What: Heavy Metal Kings (Vinnie Paz and Ill Bill)
Where: Key Club
When: April 6, 2011
“Aye what happened to hip hop yo?”
So asked the lead MC of one of Heavy Metal Kings' opening acts, when their attempt to rally the crowd before the end of their set flopped. No, seriously, they were all “Yo we the [band name withheld to save them from further shame because they sucked], and we got more for ya, give it up” when their set ended. One of them actually said “all I hear is crickets” when the crowd failed subsequently to give “it” up.
I hate to be a hater, I really do. I mean, I'm not a rapper and I know that shit is difficult, but this comment, more than anything, defined what should have been nonstop Win but instead, was a FAIL parade saved at the last moment by the timely arrival of Heavy Metal Kings who, thank gawd, pulled everyone's ass out of the fire just before it got to the point of unbearability.
Long story short: Heavy Metal Kings were great. But lawd, if only they weren't the exception.
Heavy Metal Kings is the love child of Brooklyn MC Ill BIll and Vinnie Paz, lead rapper for Philadelphia Hip Hop group Jedi Mind Tricks. Jedi Mind Tricks has worked with everyone from 7L & Esoteric to Canibus to Members of the Wu Tang and Paz was the impetus behind Rap supergroup Army of the Pharaohs (featuring, well, pretty much every white east coast rapper). Hip Hop Cred: he haz it. In 2006 Vinnie Paz and Ill Bill recorded a song on that year's Jedi Mind Tricks album called Heavy Metal Kings. That song was fucking spectacular, which is probably why they decided to form a proper rap group using the name. That record dropped on April 5th, and last night they were out in full force at Key Club promoting it.
But let's back up and consider the question of what exactly did happen to Hip Hop, yo. If I were a betting man, I'd wager this: the two most frustrating things about hip hop in the last, oh, decadeish is 1) the fact that rappers keep making rap records you can't bob your head to and 2) too many of the people fighting that are obsessed with the past and have a frame of reference that spans 1992 to 1995. And tonight's show practically came with Q.E.D. stamped on that point.
The fact is, since the late '90s hip hop that's still all about the beats has been increasingly pushed aside, presumably because decent beats ruin Auto Tune. Now, I get that the south ruled the roost for most of the decade and that stuff's all about strip club beats, but there are fans who don't spend their time at Spearmint Rhino, not that you would know thanks to the fact that the disease has spread even to high quality product. No one is going to convince me that Kanye's “All of the Lights” is rap. It's incredible, but come on. The fight to mitigate the problem often seems a valiant, but probably futile battle, which is why I wanted so much to like everyone who performed tonight. Sadly the show was an embarrassing proof that a Stuff White People Like joke is true: White people really like Black Music that Black People don't listen to anymore.
Here's a small taste of what it was like:
“Kill you all/one by one
Shoot you dead/with my gun”
This was the chorus to a song by AK Killaz, a laughable outfit from somewhere in the LA area who sang song after song about gun violence, gangland shit and mayhem and made me think their point was to be the rap version of Blues Hammer. You know what I mean, kids who have no connection to whatever it is they think = credibility and end up turning said credible activity into a joke. Kind of like Lego Star Wars, but with tired ass 1994 beats. The bands themselves were largely interchangeable, a collection of earnest and very sincere hip hop fans who probably shouldn't form groups because despite their love of the music, they have a stilted frame of reference that limits their ideas to somewhere between “tired cliche” and “shit that has been done a million times.”
I don't expect opening acts to be as good as the headliner – usually. But I do expect them to compliment, rather than bite them. Heavy Metal Kings are of course made up of old school guys themselves, rappers who've been in the game since Clinton was in office and have successfully kept it real ever since. But they obviously grew up on hip hop and also, more importantly, have heard music that isn't. Much like with good mashups, which require that you listen to a ton of music before even knowing what would actually mash well together, good hip hop depends on the relationship between samples, beats, raps and generally having more references than you can get from an issue of The Source.
