Fast action and force of personality are what count most on a live rap stage, and Big Daddy Kane was a force unleashed at gale speed as he topped a bill of three high-charting New York rappers Friday night at the Celebrity Theatre.
Too many rap acts haven't the foggiest idea of how to pace a show. They'll wander aimlessly, starting and stopping songs at random, letting the whole proceeding slide into a trough. Kane has found a better way. Instead of just swiping bits and pieces from James Brown records, like virtually every rapper on earth, he seems to have absorbed the gist of Brown's formula for live performance: Make it frenzied, and keep the action coming nonstop.
Early in the 37-minute set the frenzy was formless. Kane, in a three-piece suit, roamed the rim of the circular, spinning stage, spitting out rapid-fire rhymes that were too quick-paced to absorb for anyone who hadn't memorized his records.
Two bodyguards followed him everywhere, while male dancers named Scrap Lover and Scoob Lover leaped and bounded together. For the first few minutes, the crew projected a raw energy geared to heat up the crowd, rather than making any pointed rap statements. The sellout audience, a ready and responsive ally for Kane and the two previous acts, Biz Markie and MC Lyte, didn't require much warming up.
With disc jockey Mister Cee switching the beat from song to song without pause, the show gathered momentum and took shape. Kane joined his two dancers for hot workouts showcasing whirlwind solo moves and athletic unison steps. On "Raw," a brag-rap that rehashes the most overworked rapper's theme--"I am the greatest"--Kane backed up the boasting with a commanding, imperious baritone.
He worked guest rappers into the show (Grandmaster Kaz and an under-amplified, ski-capped Ice Cube, from the controversial N.W.A.) without bogging it down. And he brought substance to the proceedings with such socially conscious numbers as the black-pride rap "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," playing his own lines off the audience's chorus sing-along.
Unfortunately--with a capital U--Kane was at his most emphatic in delivering a vile couplet that broadcast his hatred for homosexuals. One can only hope that some clear, brave voices will emerge in hip hop, heavy metal and other branches of pop music to answer this kind of bigotry.
One of Kane's black-pride raps makes a big deal over a black being chosen Miss America, but his hater's approach to gays would disown a cultural giant like James Baldwin because of how he chose to lead his private life. Pathetic.
Biz Markie (pronounced "marquee"), a boyhood buddy of Kane's, also succeeded in conveying some personality and (aided considerably by that receptive, eager-to-participate crowd) in maintaining a house-rocking energy level.
Biz is to rap what the Coasters were to '50s rock 'n' roll--a likable clown whose act is built on jokes and novelties. He milked his current hit single, "Just a Friend," for all it was worth, leading the audience in crooned chorus after chorus in his off-key bellow of a non-singing voice.
Biz's other enjoyable gimmicks were a human-beat box routine, in which he mimicked vocally the sound of drumbeats and record scratching, and an arm-flapping dance, the "Mudd Foot," that was just like the dancing-fool shtick that B.B. King's trumpet player has been doing for years.
With his sputtering, mumbly delivery, the hulking Biz isn't the world's sharpest rapper, and with such gross-humor topics as mucus and bad breath, he isn't exactly socially significant. But that unsinkable clownish instinct kept the Biz Mark's 28-minute set steadily afloat.
With memorable, intelligently pointed story-songs such as "I Cram to Understand U" and "Cappucino," female rapper MC Lyte's peak material is several cuts above anything by Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and most other rappers. But Lyte left those stories untold, and largely abdicated control of her choppy, pause-filled set to her crew of bump-and-grind male dancers, who kept stripping to their bikini briefs in an attempt to turn the show into a Chippendale's routine. It was all a planned gag, with the demure, white-clad Lyte playing the disapproving straight woman to her rampant buddies' hip-hop satyrs.
There aren't many strong females in rap, and it's a shame that one of the few there are let the boys in the band overshadow her with insipid antics. It would have been far better had Lyte, who has a sharp, effective rap delivery, taken control and projected her own personality and her own idea of sexuality. Instead of making her own mark, Lyte's lightweight set seemed geared to warming up the crowd for the male rappers who followed.
Other drawbacks were a bombastic introduction, in which a recorded voice ominously intoned the opening verses of Genesis ("Let there be light"), and Lyte's occasional use of a backing track of her own voice to echo and double her live raps.