While purported rap violence and rap misogyny and general rap nastiness have been hogging the headlines all summer, the movement called "positive rap" quietly became the hippest new style since gangster rap went into effect a couple of years ago: dance-floor beats blended with funky-fresh, pro-black politics. And the new generation of rappers has decided that a basic knowledge of African-American history is better than an Uzi. Hey . . . revolution sells.
The packed show at the Hollywood Palladium on Friday was something of a four-hour crash course in the genre, half a dozen ways to approach political rap from half a dozen groups. Headlining Boogie Down Production's leader KRS-One is more or less the leader of positive rap--he's the guy behind rap's Stop the Violence movement; the rapper who appears on Arsenio Hall's show and discusses Mandela instead of his new record.
Laquan, a 16-year-old rapper from Los Angeles, opened the show, backed by live bass and drums where most rappers use turntables, flanked by two dancing kids who played leapfrog throughout his set. The highlight was his pro-black "Now's the B Turn." Laquan was charming, with a natural, laid-back stage presence, but his light voice rendered his fluent raps almost too faint to hear.
Def Jef, an old-fashioned, L.A.-based rapper, slammed out a couple of songs in his buttery tenor before he left the stage in a huff, complaining about a bad mix. He didn't get a chance to do his popular positive anthem "Black to the Future." The ultraviolent gangster fantasies of the Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., the posse of sumo-size Samoan brothers from Carson, may not have been all that positive, but several months on the road have made the rappers sharper than ever.
Poor Righteous Teachers, musical ambassadors of the Five Percent Nation, a splinter group of the Nation of Islam, were surprisingly funky. You wouldn't expect guys who've chosen the stage names Wise Intelligent and Culture Freedom to get down, but they did, and the willful insider's obscurity of the rhymes didn't matter so much on the dance floor. D-Nice, KRS-One's aide-de-camp, performed a pleasant if undistinguished set that included his No. 1 rap single "Call Me D-Nice."
And KRS-One was devastating, the pace of his show finally up to the dynamics of his songs, voice loud like a cranked guitar, backing tracks reduced to clean, spare beats. At least two-thirds of the crowd keyed straight into his performance, shouting along with the raps, swaying like tall grass to the beat. He has developed into the finest live rap act since "Raising Hell"-era Run-DMC.