Live: Zune’s Old-Rapper Picnic



LL Cool J + Brand Nubian + the Lox + Large Professor + Clipse + Cham
Empire Fulton State Park
August 4, 2007

Nobody I know has paid actual money for a Zune, the mp3 player that Microsoft created to compete with the iPod, but Microsoft is totally smashing Apple in at least one area: the promotional event. Or, to put it another way, no Apple event has ever given me opportunity to drink free beer and eat free barbecue chicken while watching a festival roster jammed with rap legends performing for free. Saturday night’s Live at the BBQ show was the third of three big free rap shows that Zune had sponsored, following shows in LA and Chicago, and it turned out to be one of the most pleasant and laid-back shows I’ve seen this summer, quite a feat in a season rich with big free shows. Zune staged the event at Empire Fulton State Park, the same location that played host to the Boredoms’ 77-drummer opus a month ago. But the line to get into that Boredoms show stretched about a half-mile back at one point, and I never saw more than a couple of people waiting in line for the Zune show despite a similar free-with-RSVP setup, pretty funny considering that the Zune show’s combined lineup has probably sold several hundred times as many records as the Boredoms. Zune kept the show’s location and a good portion of its lineup secret until just before the show, which might explain the thin turnout; at any given time, the crowd back in the VIP tent seemed to equal the number of people out on the actual festival grounds. I wasn’t mad, though, since that lack of overcrowding led to an appealingly casual atmosphere; you could see the stage from pretty much anywhere, and I never had to sacrifice my personal space to get close to the performers. When I got to the park, Cham was just beginning to perform my favorite single of last year. He got about halfway through, stopped, mumbled something about how cursing wasn’t allowed that day, said that Jamaica was the most beautiful place on Earth (to the elation of maybe five presumably-Jamaican kids up front) and then restarted the song. Nobody minded. When Cham emerged during Sean Paul’s set to do “Ghetto Story” at last year’s Summer Jam, it made for an apocalyptically exciting moment. At Saturday’s show, he was just a guy on a stage doing a really good song, to the delight of a few and the casual enjoyment of a whole lot more. And it set the tone for the day, since there was a whole lot to enjoy besides the music: tetherball poles, picnic tables with checkerboards set up, basketball courts, an Xbox tent, an amazing riverside view of Manhattan. I would’ve had a great time even if all the acts had sucked, but thankfully that never became a concern.

Voice review: Baz Dreisinger on Cham’s Ghetto Story

The day’s no-cussing could’ve potentially flustered quite a few of the day’s performers; it was pretty funny to hear J. Period yelling “get the hell up” over “Simon Says” at the beginning of his live-mixtape DJ set. Halfway through that set, though, his guests had evidently and understandably decided to completely ignore the rule, and most of the show’s performers followed their precedent. That live-mixtape thing turned out to be a great idea: a euphorically fun run-through of a bunch of local rap classics from the 80s and 90s with a roster of guests that would’ve had me bugging the fuck out if I hadn’t already known that all of them were there. Actually, I sort of bugged the fuck out anyway. Smiff-N-Wessun came out and did “Bucktown” and “Sound Bwoy Bureill.” Buckshot and 5-FT from Black Moon did “I Got Cha Opin” and “Who Got the Props.” Masta Ace did his verse from “The Symphony” and “Born to Roll.” O.C. did “Time’s Up.” Ace, Buckshot, and Special Ed “Crooklyn Dodgers.” O.C. did his verse from “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers.” Special Ed did “I Got It Made.” Every single one of those songs is almost unspeakably great, and hearing all of them performed in rapid succession had a really powerful cumulative effect. I loved seeing all these guys, guys who maybe never got rich off rap but who still love it anyway, all of them weathered and practiced and polished onstage, all visibly happy to be performing even in front of such a sparse crowd. The Crooklyn Dodgers thing, in particular, was a revelation. It’s probably been years since those three guys were onstage together, but they’ve still got a great chemistry together, and it was a trip to see them doing this song in the same park where part of the song’s video was filmed.

