Hip-hop has the strongest ties to professional sports of just about any style of music — all-stars such as Shaq and Allen Iverson have cut rap albums, and rappers often appear in the uniform shirts of their favorite players and boast about their prowess on the playground. This year’s edition of the Smokin’ Grooves Tour (the first since 1998) makes clear that the more entrepreneurial of hip-hop musicians have taken the relationship further, organizing their acts along the lines of pro teams.
These days, being a fan of a hip-hop act feels like rooting for a team, and by extension, an entire town. The headliners at Universal Amphitheater — Outkast, the Roots and Jurassic 5 — represent Atlanta, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively (if the lineup had included Nelly and his cadre of St. Lunatics, all three divisions of National League baseball would have been present). In the case of Outkast and the Roots, they used the occasion to introduce proteges or associates called up from the minors, hoping the rookies have what it takes to make it in “the show.”
Jurassic 5 had the home field advantage and was the most enthusiastically received act on the bill. The youngest of the three headliners, it was both the freshest and the most classic of the acts, as well as the most musical — even though there were no traditional instruments onstage. With four rappers (their voices arrayed as in a choir) either chanting in unison or working in dazzling counterpoint, they pledge their allegiance to the turntable; an oversized, silvery Technics deck forms the centerpiece of their set; they enter and exit the stage through the platter. DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark make their work behind the wheels viscerally exciting, with Chemist at one point strapping on a turntable as he would a guitar and stepping out front for a solo.
If Jurassic 5 made turntables sound like a band, the musicians in the Roots, when they were cooking, took their cues from the turntablists. Anchored by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the band plays short circular vamps. With choked guitars and staccato keyboards, the sound draws from the Philly soul of Gamble and Huff, only played with a hip-hop sense of space.
The deep grooves, with their implied notes, give the rappers plenty of room to maneuver, but previewing songs from the Roots’ upcoming album “Phrenology” (Okay Player/MCA), lead rapper Black Thought seemed restrained. He was overshadowed by their guests, including Cody Chestnutt’s Curtis Mayfield-styled turn and a show-stopping barn burner of a performance from Jaguar Wright, who brought the audience to its feet with her gospel passion.
Restrained is not a word you would associate with Outkast’s Big Boi and Dre.
Charismatic and, in Dre’s case, sexually charged, they combine the loopiness and bouncy rhythms of George Clinton’s P-Funk with hip-hop sinew. Constantly moving, with three energetic backing vocalists and a crew of dancers in workout suits, Dre and Big Boi never paused to take a breath. But touring in support of a greatest-hits collection, “Big Boi & Dre Present” (LaFace/Arista), the show is basically a smaller-scale retread of last year’s “Stankonia” tour, with a circus theme replacing the sci-fi elements.
Only the whiplash speed of the techno-inspired “Land of a Million Drums,” from the soundtrack to “Scooby-Doo,” with Killer Mike and opening act Cee-Lo Green joining in, gave some idea of Outkast’s next step.
Cee-Lo, with a voice that sounds like he gargles with broken glass that’s been marinated in battery acid, gamely played an energetic set to a small, inattentive crowd. Truth Hurts, whose debut album “Truthfully Speaking” was released on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, has a fine voice and spunky stage presence, but her material is undistinguished and didn’t make much of an impression until Rakim joined her for the hit single “Addictive.”