagious musical daze. Yet, on stage, the aging pibes resembled cult members rather then tequila-fueled gauchos: Uniformed in jogging suits, they stumbled around with flailing arms—perhaps warning that the end was near. If that’s the case, they couldn’t care less. They’re more interested in self-pleasure, dedicating “Culona” to those who masturbate with electrical appliances.

Somewhere in this five-hour marathon, Dover (from Spain) ran through songs that sounded too similar to each other, maybe due to the Hammerstein’s weak acoustics—sadly, we couldn’t discern what the only female vocalists on the bill had to say. It would’ve been enough for ethereal Chilean-pop papis La Ley just to look pretty, but the strapping Beto Cuevas sang his floating lyrics effortlessly, a seamless performance worthy of a Pepsi commercial. Enanitos Verdes brought a whiff of the ’80s to the party, while rap-metal regulars Molotov discharged their hardcore stampede onto the awaiting mosh pit.

Intense yet approachable, Juanes, with his quietly despairing voice and live-life-to-the-fullest tales, left the deepest impression. With urgency he told of troubles at home in Colombia, a dead friend, and that fine line between love and hurt. His last song, “Fíjate Bien,” with its gorgeous melodies and catchy hooks mixed with vallenato music, proved—for at least that moment—that Latin rock could do no wrong. —Grace Bastidas

Eyes on the Prize

“You ever live in a haunted house before?” Spearhead’s Michael Franti asked early in their Wetlands show on August 14, the last the politically minded funkateers will play in the venue before it’s converted into office space. “With ghosts telling you to pack up and take your shit with you? Well, we’re gonna leave some spirits here tonight.” They certainly took their time doing it. Though there was little in the way of extended improvisation, San Francisco’s Spearhead are in many ways a classic jam band; their groove grew looser as the show progressed, stretching out to two-hours-plus.

Around the release of their 1997 murk-funk opus, Chocolate Supa Highway, Franti (formerly of the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) thoroughly dominated Spearhead’s live show. But now that he’s officially credited ahead of the group on the new Stay Human, Franti seems content to bask in his surroundings. Even when pulling a female fan onstage to salsa dance or starting a pair of numbers alone with an acoustic guitar, he was first among equals.

Seeing the band live meant not having to race for the fast-forward button during Stay Human‘s ponderous anti-death-penalty skits; activist Mario Africa’s band-introduction-cum-Mumia-rally-recruitment was both more concrete and more engaging. As you might expect from the rabble-rousing atmosphere, Franti’s spoken-word piece got cheers about every stanza or so; “Pulitzer! Pulitzer! Pulitzer!” shouted one fan. Um, not quite. But when Franti dropped the chorus of the Heroes’ “Television, the Drug of the Nation” into the whomping new “Rock the Nation,” he demonstrated how much warmer and more effective his work has become. A decade on from the Heroes’ dry didacticism, he’s incorporating politics into his songcraft as well as any of his protest-soul idols. —Michaelangelo Matos

Underage Against the Machine

“First, I gotta talk to y’all. Can I talk to y’all for a minute?” asks the brassy, sassy Miss Alicia Keys, supastar-in-waiting if you let J Records tell it. At Roseland on August 17, the crowd talks back. “Somebody’s feisty tonight,” Keys remarks, as she bops her head over her keyboard (didyouknowsheplays?). At her first date opening for Maxwell’s NY7 tour—seven New York venues in about as many days—Clive Davis’s newest “diva” gets to the work of claiming the throne laid before her, the onus as strong as the hype. Keys is under 21 with street edge, easy on the eyes, and does have a voice—essential raw material for her record company’s million-dollar marketing machine.

As much a fashionista as a singer, Keys sashayed across the stage, acid-washed duster covering her body-too-bootylicious thighs, her cocked fedora over her trademark braids ‘n’ beads. Off came the hat as she launched into “Fallin’,” the breakout single that’s been sitting pretty on top of the charts for weeks. The coat stayed on, however (“You gotta leave something to the imagination”), as Keys and her onstage accomplice, complete with orange jail suit, rocked out over a Michael Jackson riff. Keys’s show, like her album, was tasty if a bit red on the inside; at Roseland, she didn’t quite develop a command of the crowd or find an exciting stride. Although Keys is hip-hop without being sample- heavy—but really, though, doesn’t “Fallin’ ” sound a lot like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”?—she eventually needs to find a comfortable pace between her hip-hop tendencies and her company’s pop aspirations. From the cover of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” to “Girlfriend” or her encore “Butterflyz,” Keys proved she’s on the ascending side of the learning curve.

