The concept behind the Hip Hop Live Tour is simple — collect three heralded MCs, each at different points in their respective careers and give them a live backing band, with the intent of returning the over-commercialized genre to its natal roots. Judging by Monday night’s show and the onstage banter, all of the performers buy into this naïve notion with a noticeably self-righteous swagger: Ghostface (Wu Tang Clan) imbued the crowd with a seven-minute tirade against inauthentic rappers; Rakim claimed that live bands inspired him to use samples; and Brother Ali couldn’t help yelling out “Hip Hop Live!” after many of his songs.
With the exception of Rakim, the artists’ sincerity was questionable at best, Ghostface followed his venomous monologue by shamelessly plugging the tour sponsors and his forthcoming album, but it all could have succeeded if there had been solid chemistry between the band and the MCs. For the most part, there was none.
The Rhythm Roots All Stars, a 10-piece group of session musicians featuring percussion, electric guitars, bass, keyboards and horns were the main problem. They didn’t meld well as musicians and often looked awkward and out of place in the hip-hop setting, with a visual appearance more indebted to “American Idol” than contemporary urban culture. Show was the first night of an 18-city tour.
As the opening act, Brother Ali proved to be a competent if somewhat overly sentimental MC, but the insipid music and feigned enthusiasm of the All Stars detracted greatly from what should have been a solid performance. Much of the audience had come to support Ghostface Killah, whose solo albums have garnered well-deserved critical praise over the past decade. His layered productions and lyrical eccentricities are what make his records so vital, but a bloated, six-person posse and an insistence on rapping only small portions of his songs amounted to a disappointing set.
All seemed lost when Rakim strutted on stage at midnight, but the veteran rapper delivered a concert-saving performance that was remarkably focused and captivating. His flow was effortless and unfettered, delivering each line with a cool precision that perfectly complimented his complex rhymes. Rakim relied heavily on classic material from his 1987 masterpiece with Eric B, “Paid In Full,” and gave a firsthand example of what it means to be “authentic” in the hype-driven world of modern hip-hop.
Tour stops Nov. 16 at New York’s Nokia Theater.