Phoned-in sets are closer to a norm than a rarity in hip-hop, but there was certainly no lack of energy during the performances of DJ Premier and Royce da 5’9″ — who together make PRhyme — at the Highline Ballroom last night. DJ Premier’s ear for flipping cool jazz and shag-carpet soul samples, along with his penchant for pairing them with dusty drum grooves, has made him one of the most influential producers in hip-hop. Premier is still good at the key aspects of his job (from riling up the crowd to frenziedly dicing up vocal snippets on the turntables), and Royce — a close and longtime Eminem affiliate — raps like a much less world-weary artist with a great deal more to prove. Playing to a packed-to-the-gills Highline Ballroom at the outset of a lengthy national tour was no doubt responsible for a good deal of the duo’s unflagging energy, but it was also clear that both parties were propelled by a still-fresh excitement for their new material and the younger talent joining them onstage.
Prem has proven to be Royce da 5’9″ ’s most valuable conspirator. Royce’s partnership with the Gang Starr alum has without question yielded some of the rapper’s best music (see breakthrough solo single “Boom,” “Hip-Hop,” and the underrated Premier-/Statik Selektah–helmed 2007 mixtape The Bar Exam). Premo’s warm, unhurried loops are a perfect foil for Royce’s capricious bars. Their first self-titled full-length together as PRhyme, released in December, harks back to battle-rap playfulness and the restraint and thug-rap hooks of Royce’s early-Aughts work. Their choice to exclusively sample the blaxplo-psychedelia of L.A. composer Adrian Younge makes for a nicely unified and consistent listen, full of heavy turntable breaks and meta-lyricism in the general lineage of Eric B. and Rakim.
Despite the crispness of Royce’s performance of PRhyme tracks (with the help of the crowd, who knew every word), the vibrant, club-ready energy of Preem and Royce’s older collaborations were the highlights of the set, specifically “Shake This,” which sent Royce careening back and forth across the stage during the urgent, cyclical hook (“I gotta shake this/Weak shit off me and keep shit off me/And leave it in the streets like a bitch, get off me…”)
One might expect quite a cadre of special guests at a DJ Premier–helmed show in NYC, but the returns were fewer and stranger than expected. Native New Yorkers Joell Ortiz and Joe Budden — who together with Royce form stolid supergroup Slaughterhouse — arrived early on to bark through their song on PRhyme (and a few others from their joyless 2009 self-titled release). A parka-clad Joey Bada$$ bounded in at one point, seemingly directly from the street, to rap through his Premier-produced “Paper Trail$.” But the low point of the night was a lengthy a cappella performance from Royce’s brother Kid Vishis, who elicited reverential ooh-es from the crowd with needless, sub–Lord Jamar punchlines like “The Tec squirt and knock you out of your Kanye West skirt” and other things not worth printing here.
Amid this minor chaos, Premier took the reins, scratching frantically on several soul, jazz, and mood records before dropping a few seconds of the underground hip-hop classic he’d made each of them into. This morphed into a kind of “guess that sample” (a/k/a “How well do you know my hits?”) game, covering tracks from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones, Part 2” to Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” Everyone seemed to take the challenge seriously, but a loud cry of “You motherfuckers don’t know your hip-hop!” rang out from the back of the house in a brief pocket of silence. At moments like this, “real hip-hop” fanaticism (upon which the proceedings were, in some latent way, dependent) reared its head.
On the next page: A Brooklyn MC rises to the occasion and Nineties hip-hop vibes prevail.
This was also relevant to the treatment, and perhaps the billing order, of the openers. Boldy James and Your Old Droog were apt choices for support for the tour stylistically. Both acts bear close associations to Nas: James is signed to his label, Mass Appeal, and Droog was once, by Soundcloud conspiracy theorists, mistaken for him. In Detroit’s current hip-hop landscape, James is something of a bastion of what might be called traditional lyricism, operating in a lane entirely distinct from that of alt-minded omnivores like Danny Brown and Quelle Chris or the blunt-nosed street rap of acts like Doughboyz Cashout and Icewear Vezzo. His approach, though equally indebted to Nas and ‘Pac, is of a totally different stripe from an artist like Royce: James maintains a monotone, admits no unnecessary words, and gets extra mileage out of his hook-writing abilities. He’s a reticent, unflashy performer (though imposing, at nearly 6’6″). The crowd was seemingly unimpressed by his reserved and frill-less flow and periodic use of trap beats; even a quick word of praise from Statik Selektah, who nobly walked on for a minute to introduce collaborative track “Something to Cry For,” didn’t seem to help. James seemed unfazed by the silence in between songs, although his parting line — “I’m Boldy James, just another drug rapper” — seemed petulant as much as pithy and self-effacing.
Your Old Droog’s songs, on the very other hand, detach from the sharply focused narratives and melancholic worldview that anchor James’s music and embrace the formal intricacies of classic Nineties East Coast hip-hop records instead. Onstage, the 25-year-old Ukrainian-American MC demonstrated himself to be a practiced entertainer, antagonizing and sparring with the audience to their apparent delight, yelling rather than adopting his studio mutter and signaling his changes in lyrical direction by pointing at odd angles. As this was a hometown show (Droog hails from Brooklyn), the crowd’s enthusiasm at the top of his set was high, especially during his horn-driven anthem “Bad to the Bone.” After a few too many Biggie-nod “Get live, motherfucker” breaks and dense strings of puns, it seemed that the initial shock and delight began to wear off for the house majority.
From the acts on the bill to the energy of the entire assemblage, PRhyme’s NYC showing provided something of a panoramic view of trad hip-hop today, showcasing the wheat, the oddball chaff, and everything in between. These were intimate, high-energy rap performances unencumbered by hypemen and excessive fan service. The night as a whole represented a powerful force in the hip-hop community, one intent on making preparations for the future by preserving time-tested practices rather than reconstituting them. But as Royce put it in his closing statements, it’s (ideally) not about rejecting the other music that’s out there, but simply offering people another “choice.”