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This Little Underground


  • Bao Le-Huu

Hip-hop was absolutely king this week in shows so let's rap about some rap.

The beat

As live performance, I dis rap shows a lot for good reason. More than most genres, rap lets me down live the most. And a week stacked with outstanding exceptions like the following only underscores how much a shocking majority of rap acts unnecessarily underachieve on stage.

Panik Vision's Radio Restoration (Aug. 20, the Social) was a local showcase featuring familiar names from the roots-minded side of Orlando hip-hop. Ill Trybe's Jorok started out with some ragged, willful rhymes but eventually warmed up to a more fluid cadence that's bigger, tighter and popping with more swag. The more liquid his beats got, the smoother his flow. And backed by DJ Rincon, the hometown finalist of this year's national Red Bull Thre3style DJ competition, renowned battle MC Madd Illz showed that some tougher bite is creeping nicely into his sticky, tongue-twisting style.

But, as is becoming increasingly common, AmIAm just mainlined the vibe with his skill and energy. A prime textbook case of rap fundamentals, he never gets too cute or lazy with his flow. Cruising like a BMW and cornering like a Porsche, he keeps that shit tight in a way that the old-school greats would salute. With all his chops, instinct and confidence, he's perhaps the most serious young contender for someday carrying Swamburger's torch. And his finale was remarkably personal. While the others played their own music videos on the screen, he played old family footage while saluting his parents in rhyme with his mom onstage, bringing her to tears. It's tough to fully capture in writing, but there was no schmaltz, just huge heart and candor. I've said it before but now's his time to step up.

Naturally, I wish this kind of show was packed out with heads hip to the gospel. But, truly, this up-close, familial setting is the deal for this stuff because it's when you get to see these artists in their most invigoratingly raw and direct state. I've seen most of these MCs many times, but they delivered some of their most memorable and engaging performances here.

If you're over or just plain disconnected with the empty, omnipresent commercial rap that permeates our every pore like Chinese smog, this is the Orlando crew to check out. While hip-hop remains one of the most misappropriated terms in modern pop culture, these guys pray at the orthodox altar and legitimately represent its original ethos.

But another concert (Aug. 24, the Beacham) featuring the authors of two of this year's best rap albums on a single bill illustrated that not all contemporary hip-hop blows. Produced by headliner El-P, R.A.P. Music is a pretty bangin' record. And even amid unflatteringly loud volume and thin, basic presentation, Atlanta's Killer Mike proved a good live MC who can get hard, dirty and Southern, particularly evident when he performed a capella.

Marquee man El-P, however, burst onto the scene like an airstrike with crushingly colossal bomb-beats that sound like early Chemical Brothers on a murder rampage. Beautifully dark and relatably psychotic, his uncompromising, apocalyptic sound is one of the most thrillingly intense in rap today. Outside of fiercely left-field artists like Dälek or Meat Beat Manifesto, few rap practitioners are capable of or even dare enter such lurid obsession. Especially brilliant about his work is how three-dimensional and fully immersive it is. And because his production vision and ability come through like a locomotive, the music could easily stand on its own.

Remember what I said about how lame typical rap shows are? Well, El-P's shows are remarkable for how musical and live they are. He came this time with a couple live players on keys, percussion and guitar. And he had a second backup MC with whom he executed vocal exchanges with actual craft and aptitude. Wait, that must mean, yes, it can be done if you put some effort into your live performance. Ah, revelation.

Together, the whole crew managed to render the full richness of El-P's dark, dank and seriously dope world. His deep sense of atmosphere and power is simply a marvel to be face-to-face with. The best, most complete rap artist alive right now? Quite fucking possibly.


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