It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show as a writer. Normally out shooting as a photographer, I decided to muster up the courage to get out on a Tuesday evening with one of my best friends to see what Yasiin Bey still had to offer this once malleable hip-hop head. The reason for doing so was two-fold; I still have a special place in my heart for ‘real’ hip-hop, and because I’ve been following Mos Def (Bey’s FKA) and his career since the early Black Star days. I’ve always felt personally engaged and interested in what he stands for in his music and that his position and demeanor are both genuine and unique, so I was looking forward to seeing him perform solo. (David and I caught the dynamic Black Star duo at the 2011 Rock the Bells show). For me, the night was a roller coaster of entertainment, enjoyment and disappointment.
It started off with your typical ‘indie’ hip-hop show theatrics – more acts on-stage than originally scheduled, a late-by-design set of performances, and a questionable hype-man who faltered in between sets. The crowd began to BOO as comedian Chris Riggins decided to segregate and separate concert-goers by racially profiling fans. As if he had planned it all along, the ‘host’ called out to the crowd, asking, “Are y’all ready to see some real hip-hop tonight?” The response was not quite what he had hoped, so he decided to single out a fair skinned patron by asking him what his problem was. The man looked confused as he said, “What are you talking about? I’m ready,” while he smiled and put up his hands. (He was one of the few people actually engaged.) When the crowd grew even more silent, the host replied to the young man, ‘Yeah, whatever. My bad, white privilege.’
I only mention this because it is so blatantly hypocritical to bring an enigmatic figure like Mos Def to the Bay Area – who seemingly stands for peace and unity – only to have the hype-man spew out racial innuendos between sets. We’re all one, homie – we’ve all spent our hard earned money to come out on a Tuesday night to see a hip-hop show and hang out together for the evening, not segregate people and exude dominance over the fans because they are without a microphone or stage to defend themselves. It was both disappointing and upsetting. The frustration continued as the clock continued to tick into the night, until 11:30 when Yasiin finally took the stage.
He came out in typical seasoned-MC, ‘way-better-than-expected’ fashion, as he gripped his iconic 50’s microphone and stormed the stage with a smile and swagger. His wordplay and delivery were tight and explosive, as he navigated impeccably between classic hip-hop cuts and his newer material – which relies heavily on vocal falsettos and extensive call and returns. I also have a special place in my heart for MCs who rock the stage solo (Brother Ali, Atmosphere, Kanye, Kendrick), so that also added to my complete enthrallment of his performance. He had officially turned the night around for me.
The energy never really seemed to dip as he fell into the ultra classic “Juicy” cover – announcing, “This is for Brooklyn. This is for Queens,” just before he dropped the first few iconic lines: “It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up! magazine.” Uhh.. that was fresh.
The performance moved along without a pause, until he reached the interlude/halfway point of the show. For me, this is always such a pivotal moment during an artist’s time on stage. It’s easy to come out swinging and get a crowd hyped early on, but it’s another to keep the them fully engaged throughout the performance. Using a variety of energy levels and techniques, he paused for a moment to announce, “Now I’m gonna do what I really want to do. Now I’m gonna do exactly what I want to do – y’all don’t even know what imma do.”
He started his story by dedicating it to the world’s governments – laughing at them and recalling how “funny they are.” He described his experience at the SFO baggage claim as he noticed the “Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome” sign that has plagued 22 airports over the course of this year. He chuckled at its innate propagandist properties, as he broke into the elastic “Mr. Nigga,” off his Black on Both Sides album. I smiled. Not only because he found a way to engage the crowd beyond his music, but because he did it in a way that was not egotistical or forcing. His words and message were both calm and collected, seasoned. He chose not to rant, but to communicate on a very humanizing level. I won’t make this review about my political beliefs, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the way he went about conveying his message, seamlessly dropping into more tracks from his most recent albums, True Magic and Ecstatic.
I hate to admit that we left before the encore – we were tired, our 2 drink maximum had worn off, and we had to work the next day. It didn’t matter though, I already had the experience and review engrained in my head. The night was full of frustration and appreciation, and a feeling that getting out on a weekday evening is not such a task, assuming you know what you’re getting yourself into. ‘Real’ hip-hop is alive and well, you just need to know where to find it. Shouts also to Locksmith and Jennifer Johns, who opened the show and gave admirable performances of their own. You can catch Yasiin out on the road with scattered west coast dates over the course of the next few months, or check out his critically-acclaimed side project with Mannie Fresh titled OMFGOD.
*Editors Note: This article has been updated to display the correct name and role of comedian Chris Riggins and opening act Jennifer Johns, and to clarify the correct album for the song “Mr. Nigga”