Live: Baltimore Rap Vet Plays Show to Nobody


I mean, if Spank Rock can pack people in like that…

Knitting Factory Old Office
February 26, 2008

Bands love to talk about touring struggles, about the shows where only three people and a dog showed up but they played anyway. Until last night, though, I’d never actually been to any of those shows. There were five people at last night’s Labtekwon show at the Knitting Factory Tap Bar. One of them was the soundman. One was the bartender, who was there back when I worked at the club eight years ago. And the other people at the show may or may not have worked at the club; I’m not sure. There’s a distinct and depressing possibility that I’m the only person who paid to get in last night. Maybe this shouldn’t be shocking. Labtekwon has been kicking around the national underground rap scene for about fifteen years, releasing more material than anyone could ever hope to process. If his Wikipedia page is right, he has seventeen solo albums out, most of them self-released, and that’s not even counting the two group projects he put out last year. He occupies a fairly singular position in rap; he’s unquestionably the only rapper to release an album on the art-damaged abstract-rap label Mush and to place a video in rotation on the sadly discontinued late-night jigglefest BET Uncut. I interviewed Lab in this space a while back, and he strikes me as a fascinatingly layered figure with a whole lot to say. Apparently, though, that’s not enough to pack anyone into one of the Knit’s two basement bars. Back when I worked at the venue, I can remember that happening all the time; bands playing the Old Office regularly sold tickets in the single digits. And when I talked to Lab after the show, he said that the show hadn’t had any promotion, that he might’ve even forgotten to send out a MySpace bulletin. Still, it has to be about the most depressing experience in the world, looking out at a venue and seeing just about nobody.

But Lab is a good sport. I can’t think of too many other rappers who wouldn’t cancel a show with no turnout, but Lab managed to put together a pretty good show, if show is even the right word. Really, it was more of a practice or a bullshit session, Lab and his hypeman Chinchilla fucking around and trying to crack each other up. Lab rapped over a Thelonius Monk piece and an Erykah Badu remix and sang a couple of songs in an exaggerated Andre 3000 squeak; Chinchilla mostly sat slumped against the wall onstage and interjected random non sequiturs. The whole time he was up there, Lab stood at the back of the unlit stage behind his turntables; I didn’t get a good look at his face until the show was over. And still the show turned out entertaining, almost despite itself. Lab has a slippery and dextrous delivery, and he slips it on and off the beat according to his whims. Chinchilla, Lab’s cousin, has a raspier voice but a similar flow, and from what little I heard last night, he’s almost as good as Lab. When the two of them stopped playing and seriously locked into the beat, they could be dazzling. And the fact that they even bothered to put on a show at all speaks to their professionalism.

This show was supposed to promote the album from 410 Pharoahs, Lab’s new club-rap project with OG Baltimore club producer DJ Booman. According to Lab, though, “Fresh,” the group’s surprisingly lush and effortless first single, has been getting some burn, so they pushed back the album’s release date to see what it might do. (Rap albums, apparently, get pushed back at every conceivable level.) Lab’s recent flirtations with Baltimore club are the main reason I’ve been paying him so much attention lately. Baltimore is Lab’s hometown and mine, and he’s one of the few rappers in the city technically gifted enough to keep up with club’s runaway tempos. Booman’s tracks also seem to awaken a fleet-flooted joy in his voice that I just don’t hear on what little I’ve heard of Lab’s more esoteric older work. Most Baltimore club is trebly and tinny and skittery, but the Booman tracks Lab’s been rapping over have at least as much to do with old-school Chicago house; they’re lush and warm and resonant, with a whole lot of bass, rather than cold and hard like most club. And the club-rap moments of last night’s show were far and away my favorites. I’m really looking forward to this 410 Pharoahs album, and maybe the next time Labtekwon comes to New York, a couple more people will show up.