All words: Alan Pyke — All photos: Joy Asico
The DC hiphop scene doesn’t always get its dues. In fact it hardly ever does. The list of nationally-known emcees from the District starts and stops with Wale (and he’s from P.G. County, but nevermind, it’s all under the “DMV” banner), and the mercurial nature of his career to date has not brought eyes and ears to the area’s other major talents. But there’s a solid roster of local cats ripping small shows in and around DC Combined with the city’s ability to draw a steady stream of both major-label radio emcees and underground legends, that makes for a pretty fertile all-around scene, and every once in a while it all converges around one evening or one weekend to remind you of your good fortune.
Last Thursday had Slick Rick headlining a show with the Soul Rebels brass band at the Howard Theatre, and P.G. County expat Oddisee kicking a free album release show with a band of his own a few blocks away at the Montserrat House. With a little bit of multitasking, a tip on Slick Rick’s start time from the Howard folks and a willingness to brave the slow-roasting temperatures in the Montserrat House, I got to see two very talented emcees at opposite ends of their careers attempt to do the same thing: rock a crowd.
Oddisee’s been poised to raise his profile for some time, with last fall’s Rock Creek Park tape solidifying the promise of his previous work with Diamond District and others. Oddisee’s always been a great producer, but he sounds more sure-footed as a rapper on his new full-length, People Hear What They See, and he showed on Thursday that he knows how to control a crowd. He was ripping for around an hour, with the Montserrat at capacity and a healthy line outside that only moved when people upstairs decided to flee the sauna-like attic for some fresh air. His band was having almost as much fun as he was, and he seemed to know it was a special occasion (in part because “there are more than five girls here, y’all know that’s unusual for an underground show”). He hit a long, tight a capella toward the end of his set, which felt like a statement of purpose from a cat who’s long been more associated with top-notch production than top-shelf mic skills. And the fact is that understanding of Oddisee’s abilities is outdated now, if it ever made sense to begin with. Everything going on at Montserrat that night, from the emcees to the band to the crowd, felt authentic and it was tough to pry myself away.
From underground in an attic to the one-time King of New York in an acoustically perfect palace; Soul Rebels took the stage at the Howard just after 10:00, with the place about half full and the screens either side of the stage showing the Miami Heat closing in on an NBA title. The Soul Rebels deserved their own set and they got it. They played for a full hour before Slick Rick joined them, and they conjured a medium-sized dance party out of the crowd in that time. There was a lady with a parasol leading a quasi-conga line and a few other folks shaking something here and there.
Slick Rick, after all, is a legend. When he finally stepped onstage in white linen and copious diamond-coated chains, he mostly stood still with one hand in his pocket spitting his hits in his trademark off-kilter flow. The sing-songiness is almost gone from his voice now — “I’m 47,” he ad-libbed on “Lodi Dodi” — and the meandering energy that makes his sound so distinctive on wax translates to a less-than-electrifying stage presence. But one perk of his legendary status is everyone knew the words, and everyone seemed to know what to expect, and the people who’d held back during the Soul Rebels set pressed forward against railings or migrated down to the floor once The Ruler came out. He bantered about Doug Fresh and sounded nostalgic for their partnership, but even if his voice has lost some of its melodic bounce he’s still got mic control. He was still bringing it. The crowd was still bouncing. He closed out his set by telling us that committed relationships are better than dalliances, and then playing “Children’s Story” as half the room rapped along word for word.
The contrast between the experience of a half-full Howard turned out to witness a past-his-prime Slick Rick, and the filled-to-bursting Montserrat hushing to hang on every word of Oddisee’s a capella bars, was striking. No cliches about passed torches here, no sense of anything being handed down, just the refreshing reality that hiphop lives wherever there are people to animate it. A room full of true heads can make you feel at home among strangers when the music’s good enough. And even if the Golden Age legends are over the hill and the major labels continue to treat hiphop as disposable commodity rather than art, the kids are still all right.