On Saturday, just over two decades after the release of De La Soul's debut masterpiece, 3 Feet High and Rising, the New York trio will perform at Cat's Cradle for a few hundred fans, half of whom probably have children by now.
Meanwhile, 44 miles away, three months before the release of what's being billed as the rock debut of rapper Lil Wayne, Rebirth, the New Orleans entertainer will perform at Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek (try rapping that, by the way) for thousands of screaming children and grown-ups who will do their best to act like children.
Both crowds, we'll assume, will be attending the show of their choice in hopes of experiencing what—to them—is excellent rapping, deft showmanship and what might turn out to be one of the summer's best hip-hop concerts. This is one unified hip-hop fanbase making a tough choice between a legendary crew and the genre's new star, right? It's all still hip-hop, right?
Let's not be so romantic. Hip-hop in 2009 remains a teeming terrain of divisions and factions, where one emcee claims supremacy ("Best rapper alive," Weezy has proclaimed a googol times) and brings his crew with him while another emcee elsewhere does exactly the same thing. Some of these ringleaders are superstars. Some are perennial B-listers. Others are the stars of the underground, often ignored by the big boys but bearing microphone skills that, if we're talking best-of status, shouldn't be forgotten. All told, the trash-talk has produced a landscape of egos, where one camp does its best to dismiss the vigor of another. Such self-enforced Darwinism—"I'm better than you. Go away."—has been around since hip-hop's infancy, but now in rap verses, freestyles and interviews, it seems to be all some rappers consider. In the end, we all end up having to deal with another reason to turn off the radio or BET and pull up De La Soul on our iPod. In the process, we fans are getting a little hip-hop for a lot of needless windbagging.
In June, Mos Def—hip-hop's reigning agitprop(rietor)—told Angie Martinez, longtime on-air personality at New York radio behemoth HOT 97, that hip-hop needed a "battle royale." The plan was simple: Five emcees hand-selected by Jay-Z would battle five emcees hand-selected by Mos Def in a three-round, bracket-style competition. But this wouldn't be just another battle between emcees. It would be a fight for validity.
Mos Def seems understandably frustrated that a handful of top-selling rappers—namely, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z—have claimed to be the "best rapper alive," while veteran emcees—like those of De La Soul, for instance—are alive and more than well. That's not to mention the over-abundance of niche-market, underground emcees with immense skill sets. Trouble is, when he calls himself the best rapper alive, Lil Wayne dismisses the need to listen to anyone else. It's fitting, then, that the best hip-hop albums of the past two years not to be released on a major record label—Blu & Exile's Below the Heavens, Invincible's ShapeShifters, Marco Polo & Torae's Double Barrel, to cite just three examples—are probably unrecognizable catalog titles to the average Lil Wayne fan.
"Yo, fuck a rhyme artist, I ain't here for that/ I was born with the boom bap, respect the name/ My hands-on experience was hands on my first contract/ Taught me quick how to respect the game." —De La Soul's Trugoy, "The Grind Date"
Respect: Now there's a word that seems rather problematic in hip-hop, specifically in relation to the divide between the form's newcomers and elders. Consider New Jersey emcee Joe Budden, who recently recorded a bit on his webcam, announcing that he could outrap Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man. We're still waiting on the evidence. Soulja Boy, who just turned 19 and has one hit and a handful of "albums," feuded with West Coast pioneer Ice-T recently after the older emcee slammed him in the press. Respect? Probably not.
De La Soul is the only remaining hip-hop group with two decades of history that's still releasing relevant, cutting-edge hip-hop. These days, De La Soul's Posdnuos and Trugoy rhyme more like virtuosos and messiahs than the ingenious, comedy-hop caricatures they wooed us with in the early '90s while working with bizarre impresario Prince Paul. They write increasingly about their social, cultural and political concerns over the corporate molestation of hip-hop, a culture they helped groom. But even at their level of maturity, the three guys still know how to have fun, as reflected in the shenanigans of their rowdy stage performances.
No one at the De La Soul show will likely agree with the proclamation that Lil Wayne is the greatest rapper alive. If they did, they'd likely be at an amphitheater. Thing is, they probably don't think De La's lead emcees are the best rappers alive, either. The trio has never suggested that. They've simply let the rapping, well, rhyme for itself.
