It's easy to think that underground hip-hop is dead. The Internet has equalized everything to the point that there isn't much difference between Mos Def's and Mickey Factz's marketing plan, or Elzhi's and Eminem's, or Wale's and Will.i.am's. During the WWWization of the rap world, the next generation of indie hip-hop stopped standing in opposition of the mainstream and started emulating it. Maybe it's because weird and original became cool, but whatever the case, today's DIY-minded rappers are no longer the Definitive Juxtaposition they were just a few years ago.
However, last night at the El Rey — when indie stalwart label Rhymesayers Entertainment came through town with the Fresh Air Tour — you'd be a fool to say that underground hip-hop is dead. Co-headlined by Minneapolis' Brother Ali and LA's own Evidence (of Dilated Peoples), the bill represented the middle of rap's Venn diagram: some of the smarts, some of the universality…some of the cred, some of the marketing budget.
New Rhymesayers artist Toki Wright opened up the night with a powerful stage presence and booming, crystal-clear cadence that immediately won over a crowd virtually unaware of his existence. But by the end of his set, the mostly white and Chicano audience all had their right fists in the air on his command. It was one of the more winning sets from an up-and-coming emcee that I've seen in some time, and reminded me of Brother Ali's first time opening up for Atmosphere on the God Loves Ugly Tour in 2002.
At that time, Ali had only released a largely unavailable record called “Rites of Passage” and got plenty of snickers when he took the stage in Boston nearly eight years ago. He was a big albino man with a Muslim name who didn't curse and no one knew quite what to make of him. Within five minutes, once he started rapping the songs that'd eventually make up his first studio album, Shadows on the Sun, he had made more than an impression. And when he started beat boxing over a Mobb Deep acapella, it was clear that he would go on to headline tours very soon. And he's been on tour ever since (this was the 24th gig in 26 days for Fresh Air Tour), so much so that it seems to fuel his prolific recording…it's like he needs new songs just to keep it interesting for himself. He even switches up some of his most popular songs to nearly unrecognizeable remixes…but the man can still command the stage.
However, despite that Ali's name was on the marquee and he closed the evening, the night was truly Evidence's. As proud an Angeleno as they come — Ali jokingly mocked Evidence onstage for flashing the LA sign with his fingers at every show no matter where they were — his entire set simultaneously felt like an homage and a homecoming to the city he loves.
After a few starter songs, Evidence transitioned from a “Get well MCA” message directly into his highest lauded solo song, “Mr. Slow Flow,” and that's when the guests started coming through. Although, the first cameo was something of a surprise: Evelyn. Don't know Evelyn? Don't worry, she started the night as a fan in the front row, but then got up onstage and nailed the third verse to “Mr. Slow Flow” with about 85% accuracy. If the complete spontanaeity of it wasn't so innocent and charming, it would've been a perfect advertising moment for “Indie Rap Rock Band.”
The mini Dilated Peoples set that everyone was Tweeting about didn't fully form, as DJ Babu was sick, but Rakaa Iriscience showed up and the pair of emcees tore through “My Way,” “Worse Comes to Worse” and a few other staples. But the third and final guest might've been just as surprising as Evelyn's appearance — Everlast (from House of Pain and La Coka Nostra). Everlast and Evidence then quickly traded bars of “Jump Around” in classic Run-DMC bar-trading style, as most of the near-capacity crowd pogo'd like it was a punk concert.
And nothing that jumps for three straight minutes could possibly be considered dead.