The New York rap renaissance, such as it is, has been widely placed on the shoulders of young crews like Harlem’s A$AP and Brooklyn’s Pro Era crew. But four performances Saturday night at the Gramercy Theatre showed how deep New York’s new rap wave truly is, in a showcase for three talented New York rappers (and one visitor from Los Angeles) carving fan bases for themselves largely outside of the online hype machine.
Homeboy Sandman, YC the Cynic, I Am Many, and Open Mike Eagle put on a lyrical marathon of a show, an oft-entertaining, sometimes exhausting relay of verbal acumen that lasted nearly four hours. The show attracted an eclectic, receptive, five-boroughs crowd, who were forgiving of any offense the performers deigned to committ, from opener Tone Tank’s Elaine-Benes-style dancing to a nearly half hour delay before Sandman’s set. Tank, who has a collaboration with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow to his name, only played for about 15 minutes, and though his energy outpaced his lung capacity, he had a charisma that won the audience over in the early going.
But Tank’s after-school raps were quickly forgotten in the wake of the four performers who followed. After spending much of the last decade being derided as revivalist, there are signs that a facility with language is again becoming an essential talent in rap music: young stars like Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar have embraced the rubric of technical skill. Chance in particular makes a kind of acid-addled smart-guy aleck that would be familiar to fans of second act Open Mike Eagle. On tracks like “Thirsty Ego Raps,” “The Processional,” “Mef’s Lament” and “Password,” the 33-year-old Angeleno dive-bombed from pop ephemera to political depth, discussing topics as diverse as Kathy Lee and Hoda and Obama’s Friday speech on the N.S.A.. Mike’s got an unfortunate fondness for emo hooks (all the more irritating when he’s excellent with a catchy rap chorus) but he was the most pop-savvy rapper who performed on Saturday, and the one most likely to make a Danny-Brown-style leap this year.
The next performer, who has saddled himself with the unfortunate name of I Am Many, exemplified both the strengths and weaknesses of the neo-conscious rap movement. Many hails from Bay Ridge, a bulky rapper with a ratatat flow. He’s a disciple of Homeboy Sandman’s in that he shows live rapping to be something of an athletic endeavor and on Saturday rapped double-time over concrete-heavy boom-bap, with concept songs about selling one’s soul to the devil, the word “boxes,” and posers. Many had great energy and is an excellent technical rapper–the crowd loved him. But he was also the first of last night’s performers to resurrect the spectre of “real hip-hop” (roughly analogous to Sarah Palin’s notion of “real America”), that conservative belief that late 90’s hyper-lyrical rapping is the only way for rappers to show that they truly love the genre. It was surprising to hear the sentiment from a guy sharing a bill with Open Mike Eagle, but then again, Many is one of the few rappers who still thinks its worthwhile to take potshots at television for warping peoples’ minds. It’d be foolish to peg him as some kind of insular real-rap performer, out of touch with the modern world–his lyrics were politically aware and empathetic, and it was touching the way he appreciated the love he got from the crowd. It’s just frustrating to see that the sanctimonious attitude that sank the popularity of conscious rap the first time around still has its adherents.
YC the Cynic, dressed like a combination of Urkel and Amiri Baraka, didn’t have to talk about being real. The Bronx native was the best performer of the night, with interspersed video clips to illustrate his hyper-vivid, politically minded raps. He was ferocious rapping on tracks like “The Heaviest Cross,” “Negus,” and “Make Moves,” with lines like “my city is gentrified, my genre is gentrified” fitting the mood of the new De Blasio era, in which young rappers as talented as YC have been pushed aside. YC the Cynic is resolutely uncool (he sends all his press emails himself) but has a depth that is hard to write off; he ended his set with a shot of spoken word that claimed that “the Bronx is still burning” and I’d be surprised if I were the only member of the audience who got chills.
Homeboy Sandman’s set was hampered by the aforementioned delay, but once he got onstage he was all smiles, performing for about an hour in what he said was his first New York show since September 2012. Sandman is a fascinating performer, as his live style jars so heavily with the cerebral nature of his lyrics. It’s not often that you hear a Georgia O’Keefe joke (from the song “Sputnik”) delivered breathlessly by a man who’s thrashing his body violently across the stage. Sand delivered a mix of old songs and new, allowing the audience to hear selections from his upcoming project with British producer Paul White, and allowing various family members in attendance to request songs. The crowd’s fealty towards him was somewhat astonishing. You’d think that after four hours people being asked to put their hands up might rebel but the crowd moved as required near the end of Sand’s set. He closed out by bringing the whole line-up back to the stage to perform his song “First of a Living Breed,” a song which represents the kind of performers that Sand believed his fellows to be.
That’s the kind of heavy-handed gesture typical of the neo-conscious movement and it’s a self-righteousness that may well end up holding some of these guys back. But being in the crowd on Saturday night it was impossible not to note the irony of the performers’ relative anonymity. The spirit of DIY has been mourned over the course of the past two weekends, supposedly incarnated by a Williamsburg space that opened in 2010. But the denizens of the city’s outer boroughs showed on Saturday that the creative spirit is still alive in New York–you just have to go farther afield to find it.