In all of the concerts of all the genres I’ve been to, hip-hop shows are by far the most risky to go to. More than most genres, hip-hop shows can be extremely hit or miss depending on a variety of factors centered around the music and the group’s preparation. At a hip-hop show, you’re usually more likely to encounter sound issues, poor crowd interaction, truncated songs or artists who just didn’t put enough time into rehearsing their material, sometimes needing to ad lib or cut songs short because they don’t know all the words. Great hip-hop shows consist of a solid mixmatch of a setlist, rappers who know their words and can interact well with the crowd, good music and fantastic energy. Luckily, the past several hip-hop shows I’ve been to have been on the stellar end of things, and Tuesday night’s performance by Blue Scholars at The Independent in San Francisco fit perfectly into this string of solid shows.
For those that don’t know Blue Scholars, you can check out my write-up of their sound and style in Putting Emerald City on the Map. It’s safe to say that they’re one of the most musically and lyrically diverse groups on the hip-hop scene right now, and the combination of Geologic’s in-depth and personal lyrics with Sabzi’s unique and multi-faceted understanding of various genres makes Blue Scholars and Bayani two different and fantastic albums. Of course, having never seen them before in concert, and knowing of the historically wildly unpredictable transformation of hip-hop groups from studio CD to live performance, I went out to The Independent last night not sure what to expect.
What I got was an amazingly positive and energetic set centered around fantastic lyricism and incredibly well put together musical mixes. At the beginning, I was concerned because one of the fastest ways to tank a hip-hop show is when no one in the crowd knows you, and they did not appear to be as enthusiastically received as I would have liked. Being the opener for GZA doing a full rendition of the renowned classic Liquid Swords album, Blue Scholars had their work cut out for them. But from the minute they took the stage, you got the feeling that their energy was going to be a train, and you could jump on or get run down. Visually, the hip-hop of Geologic’s baggy clothes and zip-up hoodie contrasted nicely with the more indie look of Sabzi’s glasses and button-up shirt. It’s a good feeling when one part of a duo introduces the other as “my partner in music.” They started with a song that used the guitar riff most recently heard in Green Day’s “Hitchin’ a Ride.”
They then moved on to “Second Chapter” before going through the entire set including “Opening Salvo,” “The Ave,” “Loyalty,” a spoken word bit, two new songs, “North By Northwest” and “No Rest for the Weary.” Where others stumble over words, Geologic, from the beginning to the end of the set, was simply enthralling with his delivery. Every word was crisp and coherent, on beat and on target, with emotions ranging from the pure joy of rapping and using the beat to a savage rage at economic inequalities and injustice. While these topics permeate the group’s songs, Geologic did a nice job of leaving them there and making his interludes to the crowd more about enjoying music and spreading the word. Sabzi never once let the beat falter, and even in brief interludes made clear his enjoyment of soul and funk music. He also did a great job of keeping the set on track. As Geologic went to start a freestyle over the tail end of a beat, Sabzi cut it off and told him he needed to move on.
While the crowd didn’t know as many of the songs as I would have liked them to, they certainly got into the act by the end of the show. Both artists helped with this as they did a great job of slowing songs down, taking the beat simple, and then gradually building them back up until they let the energy spill over the top and infect the crowd. “The Ave” and “Loyalty” were by far the standouts of the set, but with the way these two performed, I could have listened to the entirety of both their albums live and been content. Furthermore, the diversity of topics in the lyrics and the variety of sounds conjured up by Sabzi showed just how deep these two can be. The material never seemed repetitive or strained, and at no point did you get the feeling that the two weren’t on the same page together in the creation of the music.
Blue Scholars were followed on stage by GZA performing his legendary Liquid Swords album, joined on stage for a time by Killah Priest. They almost started a riot though when the wait time between the sets reached epic proportions and had people in the audience booing the DJ. It’s tough to call Blue Scholars a “warm-up” act when by the time GZA came on, the crowd was cold and pretty upset that they had to wait for so long. The audience was obviously Wu-Tang heavy, and it went nuts when the first notes of the opening monologue filled the venue. For those that haven’t heard the album, it’s a dark and complex piece of rap music, beats produced by RZA and infused with clips from the stark background of the black and white cult samurai movie Shogun Assassin.
But what works as a studio album, and would certainly work with various songs played throughout a set, didn’t quite work as an entire piece. The energy seemed canned, probably due to the consistency you need to find when you’re going to play your entire album cover to cover live, and all of the songs are a bit too similar to hear outside the context of the CD. GZA’s delivery was good, but didn’t carry the same type of force and creativity that Geologic brought to his. But to his credit, GZA’s reproduction of the CD in a live setting was virtually flawless. At one point, having finished a song, something went wrong with the sound and the interlude that played wasn’t the proper one for the album. Rather than put on the right interlude and move on, GZA asked the crowd if they wanted him to start over, which they did, and he had the DJ put the track back to the beginning, performing it from the start again.
It’s a tough line to straddle though…being prepared and rehearsed enough to do an entire album, while also maintaining a sense of energy and spontaneity that an audience needs in concert. Finally, having waited the entire set to hear my favorite song on the album, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E.)”, Killah Priest tanked it. Not only did he seem to forget a number of the words to his own song, but Priest seemed to be unable to control his breathing sufficiently to get through the entire thing. Several times he had to stop mid-verse to catch his breath, and you started wondering if the album version was done in one take or multiple takes to help him breathe through it. As the song that I find most playable on the album, it was sad to hear it so fully butchered.
While there’s no denying Liquid Swords its place among the top rap albums of all time, and certainly credit is due to GZA for everything he’s contributed to the genre, the delivery and energy of his set couldn’t match that of the Scholars. I’m still glad I saw it, as the album is one that has a number of personal historical ties for me, but I left the venue thinking that I might have been more satisfied if GZA had been the opener and Blue Scholars had closed the show. Either way, I encourage everyone to get out to see either of these groups. With Blue Scholars you can see the idea behind what musically diverse and lyrically socially conscious hip-hop can and should be, and with GZA you can see a lyrically solid artist doing a faithful performance of one of the best rap albums of all time. Here’s two clips from the Blue Scholars song “Loyalty,” one of my favorites. Turn the volume down to limit the distortion as my camera didn’t do well handling the louder portions of the song…