Grand Wizzard Theodore, Illstyle and Peace Productions, Hip-Hop Kung Fu, and more
Simpson Street, Casita Maria
Saturday, August 6
Better than: Cowboys & Aliens.
“Some of you might say I’m preaching to the choir,” Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, a former Zulu Nation member and our master of ceremonies for the afternoon, conceded, about to remind us that, for the millionth time, hip-hop was born in the Bronx. “Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of a guy named DJ Kool Herc.” Having been asked to do this on a regular basis, the choir was a touch inattentive, even as most hands reached toward the sky.
By almost all accounts, Bronx hip-hop is stagnating, out of ideas and, for the first time, irrelevant. In the last year, no one has brought the borough closer to the top of the Billboard Rap Singles Chart than Cory Gunz, but to do it he had to piggyback on a track helmed and produced by dudes from New Orleans and Des Moines. Meanwhile, older generations of Bronx artists and fans (including the generation of Cory’s dad Peter) have organized more and more groups to promote hip-hop among the borough’s current teenage, insisting on “passing on the torch” to a new generation.
Well, the roster of performers at Saturday’s Simpson Street Block Party, featuring everything from Korean-influenced Hip-Hop Kung Fu to Ghanaian Hiplife and some good old-fashioned dance crews, made me wish I could stagnate so good. After Abrazos Orchestra began the day with a set that nodded not towards the Kool Herc but another local musical legend, Salsa high priest Tito Puente, a series of dance crews ranging from shockingly talented local kids to the Philadelphia pros of Illstyle and Peace Productions literally had the stage shaking with their moves.
Entering the stage moving in slow motion to a loop of the Carl Orff sample that begins Nas’s “Hate Me Now,” Illstyle and Peace brought to mind not Orff’s opera but the trailer for a modern action movie, then delivered with a performance was surely more thrilling than, say, Cowboys & Aliens. Their performance peaked when they went into the crowd and got the audience involved in a large cipher, in which everyone from aforementioned old-school Zulu Nation dudes to a young girl wearing wearing a purple “I (heart) Shine” t-shirt moved to a tracks ranging from “More Bounce to the Ounce” to Amerie’s “1 Thing,” culminating in an extended, multiple song Michael Jackson dance party. Yeah, this was as fun as it sounds.
With short sets, two Ghanaian artists changed up the pace. The first, Akwadaa Nyame, mixed Twi and English as he rapped over beats like Lex Luger’s work on the furious “B.M.F.” and the Cory Gunz-starring, Bangladesh-produced “6 Foot 7 Foot”; the second, a more polished singer going by the name Qweci, performed a remix of Eminem’s “Not Afraid” and his own “Hands Up.” With Fred da Godson an unexplained no-show, cast members from the Asia Society’s Hip Hop Kung Fu performed a few numbers from their show until inventor-of-the-scratch GrandWizzard Theodore closed the night with some work behind the wheels of steel.
Theodore’s set was percussion-heavy, and at times he even used his turntables to create percussion where it was otherwise lacking. Even when he began to settle into songs, you still didn’t get much more than the piano riff off “Mona Lisa” or maybe a verse from LL Cool J. His cleverest routine involved reworking James Brown’s “Give It Up and Turn It Loose” and “Sex Machine” so as to downplay the sex and emphasize the machine, turning Brown’s voice into that of some strange, funky robot. Meanwhile, in front of the stage, as the rain started to come down, another cipher had formed. A torch was being passed, but everyone was too busy dancing to notice.
Critical bias: Casita Maria is a great organization, and I would have trouble saying bad things about them even if I didn’t so thoroughly enjoy myself at this event.
Overheard: Not exactly an “overheard,” but sitting next to the dunk tank was its own form of entertainment.
Random notebook dump: This “I (Heart) Shine” girl—my new hero.