Nowadays, it seems an entire generation of hip hop heads have decided 1994/5/6 is it, and the existence of music prior to that era is just a crazy urban legend. Which might be why every single group who opened for Heavy Metal Kings sounded like if House of Pain and Cypress Hill were produced by Korn. There's also the fact that rap is the first genre of American music that emerged from African American culture and became the most popular music form in the country without replacing all the black people with nonthreatening white people. It is unique in that the most popular form of the genre is still largely the output of a racial minority culture. Obviously this is objectively good, so it's understandable that kids who aren't coming out of Black culture feel a certain self consciousness about their participation in it.
Even understanding that, there's no excuse to pretend that you're hard, gangsta or what-not. But at least social hierarchy cosplay is just pathetic; it's the fact that 99% of all songs made by white people rap groups are nothing but loving descriptions of how much they love hip hop, how true to it they are, how they've been down since whenever the current approved old school period is, that really hurts. Good! Hell yes! Love the music. But we're here for your show, not your resume. It'd be one thing if they were in their 60s and, similarly to how aging writers feel the need to publish their “on writing” book of advice for younger writers, they were rapping suggestions for being excellent at rap. But it's just constant throw-away, useless references to how much they love rap. Loving something doesn't make you good at it – believe me, I know, or I'd be a ninja.
It'd be better if they'd just rap about stuff instead of rapping about rapping. Which of course none of them did. Particularly painful was the 3rd group, who began their set rapping over a track by Gang Starr. No, not covering Gang Star, but literally having the house DJ play You Know My Steez while they rapped over it. You could still hear Guru behind their weak, yelling-to-make-up-for-having-no-flow delivery and frankly, he sounded better dead than they did alive. We can't be angry about paying tribute to the fallen, but imitation is only the sincerest form of flattery if you put some effort into it. Like finding the fucking instrumental track instead of putting on the laziest karaoke show in the world.
Worse though, the lead rapper sang a love rap at his new girlfriend (who, he announced, had never seen him perform before). Jeez man, way to put someone on the spot. And I mean the crowd, not the girl. I don't mean to be cruel, but I know I wasn't the only one who felt just embarrassed for him. I'm only scratching the surface of course. Let's not forget the final openers, featuring a white dude who kept dropping n-bombs like it wasn't even a thing – and hoo lord, it was, guys. Sorry, but white people don't get to drop n-bombs no matter how good their intentions. It's the price we pay for having owned all the slaves and benefited from all the racism for so long. And this was the show in a nutshell, a nonstop cavalcade of tired mid-'90s beats and desperation for credibility that ranged from barely competent to discomforting.
Luckily, Heavy Metal Kings showed up in the nick of time and killed it.
God damn they were good. And how is that surprising. Ill Bill and Vinnie Paz have been doing this since before we even knew what WMD stood for. These guys know how the fuck to rap. Better still, their new album is pretty good, full of revolutionary rhetoric, boom bap beats and as you see, the cocktail fueled swagger that doesn't need to justify itself, it just is. They came out on the stage and ripped it apart and reminded everyone that you don't have to remind everyone that you're down, you just have to be down and the people will get it.
And they did. The crowd was awesome, a room full of real hip hop fans cool enough to do what I can't, which is show love for bands that suck just because they had the balls to get up and spit verse. Like this guy:
Or these kids:
And this Mom/Daughter team:
(Seriously, word to mom for enduring this. My mom would have given it the college try but never would have stuck it out.)
There's also the really cool guys in the VIP section who let me stand by them to get some shots. Good lookin' out guys, seriously. And look, I spent a lot of time ripping this show to shreds but I want to make it clear that I don't hate the fact that it happened, I just wish it had been better. White rappers who worship Ill Bill and Vinnie Paz should follow their lead and expand their horizons past a very narrow window during the early Clinton administration. Hell, Vinnie himself is the leader of a group that made sampling classical music cool! If that could be copied 5000 times I'd be covering the openers in praise.
Whatever. At the end of the show, I can say this: whatever may have happened to Hip Hop, Hip Hop Fans are good people.