Marc Cabrera has nothing better to do than watch a lot of movies and television, and listen to a lot of music. Luckily, he has a job that pays him to blog about local and national arts, entertainment and pop culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
True hip-hop (if there is such a thing) exists on the fringe, dangling by a string from the thread of commercialism that confounds purist whack jobs like myself. It's not quite as archaic or maligned as punk rock, but it's not all that far off either.
The one thing that will constantly remind me of how great it can be is small shows that rock when you least expect it. Take Thursday night's show at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz, where Lateef the Truth Speaker actually lived up to his billing.
Lateef is a member of the SoleSides/Quannum crew, the Bay Area collective that started out at UC-Davis and wound up taking over Nor-Cal hip-hop during the late 90s. Blackalicious, Latyryx (of which Lateef was a member) and most famously, DJ Shadow helmed this movement, which was incorrectly pegged as avant-garde hip-hop when in fact it was more throwback rap: dope lyrics and dope beats you could move to.
Lateef''s contribution to this movement was his non-stop, stream-of-consciousness flow that was similar to pouring liquid from a pitcher, the more it went, the more it built up in the cup, until you wound up with a full glass brimming with substance. On Thursday, he managed to translate his recorded content to the stage, inspiring a small but enthusiastic crowd.
Moe's Alley is one of my favorite venues, really small and cozy with decent sound. The place doesn't get too packed, so you can move around pretty effortlessly and get a drink at the bar without having to wedge your way through a pack of people.
Opening act The Serendipity Project gave a stellar performance, their mix of live funk and hip-hop getting better with age. I got there in time to watch a freestyle-jam that lasted a little over 20 minutes.
The group has added two female singers since I last saw them about a year and a half ago. My favorite member is the bassist, this tall, mohawk-sporting wild man who goes ape shit every time he's performing. He was wearing an astronaut jump suit, which was totally odd and cool. Sample the funk at www.serendipityproject.com.
Lateef came through with a DJ and nothing else, displaying the runaway train flow over the 'Apache' breakbeat. This moved right into 'Lester Hayes,' the club-banger from the Maroons album (Lateef also belongs to Maroons, another off-shoot group within the Quannum fold).
DJ E Da Boss was completely in sync with Lateef, seamlessly blending the beat from Kanye West's "Heard 'em Say" during the opening number. Lateef showed true command on the mic while maintaining his smoothness. It would be a foreshadowing of the night's performance.
Most hip-hop shows are pretty standard: throw ya hands in the air, say yeah, DJ scratch, cue the next song. Lateef stuck to the basics, but still managed to keep it fresh with some old fashioned charisma and enthusiasm. There were probably as many people there on Thursday as there were at the Fatlip concert I had attended the previous week, which is to say there weren't that many people. But that didn't matter one bit. Lateef proved one thing on Thursday, it's not the size of the crowd, it's the size of the crowd's enthusiasm.
And so when he ran through the typical "Make some Noise" routine that all rappers attempt during live shows, he did so without falling into cliche. Demanding that everyone use their energy from a long week, whether it was a crappy job or a mean boss or a messed up love relationship, Lateef summoned everyone's inner spirit, and the outpouring of crowd noise and excitement betrayed the small numbers. That's how you rock a show.
Songs like "Side to Side," and "Back to the Essence," his duets with Blackalicious, as well as "Top Rankin'" off the Quannum Spectrum album, displayed a depth of catalogue. But it was my personal fav, "Lady Don't Tek No Mess," that showed a new side to Tha Truthspeaker.
The song, which uses elements from Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and Grand Master Flash's "The Message," is a silky, sultry ode to that girl. The ladies started grinding, and I realized for the first time that Lateef might be Quannum's unofficial sex symbol. The raspy flow, the slightly off-key singing, the green eyes. This guy can get the ladies on the dance floor.
"Lady Don't..." also has one of my favorite lines in any song, talking about his girl and how much people lover her, he sings "Little kids wanna jump in your lap/Girl I wanna do that myself." I get a smile on my face every time I hear that one.
Lateef ended the night on the political tip, the song "If" questioning the government's sketchy foreign and domestic policies. He then ran through a buffed-up political rant that used the "Badder than Bad" line from the Public Enemy song "Bring The Noise." He finished off with a "F---- Bush!" for good measure, which deviated from the show a little bit. After all, he's not Boots from The Coup, even though his intentions are good.
And despite the out of place ending, it did drive home the point: hip-hop, when done the right way, can incite ass-shaking and thought-provoking movement. You just have to look past the mire to find it.