Taking it to the Tweets: Mos Def one night; Amanda Blank the next
So an odd thing happened to me Sept. 16: I had my first real-time Twitter-based interface with a performing artist. Maybe that’s not that weird for some critics, but it was new to me.
I was at Sonar for the Baltimore leg of Mos Def’s Ecstatic Tour, and I had been there since about 7:45 p.m., because I’d been told that was when Soul Cannon, the only local act on the bill, would take the stage. Before the show, both keyboard player Jon Birkholz and MC Eze Jackson told me that there was a hold-up: Whosane, one of the Brooklyn MCs slated as an opener, was nowhere to be found, and they weren’t sure if he was going to show up. Soul Cannon got bumped back to 8:30—a fine deal for them, because who shows up to a hip-hop show at a quarter to 8, anyway?
Eze and crew played a super-high-energy show that wasn’t without nerves and a few kinks. It was easily Soul Cannon’s highest-profile gig to date, and certainly the biggest since the departure of bassist Ryan Dorsey. Birkholz now takes up low-end duties with his left hand, but something is definitely missing from the performance. Dorsey, back in the day, used to play hip-hop bass like it was a metal show, head-banging and wincing, and his chemistry with Jackson, who he first met in high school in Baltimore, was palpable. His presence onstage was intense and fun, but Dorsey left the band this spring for personal reasons.
Most of the set was unfamiliar. “Man Power,” a relatively new song that sounds like a song about the bank bailouts or maybe just the recession in general (“The man who has it all takes yours”) was particularly rocking—a hometown crowd enthusiasm at the stage, and it bounced back. Some other tunes were a bit overwrought. “Test Drive Life,” a very new track, needs some cleanup, lyrically, if it’s not meant to sound like an AA testimonial. I wasn’t able to pick out the names of too many other tunes, and Soul Cannon forewent “Dilapidated Buildings,” its main banger off of its debut album Kaboom, and other typical crowd-pleasers such as “What’s Real” and “Alleyways.”
One thing I noticed is how this band has become progressively more experimental, instrumentally. The tone of Eze’s backup tracks has gone from heavy-thumping jazz to incorporating more dissonance, more explosive, irregular drumming from the virtuosic Nathan Elman-Bell, and, shit, guitarist Matt Frazao even took an extended, and honestly kind of weird, guitar solo at one point. It wasn’t just that these guys use live instruments and live-instrument arrangements—it was the notion that a searing, highly technical but in the end, jazz-based guitar solo trucks as much street cred in front of a hip-hop crowd as a good rhyme or an impressive break. The short explanation is that it doesn’t. But then again, Eze was wearing a t-shirt that said destroy popular culture rebuild repeat, which is exactly the kind of indie-rap sentiment that produces thoughtful concept albums that heavily borrow from indie rock—the kind that people like Mos Def make.
Then came the interesting part. The second opener was—turns out he arrived after all—Crown Heights-via-Somalia rapper Whosane. This guy is basically a vocal double for DMX, who lags his rhymes slightly behind the pulse of iPod-produced beats and swaggers like he’s got a business meeting after the show and needs to get his shit done quick. The crowd was not feeling it. He repeatedly big-upped South Africa, saying he’d recorded his most recent album there, and, after introducing a song that he said was about Zimbabwean refugees he’d met in Cape Town, launched into a self-aggrandizing rap about makin’ that paper (call-and-response chants of “Zim-ba-bwe,” “Real hip-hop” and “Who-sane! Who-sane!”).
Then Medina Green, an old school redoubt from the days of Rawkus Records glory, performed another lackluster set. He did only his parts from the 1999 Mos Def hit “Crosstown Beef,” which most of the crowd didn’t appear to recognize, then a godawful love jam called “Okie Dokey” (hook: “Okie dokey, baby, okie ding-dong dokey”). There were even some boos, I think. Then, after all that, a hilarious stand-up comedy meets goofball hip-hop set from J Dilla-devotee and current Erykah Badu baby-daddy Jay Electronica. My legs were getting stiff from standing up straight for nearly three hours. So I twittered the following message:
Jay Electronica was awesome. Wish I didnt have to sit through an hour of bullshit with Whosane and Medina Green
Sometime after the Talib Kweli’s bouncing, but largely inaudible set, and a Mos Def closer that included equal parts flatly received new stuff and crowd-enthralling older material, I logged into my Twitter account again, and clicked on the tab for messages directed at me, which I hardly ever do. I found this, from @Whosane718:
@whelanandealin fag boy! Stay home. . .
I’ve responded to Whosane’s tweet, asking him how, exactly he came across mine, to no avail. So as far as I can figure out, the only way this guy could have seen my message about him would be to search for his own name. My message was not a “direct” or “reply” tweet—the kind where you put an @ symbol before the person’s Twitter handle—so he’d have to actually be searching all of Twitter for the word “Whosane.” Does he do this after every concert?
Merely by sending the message, Whosane admits that he cares what the Twitterverse is saying about him, enough so to take on his critics. The ad hominem is secondary, but still important: He felt that this was the best way to address a hater. You don’t like me? You must be a fag. Stay home. And I’m gonna shout it out to the world.
Hip-hop brought me back to Sonar the following night, Sept. 17, to see Philly-based booty-rapper Amanda Blank open for theater-geek punk band Matt and Kim. I’m of the camp that thinks that based solely on her recordings, Blank is blandly uninteresting. She’s never since reached the apex of raunchiness and titillating quick-tongued speed-rapping that she hit when she guested on Spank Rock’s “Bump,” and the production on her new album is much of the same boilerplate Hollertronix-style, house-influenced dance-hop beats that most of the Mad Decent crowd is using these days.
Live, it’s sort of a different story. Blank hits the stage hard, throwing up vaguely gang-like signs with her non-mic hand, tossing back her long hair, dropping her eyes to the floor and freaking out in the strobe light. She wound through tracks from her new album, I Love You, and didn’t slow down once. “Make It Take It,” a track grounded by a rock-n-roll backbeat, was wild and spastic, with a sort of ’80s bubblegum punk-revival feel. Even slower tracks like “Lemme Get Some” —with its foul-mouthed platitudes about how you, dear listener, just want to get all up in Blank’s pussy, and she’s an independent woman and she’s not listening to what the fuck you’re saying, and “no, I can’t introduce you to M.I.A.”—are heavy and giddy at the same time.
The contrast between the two nights was striking. At Mos Def, a bigger—and frankly, blacker—crowd turn out to see backpacker hip-hop progenitors and their newer imitators perform old favorites and harsher, newfangled hip-hop-rock hybrids. These were seasoned performers, with a line around the block before the show, and hundreds of performances under their belts. On the second, a room was equally packed by skinny, moshing white kids listening to a Philly hottie rap out her dirtiest desires over the new vanguard of indie hip-hop beats. She repeatedly told us she loved us. She waded into the first few rows to touch hands with her adoring fans. Surprisingly, the guys rolling with Mos Def and Talib Kweli, veritable legends to the people who packed the house, were the self-conscious ones, the ones who won’t tolerate a single hatin’ word on Twitter. And it was the green, young performer, promoting her first album, who was totally in her element.