Over the rest of the afternoon, nothing quite matched the feel-good energy of that moment, but a lot of stuff came close. I’ve seen Clipse play live five times over the past year and a half, and they’ve never been less than magnificent. Their set on Thursday didn’t have the same urgency as their packed-in club sets, but they were as fierce and focused as ever, doing an abbreviated version of their usual set and bringing out fired-up surprise guest Roscoe P. Coldchain, who I guess just got out of jail and who seemed really embarrassed when he totally flubbed his verse from the “Cot Damn” remix. (Pusha wouldn’t let him give it another try.) Large Professor probably had to be there, given that the whole event was named after one of his songs. He might not have a particularly dynamic stage presence, but he looked totally delighted to be out there by himself, even chanting “Zune! Zune!” a couple of times mid-song. A whole lot of the crowd dispersed when he was on, but just about everyone came running back to the stage when the reunited Lox hit the stage, doing “All About the Benjamins.” Before the Lox, there hadn’t been a single hypeman onstage all day. That changed really quickly; suddenly the stage was crammed with like ten guys, all of whom had mics. That sort of New York rap chaos totally works for a group like this; the three guys in the group all have stage-presence to burn, and Jadakiss’s voice still resonates even when five guys are yelling his lyrics along with him. I always forget how many bangers these guys have: “Wild Out,” “Good Times,” “Knock Yourself Out,” Jada’s verse from the “Made You Look” remix. They did all those songs, all of them sounded great, and it’s really gratifying to see how much people still love this group even after industry bullshit has messed up their momentum. Brand Nubian took the stage after the Lox. Lord Jamar missed a flight or something and never made it out to join the other two, so we didn’t get the whole group, but it didn’t matter much. Grand Puba and Sadat X don’t have any new material to hawk, so there wasn’t anything stopping them from doing a solid half-hour of classics. Considering that Puba left the group to go solo after their first album, it’s nearly as weird seeing him play hypeman to Sadat on “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down” as it is to hear Sadat backing Puba on “What Goes Around.” But Puba’s been back in the group for nearly a decade now, so they’ve had plenty of time to work through that stuff. Onstage, both of them are absolute pros, and their old stuff has held up beautifully. (Related sidenote: I’ve got a chapter about One for All in Phil Freeman’s new anthology Marooned, and I’ll be taking part in a reading at Housing Works on August 22. Come say hi.)

Voice review: Zach Baron on Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury
Voice review: Nick Sylvester on Clipse’s We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2

As uniformly great as the afternoon’s lineup was, I wasn’t sure what to expect from surprise-guest headliner LL Cool J. Even though his live reputation was once legendary, I was afraid he might fuck up a day of NY rap nostalgia with a set of the soft-batch love-songs he’s been specializing in for years now, an impression he reinforced by opening his set with a weirdly faithful word-for-word cover of “Hypnotize” and, for some reason, “Phenomenon,” a song that wasn’t even particularly popular when it first came out. I shouldn’t have worried, though. After all, LL has decades of experience balancing his wispy loverman tracks with the violent alpha-dog bark that made him famous in the first place. That’s an especially tough line to walk onstage, but he pulled it off with serious panache on Saturday night. Something like “Luv U Better,” after all, is a whole lot easier to take when it comes sandwiched between “I’m Bad” and LL’s verse from the “Flava in Ya Ear” remix. And he’s a dynamic enough performer that even the songs I don’t much like sounded pretty good. Age has had no effect on his skill or his charisma, and he raps with a force and clarity pretty much unrivaled by just about any rapper I’ve ever seen onstage. During LL’s set, the show finally took on a real festival atmosphere; a whole lot of people must’ve gotten text-messages and showed up late. Bridget and I were standing in the back, and where we were, couples made up most of the crowd. During the love songs, they’d dance with each other. During the hard songs, the guys would excitedly rap along word-for-word while the girls smiled and rolled their eyes. Near the end of his set, LL pulled a horde of girls from the crowd onstage, hugging all of them and handing out roses while his DJ played “In Da Club” and “I Just Wanna Love U” and, finally, “Headsprung.” When the girls left the stage, he launched into a particularly vicious rendition of “Rock the Bells.” At the “all you washed-up rappers wanna do this well” moment, he spun around and kicked his mic-stand over, and it made for one of the most exhilarating onstage moments I’ve seen in recent years. I’m not sure I can adequately describe how much fun all of this was: one of the greatest rappers of all time doing a ripshit version of one of his best songs on a beautiful night with a gorgeous panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline behind him. I loved it. I’m not sure how it’ll convince anyone to buy a Zune, but I loved it.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2007

Archive Highlights