Garden party politics
Hip-hop legends De La Soul add some sweetness to the Chico State Rose Garden
Back in 1989, a rap trio from Long Island burst onto the national scene with an instant classic called Three Feet High & Rising. Hailed as “The Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop” by the Village Voice, the album mixed catchy soul- and funk-influenced rap with comedic high jinks and masterful sample use—most notably taking some classic Steely Dan studio hits into new contexts. The members flaunted a “daisy-age” image that mixed urban realism with the peace, love and laziness of suburban hippies.
Young people likely remember the hit song from that summer, “Me, Myself and I,” a personal credo of individualism that flew in the face of the pompous, posturing rap of the period.
Alongside such groups as Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets, the trio helped launch a new wave of positive hip-hop by groups that wanted to make people dance while still boasting some social and political consciousness.
Since then, the members—Plug 1 (Dave), Plug 2 (Pos) and Plug 3 (Maseo)—have become elder statesmen of hip-hop while watching the art form morph into a stale, commercial monster of the mainstream. And, although few of their albums have since lived up to the original masterpiece, the group is still one of the most innovative and talented in the game. Saturday night’s A.S. show at the Rose Garden, aided by a mild spring eve with light winds, proved this point from the start.
Though the crowd was not as large as anticipated (several hundred massed in front of the stage), De La Soul proved to be consummate showmen, working the audience like only veterans know how, delving into stereotypical “rock the party” banter while cruising through a diverse selection of catchy old and new material. The songs were danceable and funky, but the main thing that still strikes me about De La is the DJ: who knows how to mix and match bass and beats like an old-school champ.
Though there was a brief power outage during the set, the problem was eventually corrected, and the show kicked into high gear with special guest Black Sheep joining the crew onstage for one of his own classics ("You Can Get With This … Or You Can Get With That"), along with other De La material that had the cramped crowd down front singing and waving along. All four emcees took turns prowling the stage, tossing water on fans and creating an all-around party vibe.
The opening act featured up-and-coming Oakland group The Coup, which delivered a tight set of live hip-hop backed by a guitarist, female singer, drummer and keyboardist. The shortened, 45-minute set was performed before a sparse, arriving crowd but featured several highlights, including material from the acclaimed album Party Music, “Roll Call” band intros and a hard-pounding cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady.”
Toward the close, front man Boots Riley, a short dude with a blown-out ‘fro and mutton chops (he reminded me of a grown-up version of the kid from the cartoon Boondocks) unleashed a diatribe against the war on terrorism, accusing the Bush administration of being terrorist itself and urging students to find alternative sources of news such as Z.Net.com online.
This anti-government speech was echoed later by members of De La Soul, who commented on “the red, white and blue flag” they noticed when they first arrived on campus, noting that “we don’t represent that” but were just there to entertain those who loved hip-hop.
Considering both groups took little swipes at the current administration, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the night held a tinge of ‘60s radicalism beneath the beats. You had the Black Panther-like stance of The Coup and the hippie-like pose of De La Soul kicking it live on campus. While most of the college-aged audience seemed more interested in partying, it was refreshing to hear politics commingling again with danceable protest music of sorts.
I spoke with Riley afterwards, who said he felt his work fell into a tradition begun by ‘70s political rapper Gil Scot-Heron and added that it was “an honor to be playing with De La” tonight and that The Coup might be touring with some even bigger names soon, such as superstar Lauryn Hill.
Riley is a friendly guy, though he wore a concerned expression. A card-carrying communist, he has been the subject of many news stories over the last year, since The Coup’s (pre-9-11) original album cover was recalled for its prophetic illustration of someone blowing up the World Trade Centers with a remote explosive device. I asked him if he found mainstream media or the music business resistant to his political affiliation or anti-government stance.
“Well, I did about 800 interviews since 9-11,” he said. “I spent a lot of time talking to journalists, and I think about 15 stories [not counting European press] actually even quoted me.”
Riley also spoke about being on the talk show Politically Incorrect—which he said consisted of studio aides directing the conversation between commercial breaks.
Looking toward the future, he plans to produce the next Coup record in Oakland, which should ride the critical momentum from the last effort. Besides that, Riley said he just wants to use his medium to push for more change on a grassroots level nationwide.
“Even if it’s just 100 people going down the street to demand for a welfare check or whatever," he said. "Anytime people come together to challenge the system for the right reason, I’m with that."