And speaking of butterflies, with Mariah’s recent abdication of the looks-bright-sounds-black chasm, and sounding a little like her, Keys seems poised to step into those glittery shoes. But unlike Carey, who only used hip-hop when it was convenient, Keys embraces it with thug passion—her blues as common as 20-year-old divas. —Angela Bronner

Who Wants to Kill Joe Bananas?

“I bust your motherfuckin’ ass boy!/I ain’t no motherfuckin’ joke, you know who you talkin’ to?/Ol’ Dirty Bastard. I fuck you up right now.”

Right now, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (a/k/a Dirt McGirt, Osiris, Joe Bananas, Big Baby Jesus) isn’t fucking anybody up. In fact, the imprisoned Wu-Tang Clan rapper has been beaten up, intimidated sexually, and is receiving numerous death threats, according to sources inside the 36 Chambers.

Dirty pleaded guilty this April to possession of 20 glassine envelopes of crack cocaine and one of marijuana; he was sentenced to two to four years in state prison. On the lam after escaping from an inpatient rehab program last October, Dirty was picked up in November in the parking lot of a Philadelphia McDonald’s.

Calm during his recent hearing, Dirty has been known for his courtroom theatrics: spitting, falling asleep, bringing bottles of alcohol (a probation violation), and flirting with female prosecutors. In one L.A. appearance, court transcripts show that Dirty introduced himself to the prosecution team as “Sperm Donor.”

The judge then said, “It will be helpful if you would just say nothing right now.” Dirty replied, “Do I make you horny?” Though the transcript does not make clear what he was doing at this point, the judge instructed him to put his hands down. “Fool yourselves,” he said. “Sperm donor here.”

But the Wu-Tang Clan say ODB’s present situation is no laughing matter. “He’s scared,” the RZA told the Voice, sipping from a flute of champagne at the recent promotion party for his new record, Digital Bullet, at the Riverton Lounge. After visiting his cousin in prison, the RZA wrote and posted an advisory titled “Dirty in Danger” on the Clan’s Web site. “Ol’ Dirty Bastard fears his life is in jeopardy and that a conspiracy is in effect to kill him. These concerns have been presented to the DA and prison officials have been alerted to the threat to his life. None of these state officials have given any regard to this matter. If something happens while ODB is in the custody of these officials, his family, his thirteen children, and Wu-Tang will seek full retribution in a civil resolution.”

So RZA, who does Dirty think is out to kill him? “The government.” Anyone more specific? “I don’t think there’s one person, one single name, but he said some cops told him, ‘You better watch your back.’ ” In 1998, jewelry robbers actually did shoot him in the back; cops have shot at him, too. All the gun-slinging, the RZA says, has instilled paranoia and fear in Big Baby Jesus, who has been known to wear body armor.

“He has repeatedly expressed to me serious, sincere concerns about being killed while in custody,” says ODB’s East Coast lawyer, Peter Frankel, and has already fractured his leg in one of a few “incidents” with inmates.

Dirty, who has gained a considerable amount of weight since his imprisonment, has been moved to the prison’s psych ward, according to the RZA’s longtime personal assistant, Tam Layton. She reports that he’s on a daily cocktail of four to five medications. “He’s overly lethargic,” she says. “Kind of like, ‘Uhhhh . . . ‘ They have him in that state of mind, like those mental patients who stare at the wall.” According to Layton, Wu-Tang want him moved to a private hospital, staffed by doctors not affiliated with the state.

The first threats against him, she says, were sexual, and Dirt McGirt refused to bathe. “He’s crazy, but he’s like, ‘Look, I got this big-ass man telling me what to do with my body—I think I’m gonna stay dirty.’ ”

Frankel adds that it’s been difficult for corrections officers to handle the threats. “This is what happens: A number of inmates will say, ‘You’re fuckin’ dead, man,’ ‘The word is out,’ ‘You’re gonna be had,’ whatever it is they say. Then Dirty goes to a corrections officer and says, ‘Look, these motherfuckers are threatening my life.’ The officer’s gonna say, ‘Well, who said it?’

“It’s a catch-22. If Dirty says who said it, he’s gonna have a different kind of problem. If he doesn’t say who said it, nobody’s going to pay attention and they’re not going to file a report and take it seriously. It happens every fucking day.” —Geoffrey Gray