Four of the greatest hip-hop acts of that genre’s golden age – roughly 1986-1989 – took the stage on Sunday night at the Santa Barbara Bowl for the Kings of the Mic tour stop.
In order of appearance, this would make a great mixtape back in the day: De La Soul, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and LL Cool J.
On stage it was mostly all positive, with sets chock full of hits and – for the latter two acts – enjoyable light and video shows. As for continued importance, only one of the acts still contributes worthwhile art to the culture.
Unfortunately, that was De La Soul, who took the stage first, long before most people have received their wrist bands and made their way out of the beer line.
Unlike LL Cool J and Ice Cube, De La Soul hasn’t been sidetracked by acting careers and discographies of diminishing returns. And unlike Public Enemy, they haven’t had one member turn up in reality shows and/or police mug shots.
Instead, they’ve released a steady, slow dose of albums. Nothing will reach the gonzo heights of their debut album “3 Feet High and Rising,” but that’s OK.
Posdnous and Trugoy the Dove still write some of the most complex rhymes in rap, and because they’ve never been defined by political or gangsta agendas, their careers have suffered very little drop-off in quality.
Their short set visited all the hits, with DJ Mase cutting from familiar samples into long extended jams, reminding everybody of original sources, such as George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and P-Funk’s “Flashlight.”
There’s a new album in the wings, but there was no time for it. Instead, they finished up with their first hit “Me Myself and I” with an altered lyric that acknowledged they’re no nostalgia act: “Is it just my De La clothes / Or is it cuz we hate this song?”
Of the four acts, Public Enemy was the most disappointing, suffering from a muddy sound mix and a rambling, indulgent set.
Chuck D and Flavor Flav still form the core duo of stentorian statesman and jester respectively, and the S1W military dancers still flank them, and Professor Griff chimes in occasionally, but there’s the added bonus of a live drummer, bassist, guitarist and a DJ (Terminator X no longer in the group, they use DJ Lord.)
But this group blasted through the hits, Chuck D’s famous lyrics buried under a mess of noise, jumping from classic to classic – “Bum Rush the Show,” “Can’t Truss It,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and on and on – with very little to demonstrate why the group landed in 1987 with the force of smart bomb.
Flavor Flav plonked away at one point on the bass player’s guitar, then played some drums, crowd surfed a few times, and plugged his Twitter account and new single (not played).
Ice Cube was one of the original gangsta rappers as a part of N.W.A. and then went solo with the help of Public Enemy’s producers, The Bomb Squad.
There was a time where his snarl and knitted brows matched the power of his message, but from about 2002 onward his albums have been dull and too long.
However, you wouldn’t know anything about his slide into bad Hollywood movies from his energetic and menacing performance, sharing the stage with Westside Connection band mate WC and backed by DJ Crazy Toones.
There was an emphasis of mid-career work like “Check Yo Self” and “You Know How We Do It,” a dip into N.W.A.-era tracks like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Gangsta Gangsta,” and then back to the mid-’90s.
But it was the non-album tracks that pleased the most: 1999’s “You Can Do It” and 2003’s “Gangsta Nation.” Of course, the set ended with “It Was a Good Day,” as much a paean to Los Angeles as it is an ironic turn on the gangsta narrative.
Before LL Cool J closed down the show, DJ Z-Trip dropped a quick set. A generation younger, Z-Trip cuts up ’80s hip-hop along with its source material, using turntables and more contemporary sampling pads.
In 10 minutes it was a course in hip-hop history, filling in the gaps suggested by the other acts. It also made perfect sense for Z-Trip to back LL Cool J, whose career needs the most resuscitating.
After a perilous decline since his first three albums, LL Cool J really hasn’t come back. His last two albums are an awkward assembly of guest stars on nearly every track, never a good sign in hip-hop. He has the energy and flow, and Z-Trip provided enough old school scratching to bring back those early years.
Chuck D returned to provide a live version of his sampled voice on “Whaddup,” and LL Cool J played up his ladies-man vibe with a selection of his seduction raps, from “I Need Love” to “Doin’ It,” tossing roses into the audience, bringing women up on stage to dance, and promising over and over to throw a pendant into the audience. (By the time he did, nobody noticed it. Maybe the janitor found it?)
Of the four, none showed a flagging energy, and having this many hip-hop legends visiting Santa Barbara and playing such a venue made this evening important. But there’s only one group that’s really kept on the path, and that’s those three guys from Long Island.