“It’s all slapdash and not well put-together,” said an older white fellow outside of the Durham Performing Arts Center just after Nice & Smooth’s set as part of N.C. Central University’s two-night Return of the Legends homecoming concert.
“Slapdash is the point,” I wanted to yell at him. Maybe he wasn’t impressed by the traditional, minimalist hip-hop stage set-up—two turntables and a microphone. Or maybe he was a little confused by the number of guest hosts that this weekend’s curator, producer 9th Wonder, invited on stage between sets—Jamla producer E.Jones, K97.5 FM radio personalities Brian Dawson and Shena J, and so on.
Whatever the case, hip-hop has just hit its 40-year mark. Some believe that, at that age, one shouldn’t really have to explain oneself, a rule I invoked when I decided that it wasn’t really worth my time to explain how hip-hop works to the guy. Instead, I rushed back inside for more old-school slapdash rap shit.
This may have been NCCU’s homecoming concert, but all North Carolina HBCUs were represented—in the crowd and on the stage. Shaw University alums DoItAll and Mr. Funky—of the Newark-based trio Lords of the Underground—rocked their early 1990s trunk rattlers, like “Psycho,” “Tic Toc,” “Here Come the Lords” and the immortal “Chief Rocka,” with the same energy as 20 years ago.
Dressed in a fedora, white linen and a shiny silver vest, Greg Nice came out with his partner Smooth B. to dance like a mad man. He beatboxed a version of Debarge’s “I Like It” on the DPAC floor among a sea of women, while Smooth B. sang on stage. He ran around the building rapping the words to “DWYCK,” then he jumped back on stage and pretended to pass out from the effort. If you were of the opinion that hip-hop is currently lacking showmanship, one long, live whirl through this duo’s “Hip Hop Junkies” or “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” should have boosted your pride in rap’s entertaining qualities.
Pete Rock wore a bright yellow shirt with the late Heavy D’s face plastered on the front. CL Smooth repeatedly mentioned that he was in Raleigh, despite the word “Durham” sitting like a prefix at the front of the venue’s name. It’s easy for out-of-towners to get these things mixed up, but CL should have been prepared. A front-row audience member finally handed his cell phone to CL, on which the words “YOU ARE IN DURHAM” were displayed. CL corrected himself but didn’t apologize.
That wasn’t even why this audience didn’t particularly care for the guy, anyway. Compared to Nice & Smooth and Lords of the Underground’s high-powered singles, Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s classic hits like “Take You There” and “Lots of Lovin” lacked a party vibe, which CL tried to compensate for by pacing back and forth on stage in between songs, poking his chest out and speaking to the audience as if he was god almighty. Soon, boos could be heard from a few corners of the room. Most of the audience impatiently waited for Rock and CL to reach “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” so that CL could finally get his ass off of the stage. The Triangle area’s recent affection toward Pete Rock has largely been nurtured by his master-student relationship with 9th Wonder
; to see him on the receiving end of such negative feedback was perplexing, indeed.
Saturday night’s show was 30 minutes shorter and slightly less attended than the previous night. But by the end of the night, when the only R&B act of the concert, Bell Biv Devoe, touched the stage, DPAC’s jam-meter hit its highest moment of the weekend.
Before that, hip-hop had to finish out its course.
Back in February, TV One aired one of its Unsung
documentaries, which told the story of EPMD’s
rise and fall in the hip-hop industry. As is the case with music groups of all genres, EPMD’s split was centered around money. One of the group’s members, Parrish Smith, even accused his ex-partner, Erick Sermon, of masterminding a robbery that took place at Smith’s home. The two had supposedly put all of that behind them, but it was no surprise when only Erick Sermon and EPMD’s longtime DJ Scratch appeared on stage. Sermon’s attitude about Smith’s absence couldn’t have seemed more apathetic. I walked out disappointed.
Minutes later, I found myself drawn back to the front section of the audience just to witness DJ Scratch pull out one of his well-known deejay sets. This time, he didn’t do his legendary “Friday the 13th, Imma play Jason” routine, where he disappears below the turntables mid-scratch to reappear wearing a hockey mask. He did, however, perform the trick where he actually picks up one of his turntables mid-scratch during the “pick it up” section of Black Sheep’s “The Choice is Yours.” He smiled at the crowd as he held the turntable in mid-air. Erick Sermon might be the bigger legend, but DJ Scratch was clearly the star of the performance.
Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe of the New Jack Swing trio BBD were clearly the stars of the whole weekend, though. As part of their larger R&B group New Edition, these three can claim 30 years of well-choreographed shows. There was nothing slapdash about it at all, even though Bivins took an opportunity in between Bell’s sexy solo rendition of “When Will I See You Smile Again” and the group’s raunchy chart-topper “Do Me” to let the crowd know that BBD is also “straight-up hip-hop.”
Ronnie DeVoe, the only rapper out of the New Edition crew, made that clear enough in the few times that he had the opportunity. DeVoe’s laid-back, playboy swag re-emerged on Saturday night, and he oftentimes repeated some of his slick rap lines twice for emphasis. “Why you always got say your parts twice?” Bivins jokingly asked him at one point. “Because that’s all I had. That’s all y’all gave me,” DeVoe joked back.
The night ended with the group’s club anthem, “Poison,” and the crowd slowly trickled out into DPAC’s lobby for the afterparty. In the far corner of the second floor lobby, Butta Team’s DJ Skaz Digga had set up his turntables in front of a makeshift dancefloor area. It all looked so slapdash and well put together.