I was urgently scanning the room for an emergency exit. A sharp metal object to deafen me for good. Some wack singer was midway through seeping every ounce of soul out of The Roots' "You Got Me," white-boy-rapping through it so ineptly that it'd embarrass The Offspring. It was bad, Geneva Convention-defying, Eighth Amendment-flouting bad, and yet when he was done, the crowd didn't rush the stage. There was no revolt, no hissing nor rotten produce flung from the front rows. The audience just clapped politely and threw back a few more sips of Heineken. A few even seemed to enjoy the butchery. But my spirits didn't completely flag until the end of his set, when four-fifths of the crowd headed toward the exit. The awful truth became clear just then: these people had come specifically for this act. They weren't interested in hearing real hip-hop, not when this cheap facsimile would do just as well.
Had they stayed behind with the small, loyal remainder, they would've seen the sharp contrast that followed. They would've witnessed a mighty triple bill making the most of its too-short showtimes, maximizing their minutes with an audible hunger. First up was Triple Nickels, a trio from Philly copping their name from America's first black paratrooper unit. I'd only heard the group in the context of Clean Guns, but here they made a potent impression all their own. They served up rap that didn't fool around, heavy on neck-snapping beats and whip-smart rhymes. Their music was funny and brisk, exciting and undeniably fresh. I would've gladly watched them perform a full set rather than the mere four songs they had time for.
Rap Jack Bauer R-J-B
Next up were Clean Guns themselves, a Philly duo as well as regular Nerd Litter fixtures. After clocking in over a hundred listens to their debut Sometimes There Is Trouble and rocking out to their mixtapes in the interim, I came in with pretty high expectations for the pair. They more than met those, delivering the same high-quality effort so characteristic of their output. Zilla Rocca was the more frenetic of the two, pacing the stage, emoting with his hands, pairing facial expressions to lyrical expressions. Nico the Beast preferred to stand his ground, using his heft and presence to back up his bravado. If they're not quite Andre and Big Boi yet, they have a similar duality of geek and gangster going on, or as Zilla puts it, "nerd and muscle." Whatever the combination, Clean Guns definitively demonstrated that they're just as dynamic live as on record. By the end of their abbreviated set, I was already asking about the next showdates, already making tentative plans to catch them on their home turf in the near future.
Closing out the evening was J-Direct, a Chicago duo you've also seen around here before. They too brought their trademark energy, more than compensating for the low-wattage crowd. Griff, the now-Brooklyn-based beatmaker, donned shades and sang while slugging back a PBR. Under a black hood, Fitzgerald prowled up and down stage right, tossing out flows casually but momentously. They were clearly having a good time doing it, and that feeling permeated through the crowd. Mixing old material with new, J-Direct kept us nodding our heads to the very last beat. On a night with admittedly low stakes, they, like their two antecedent acts, managed to raise the bar regardless. As for why so many people weren't smart enough to stick around for the best parts of the show? Baby, you got me.
* MP3: "Kryptonite" - Triple Nickels [Visit them]
* MP3: "Blue Magic (Zilla Rocca Remix)" - Jay-Z [Visit Clean Guns]
* MP3: "Clap/Twerk" - J-Direct from Live and J-Direct [Buy it]