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Tribe Uncovered @ Turner Hall Ballroom

Jan. 20, 2017

Jan. 23, 2017
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Photos courtesy Ben Wick

How many people wouldn’t even listen to rap without A Tribe Called Quest? For many hip-hop fans, especially those of a certain age, the New York jazz-rap ensemble was their gateway into the entire genre, a sophisticated, “respectable” hip-hop outfit that nonetheless made music every bit as fun as rap acts that were half as smart. That legacy and the group’s continued relevance made Tribe as obvious a subject as any for the Uncovered series, which, following the demise of Alverno Presents, made its debut at Turner Hall Ballroom Friday night.

The concert was a rap show at its core, and so it was beholden to the first rule of rap shows: How much you enjoy them is directly proportional to how close to the stage you are. Turner Hall’s stage let everybody get close.

How the re-launched Uncovered series will adapt to the new venue remains to be seen. It’s still hard to picture how this spring’s upcoming re-imagining of Stevie Wonder’s magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life wouldn’t be better served by a silent, seated venue like The Pabst Theater. But if Friday’s inaugural outing was any indication, the producers will figure out a way to make it work. Rapper/producer/curator Klassik and his assembled band used the venue to their advantage, working the crowd and feeding off their energy. Though the program’s lineup included players from all corners of the music scene, the concert was a rap show at its core, and so it was beholden to the first rule of rap shows: How much you enjoy them is directly proportional to how close to the stage you are. Turner Hall’s stage let everybody get close.

Even the absence of a printed program worked in the show’s favor. Part of the joy of Tribe’s glorious final album We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service last year was its surprise and spontaneity. Since its tracklist didn’t credit featured artists, there was a sense that any guest could pop up on any song at any time, be it Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes or Jack White. And so it was at Tribe Uncovered. Guest rappers cycled on and off stage throughout the set. One moment rapper Blizz McFly would strut on stage for a quick verse before leaving just as quickly, the next Collections of Colonies of Bees’ Chris Rosenau was spinning a web of guitars around “Electric Relaxation.” A few songs later the stage was overtaken by dancers. 

The set drew particularly from Tribe’s 1991 high watermark Low End Theory, with long reconstructions of standards like “Excursions,” “Buggin’ Out,” “Butter” and “Jazz (We’ve Got),” yet it relished digressions, too. Saxophonist Jay Anderson was given plenty of room to riff on the jazz songs that Tribe mined their samples from, while a trio of singers periodically broke into R&B hits from the group’s commercial heyday, like Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” and Soul For Real’s “Candy Rain” (co-written by Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad).

Every one of these Uncovered shows has a sleeper star, a hitherto under-appreciated performer who astonishes the crowd and leaves with newfound respect. This time out that distinction went to Ar Wesley, a Milwaukee rapper who has long sat high on what I like to call the local rap scene’s B+ List—a sort of waiting room for acts who deserve to be on the city’s A List, and likely would be if the scene weren’t so overcrowded. With his rubbery flow and easygoing posture, the Phife-sized rapper lit up the stage with every cameo, drawing from the chummy spirit of Tribe’s albums even as his verses followed their own twisty path. 

The night ended, as it was almost preordained to, with a cypher set to “Scenario,” one of rap’s all-time great posse cuts. It was a spectacle, with more than two dozen performers crowding the stage, huddling around each other and that immortal bass line. Unlike some earlier installments of Uncovered, this one kept the spoken addresses to a minimum. There was no need for Klassik and company to lecture the crowd about Tribe’s contributions to hip-hop. They already knew. Instead they let the songs speak for themselves, demonstrating why even long after the days of pagers and Arsenio Hall, this music remains as vital as ever.


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