But when rappers like Jay-Z or Lil Wayne insist on making grandiose assumptions about their superiority, it causes a rift in the hip-hop community: Even though the declaration promotes their own brand and arguably creates a compelling sense of rivalry, it demotes hip-hop's overall brand by insinuating that none of genre's existing legends or architects—or none of the rhymers not lucky enough to have a major label deal—have any words or energy left.
At least no one has explicitly disrespected De La Soul (they were one of the groups honored at the most recent VH1 Hip-Hop Honors awards), but you've got to expect it. After all, when young artists and their followers are taking shots at the folks who helped father their culture, perhaps we need to remember that rap should involve rhyme content, not just catchy hit singles and star power. We've reached a point where we've resorted to critiquing a rapper's choice in baby mamas or drug preference, rather than asking ourselves if the rapper's content is intelligible. Or as President Obama might say, we're acting stupidly.
"And this is how you treat hip-hop?/ Imagine if you didn't have that Phantom chrome sitting on a curb nigga/ The word nigga wouldn't be a bit disturbing, nigga/ See, them roots are like begging for the rain/ You entering my kingdom just a'beggin' for the reign." —De La Soul's Posdnuos, "It's Like That"
Look at Lil Wayne's Canadian protégé, Drake, who's femme-fave hit song, "Best I Ever Had," might be the most-requested club track of the moment. People are swarming all over it, even as Lil Wayne continues to let Drake embarrass himself, suggesting that he might not be much more than a svelte dude with one hit. As the guest artist on Funkmaster Flex's HOT 97 radio show, an unprepared Drake disrespected the rap gods by scrolling through his BlackBerry during an impromptu "freestyle session" while trying to find some of his written raps. When it came time for him to showcase his skills as hip-hop's newest threat, both he and his BlackBerry froze. It was a disaster. Then, onstage at the BET Awards, Drake sat on a stool, surrounded by several prepubescent dancing girls while Lil Wayne and his Young Money morons chanted the chorus to "Every Girl"—"I wish I could fuck every girl in the world."
Maybe incidents like this amount to a case of Lil Wayne letting Drake make his own mistakes so he might learn from them. But outside of a waning Internet interest, mixtape buzz and a played-out single, Lil Wayne's "artist" has taken a pretty severe beating from the rap literati. If Weezy wasn't running around being the "best rapper alive" and rapping on 4,000 verses with 4,000 different rappers so as to spread his best-alive seed, like a neighborhood cat with too much frisky in his bowl, maybe he could take some time out to groom Drake instead of letting him falter. Without the endorsement of the guy who people believe to be the best simply because he can't stop saying it, would we even be talking about Drake?
Not to say that De La Soul could have done Drake any better, but let's remember that when the trio last introduced a young emcee, on 1996's Stakes is High album, his name was Mos Def. He might not be a hitmaker, but, after 13 years, he's still making waves and above-average rhymes.
"Watchin how the drama unfold/ As MC's go from hot to cold/ Pots of gold they search for/ Some find more than others/ Platinum plaques/ But when your act goes active on the radio/ You become radioactive/ That's a fact!/ De La's got the respect attack/ Tactfully weathering the storm in all forms." — De La Soul's Posdnuos, "Respect"
So, this Saturday night, after Lil Wayne has convinced everyone at Walnut Creek how much of a martian he is, and after the amphitheater staff has kicked everyone out by midnight, it'll still be early enough for you to make the drive out to the Cat's Cradle to catch the last bit of De La Soul's set. Since De La Soul doesn't call itself the best group alive, and since it doesn't have the one-hit-wonders-in-waiting Soulja Boy and Drake in tow, you likely won't have trouble getting in. Just remember to respect Billy Johnson, the older, black, muscular dude who'll probably be working the door.
De La Soul plays Cat's Cradle Saturday, Aug. 8, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-28. Kaze and Rapper Big Pooh open. Lil Wayne brings his Young Money Presents: America's Most Wanted Music Festival with Drake, Young Jeezy, Soulja Boy and more to Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek Saturday, Aug. 8, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $27.25-$85.75.