There's no point in tiptoeing around it – I know nothing about hip hop. Any views I offer about the genre are basic at best, and outright wrong most of the time. So rather than write up some grand review full of uninformed observations from a novice, let me just tell you what I saw.
MOKS is Kansas City crew consisting of two MCs and a producer. But the producer wasn't there. So Lucid Flows and Lou-Rip started off with acapella toasts. Later in the set DJ Mahf would drop tracks for them – sometimes only pressing play, sometimes adding live splash. They're quick rappers. We call them choppers in Kansas City, right? Each paced the stage having fun trading verses and occasionally singing a hook. Each also took front stage for their own tracks, temporarily relegating the other to hype man status. Lou-Rip asked the audience to "Put a five in the air y'all!" and the small audience did. What sort of set was it? I don't know. Twenty-five minutes of quickly-spit lyrics over interesting beats. Playful and boastful. Never relying on recycled pop hooks. Modern but not mumbly or dark. Classic without being retro. Again, I know nothing, but I was there.
Topeka's Seuss Mace followed. And like the previous act, he started acapella before beats dropped behind him. His bars are about social justice. About politics. About racial identity. About mental health. He walked the stage, hood up, natural hair popping out the sides. He looked stressed. Ready to snap. I think that's just his intensity. His beats came from everywhere. One song with stark modern trap beats might give way another built around a break lifted from Slick Rick's "Mona Lisa." His set ended like it began, with an impossibly fast acapella verse. Speed may be his superpower, but he's got a strong punch too. Oh, and he's also got a nice vocal scratch in his toolbox and that entertained me. Seuss' new album, Perennials, just dropped. It's his second this year. He's also on a new Tech N9ne release. He's hustling.
DJ Mahf spun most of the night. Before performers. Between performers. For performers. Tracks that smashed genres together. Lots of turntablist magic. Good listening.
Then came a touring act. MC Homeless with DJ Halo. DJ Halo came with no turntables. Just a laptop and a launchpad controller. He was self-conscious about it and joked that he'd be "rockin' the pad." Mostly he hit play and resampled the predefined tracks to add spice. Occasionally he added hype vocals. MC Homeless is a tattooed hardcore kid. His letterman jacket over a Danzig hoodie recalled the tribe I ran with nearly 25 years ago. Again, I know nothing useful about hip hop, but I know a Midwestern hardcore kid when I see one. MC Homeless urged the crowd to come forward. Most didn't. Later he asked how the crowd was feeling, before answering his own question with "Like 45-year-olds at a hip hop show." He was right, it was an odd crowd. Still, he did win them over with some call and response a few minutes later. "I say Kool, you say Keith. Kool. Keith! Kool. Keith!" He deals in alternative hip hop. Rhymes full of standard braggadocio and not-so-standard cryptozoology. One unreleased song used Johnny Cochran's famous "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" speech as a hook. Beats were modern and atmospheric. A little dark. A little industrial. Something locals might hear from our own Ebony Tusks. Not sure MC Homeless got a fair shake from the KC crowd, but in his long history I'm sure he's seen worse.
Kansas City's Ubi (short for Ubiquitous) has seen a venue or two as well. And seen a record in the Billboard Top 40 with Ces Cru. As soon as he hit the stage, the crowd came forward. Some came to bob and vibe, others just to appreciate his flow and all that alliteration. Every performer watched. His delivery often highlighted speed, but he was just as comfortable singing a hook. His songs mimicked pop (or even rock), using standard verse and chorus structures, and fleshing them out with canned backing tracks triggered by his pad. Tracks could be sparse and dominated by deep pounding bass, or fully fleshed out and epic with layers of additional vocals. He started the set slinking across the stage in sunglasses and a big Santa Cruz skate hoodie pulled up over his head. Soon he lost the hoodie, shifted the vibe, and continued the party. The crowd was there for it, growing in number and intensity throughout. Ubi has it.
Then something happened. Or more appropriately, nothing happened. For 25 minutes we waited while DJ Halo selected tracks. The energy in the room dropped while everyone waited for the headliner. Someone working at the venue told me that Kool Keith wasn't even in the building. Is this why J. Stylez took the stage to the surprise of both the fans and the venue? If so, the Bronx-based producer and recording engineer came in clutch. With help from DJ Halo, Stylez delivered a short twelve-minute set that featured his easy flow over lush tracks full of smart melody and heady jazz. As he paced the stage, he explained his role was to pump up the crowd. It was an unenviable position, and, expectedly, his efforts never took the crowd to the heights that Ubi had a half hour earlier. He did, however, stave off the growing grumbles in the crowd.
It was after 11:00 when Kool Keith was coaxed to the stage. He was joined by J. Stylez and another unnamed emcee with DJ Halo backing them up. Kool Keith was layered in jackets upon jackets and topped by a hunter's cap – much of it was emblazed with the Kansas City Chiefs' logo. Even his sunglasses were tinted red. Had he been down the street shopping at Rally House? There was no fanfare as he began – actually, there was no real acknowledgement of the legend at all – instead the 60-year-old Kool Keith walked to the center of the stage, held a microphone in one hand, gesticulated with the other, and rapped to his shoes. Both emcees (and later MC Homeless) tried to hype the set, but Kool Keith's frequent word-salad freestyle sessions set tied their hands. No one on stage looked comfortable. I'm told Kool Keith is an erratic artist, tonight he proved it.
Thankfully there were some highlights. "Blue Flowers" from Dr. Octagon came across well, as did "Girl Let Me Touch You" from the same album. The naughty "Sex Style" was well-received by the grooving (and now grinding) audience. And the Ultramagnetic MCs cut "Two Brothers with Checks" had many members of the audience rapping along with Kool Keith. But ultimately it wasn't enough. The incomprehensible ramblings of Kool Keith over unstructured beats simply fell flat. Surprisingly, after the set the headliner stayed on stage, shaking hands and bumping fists with interested fans. He seemed engaged and happy, something that he hadn't been during his actual set. I don't know a thing about hip hop, but that's just weird, right?