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March 4, 2008
It's been a while since I went to a decent hip-hop show. Having watched a few too many of my favorite rappers in high school half-ass their way through a 45-minute set of "throw your hands in the air" with no DJ and a crowd of disappointed and non-participating fans, I had become a little jaded about the whole scene. This is a common dilemma in hip-hop performance. In such an intimate atmosphere with so many discerning fans of the genre, it's terribly difficult to get some enthusiasm and rapport going with the audience, especially an audience that is unfamiliar with a performer's catalog. That being said, last month's release show for Akrobatik's new album, Absolute Value, at New York's Highland Ballroom, was all over the map and ultimately reintroduced what I loved about hip-hop shows to begin with.

I got there in the middle of the first act, whose name I didn't catch and about which didn't bother to investigate. After watching a hella stoned MC Donuts stagger around the stage like a puppet and hearing another MC drunkenly attempt to pump the crowd up ("noifinkDISsideizdaLIVESTNAHMEEEEEANNN??"), I had kind of lost interest.

But shortly thereafter it got great. DJ J-Rocc of the Beat Junkiez came on a couple times in between sets and was positively nuts. Obviously having the most fun in the entire room and playing a somewhat masturbatory set of old funk, J-Rocc was a one-man party and one couldn't help but get wrapped up in his enthusiasm. Although his second set was where people really started to bug out, as he was dropping old J-Dilla beats and original samples from all kinds of stuff. The highlight for me was some record of a kazoo band playing everything from Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" (this I think is also sampled at the beginning of J-Dilla's "The Shining"). There wasn't a whole lot of technical wizardry that I could pinpoint, but J-Rocc should absolutely play every birthday party from here on out.

Next was another pleasant surprise in the form of Black Milk, who ripped it for an unfortunately brief set. I had only recognized his name from the credits of a few old Slum Village and Pharoahe Monch songs (he produced the two best songs on Monch's new album Desire - "Let's Go" and "Bar Tap"), and I had no idea he had set out on his own. With virtually no crowd interaction, Black Milk churned through banger after banger and everyone went bananas for it. Afterwards I even bought his Popular Demand album, which is definitely the first physical CD purchase I've made in two years (pick it up, it's ill).

Following the Milk was a DJ crew with the unfortunate name of Ill Insanity. I say unfortunate because they were INFINITELY better than their Insane Clown Possee-sounding name suggests. Composed of Rob Swift, Total Eclipse, and (the real reason to see them) DJ precision, Ill Insanity tore through a number of standards ("Let Me Clear My Throat," "99 Problems," et cetera) while doing body tricks and moving onto each other's tables. Each DJ had a typical little mini set where they got to show off their skills, which is where DJ Precision (last year's national DMC champion) positively destroyed his companions. Precision didn't cut up songs; he massacred them and sewed up the pieces into an entirely new entity. He didn't juggle the beat, he was juggling tigers and stadiums. If you're into DJ culture or have a grandfather who wants to know exactly why this is truly an art form, Ill Insanity is all the explanation you'll need.

Mr. Lif and Akrobatik were next. Lif was the far more entertaining MC, floating around on the stage like a spider almost in slow motion, only to explode when the beat was just right. Akrobatik was a large, lumbering force on stage and it looked like it took him a minute to get into it. Maybe he was expecting a bigger reaction when he came on stage, but once they got going he was as captivating as any rapper I've seen. The highlights for me were the cuts from their Perceptionists record, and a few of the songs from Absolute Value, which I think is his best work to date. Lif and Ak make a great duo, and I hope they get it together to do another Perceptionists record. Anyone interested in political hip-hop that's a little more clever and less militant than Dead Prez should peep these dudes.

And finally, the monolithic force of 40-year-old Freddie Foxxx arrived on the scene. I've never been a huge fan of Freddie Foxx/Bumpy Knuckles/The Angriest Man in America, but I certainly wouldn't bring that up if we were to meet. Foxxx spent most of his set expounding on hip-hop's under-appreciation of his persona, and berating other rappers for not having as much gusto as he. And I have to say; by the end I was convinced. Even though he only played about 2.5 songs and forgot the lyrics to his biggest hit, "Industry Shakedown," he was still able to make a case for why he should be respected. And, when DJ Premier accidentally put on a non-instrumental record, Foxx's hilarious pantomime of rappers who lip sync was outstanding. For anyone who's read The Tipping Point, Foxxx is the quintessential Salesman. Everyone in that room was hearing and believing what he had to say. And with that kind of character, who needs songs anyway?

SEE ALSO: www.highlineballroom.com
SEE ALSO: www.audibletreats.com

--
Mike Shea
A staff artist for LAS magazine, Mike Shea is bringing comics all up in the ish from his home in Brooklyn, New York. You can visit his blog at www.mikeshearules.com.

See other articles by Mike Shea.

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