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Legends of Hip-Hop @ Milwaukee Theatre

April 9, 2011

Apr. 11, 2011
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At its best, the final date of the Legends of Hip-Hop tour last Saturday at the Milwaukee Theatre made the music presented there almost feel as if it weren't an exercise in nostalgia. At its worst? Well, as The Notorious B.I.G., and The Last Poets before him, famously observed, BS often tends to accompany a good party. The nearly full house was too hyped to seem to have minded, though.

Milwaukee's own Dr. B, who had been shot in the head not many days prior, opened the evening and filled in space between acts with turntablism rich in the scratching rarely heard on radio-charting rap records since the early '90s cut-off date of the tour package's purview. B's skills served as a fitting prelude to opening MC Kool Moe Dee. Dressed in white and donning his trademark shades, Dee effused a palpable excitement to be revisiting his salad days for an appreciative throng. He kept the energy level high as he flitted between the most memorable of his solo hits, shout-outs to some of his contemporaries from back in the day, and a brief rhyme trade-off with the rest of The Treacherous Three, the group Dee left to go solo. Many in the crowd sang along the choruses of "Wild Wild West" and "Go See The Doctor." Dee prefaced "How Ya Like Me Now" with word of how he and that number's secondary subject/focus of Dee's intermittent war of words, LL Cool J, kept their beef limited to no weapons other than their couplets.

From Dee's jovial intensity, the proceedings took a dip in energy—or at least purposefulness—as Doug E. Fresh took the stage to lead the crowd in rallies of applause for snippet after snippet of others' '80s hits and vintage TV themes from his Get Fresh Crew DJs. Most of the audience appeared up for such filler, though. Fresh then brought out Slick Rick. Decked in the most bling of the evening, his appearance signaled the start of the rapping in earnest. Rick himself seemed at least a bit rote in his assaying his biggest hit, and one of his genre's greatest story tunes, the cheeky anti-crime morality tale "Children's Story." He and Fresh upped the passion some for a medley-like run through both sides of the 1985 single that introduced them to the urban radio masses. "The Show" has lost none of its cheesy charm, with its farty "Inspector Gadget" theme riff, and Rick managed the ingratiating mix of smarm and naiveté on his tale of being pursued by a cougar (before the world quite knew what to call older women chasing younger dudes), "La Di Da Di," a quarter-century after the fact, as Fresh provided human beatboxing. Fresh also provided a pitch for his Harlem soul food restaurant before bounding out of sight. 

Bounding into sight in a quick enough turn were Naughty By Nature. The trio's run of hits violated Dee's stipulation that old-school hip-hop predates 1990, since their chart streak began in 1991, but no matter. They might have done well to have saved their arguably most enduring smash, "O.P.P.," for later in their set. Instead, they opened with it, perhaps giving everyone what they most wanted to hear from the trio sooner than necessary. Their biggies—"Feel Me Flow," "Ghetto Bastard (Everything's Gonna Be Alright"," "Hip-Hop Hooray" and their grittiest, "Uptown Anthem"—continued, and lead rapper Treach looks about as ripped shirtless now as he did on his cover shoot for Vibe at the peak of the group's notoriety.

Headlining ladies Salt-n-Pepa ended the night on a high. Though neither mentor Hurby Azor nor comely DJ Spinderella were in tow, the gals held their own on a playlist emphasizing earlier, non-pop crossover singles. They visited first album Hot, Cool & Vicious a few times and opened with the go-go flavor of "Shake Your Thang." Besides trading lines, the duo exuded a genuine air of friendship, likely re-forged by their stints on VH1 reality shows in recent years. When Salt went on about her happiness in her marriage of 20 years and Pepa rallied back with mention of her baby daddy, they gave the impression of comedic foils who would have done well to have translated that chemistry to a movie or two. Of course, they performed their indelible club banger, "Push It," but they didn't close with it. Following the libidinal intimations of that number, Salt saw fit to give the assembly a benediction in the form of re-creating her contribution to Kirk Franklin & God's Property's '97 gospel funker, "Stomp." The cognitive dissonance in that diptych may have run on overdrive, but with enough humility and not-quite-explicitly Christian God talk, it came off in good spirit.

In its second year overall and first in Milwaukee, here's hoping Legends of Hip-Hop becomes an annual event for the city. The size and age range of the audience attested to the popularity of rap of a certain vintage, and goodness knows there are plenty of acts who could fill the bill in future years.


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