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O.C. Pop Music Review : Much of ‘Beat Summer Jam’ Wilts in the Sun

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At various junctures on Sunday during the “92.3 The Beat Summer Jam,” a capacity house at Irvine Meadows was informed by hypesters from sponsoring radio station KKBT-FM that it was witnessing “the hottest,” “the phattest” and “the baddest” concert “of all time.”

Taken literally, most of that hype was all too believable.

The oppressive heat of the day baked the life out of everybody for nine of the rap/funk/R&B; extravaganza’s nearly 13 hours, leaving the audience virtually inert to some of the day’s better performances. During the draining daylight hours, more people stood in line for lemonade than stood up to dance to such worthy acts as War and Tony Toni Tone.

As for being phat, which in hip-hop parlance means being both splendid and substantial, this bill was merely fat. Not even the most gluttonous music fan wants to see 24 acts in one day--especially when many of them are rap newcomers who may have scored radio hits but utterly lack the live performing experience to go over on a major stage.

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And R&B; singers who croon to recorded tracks--a staple of Sunday’s diet--should be told to head back to the dance clubs until they find the wherewithal for a proper show with actual musicians.

Better yet, if such track-reliant acts as Zhane, Shanice, Jamie Foxx and the Guy alumni association (a solo Aaron Hall and the new group BLACKstreet led by Teddy Riley) want to appear, why not recruit a house band of sharp session pros who can play their music note for note in real time? Isn’t that how barnstorming stars used to operate on the legendary Chitlin’ Circuit of R&B;'s formative days? It would have added an element of discovery and surprise to a bill with no impromptu collaborations between acts.

“Summer Jam” was for charity, with proceeds from the donated performances going primarily to Los Angeles area organizations that fight drug abuse or try to provide alternatives to youth gangs (no figures were announced). An argument can be made for including lots of acts who want to a) help, b) stay on the good side of a powerful radio station or c) both of the above.

Still, pared down to the 12 or 15 best acts, playing over eight or nine hours, “Summer Jam” might have been more jammin’ than exhaustin’.

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Was it really the baddest--as in worst--show “of all time?” If you take away the climate conditions, not really. Nobody was brilliant, but good moments came courtesy of the Isley Brothers, War, Tevin Campbell and Zapp on the R&B; side, and Heavy D, Public Enemy and Coolio among the rappers.

Headliner Eazy-E was as bad as bad can be, though--according to Webster’s definition, not Michael Jackson’s. The usual gripe about gangsta rappers like Eazy-E, the Compton-based co-founder of N.W.A., is that they glorify violence and have brutish attitudes toward women. For the moment, we’ll leave those out of the bill of indictment against Eazy-E. He stunk because he was as inept as a headliner on a major festival bill can be.

After not one, not two, but three dull introductory sequences, the star finally arrived and made things even duller by taking his interminable half-hour set at a stroll. Sometimes he strolled right off the stage, at one point leaving it to five white-shirted associates who came on and murmured what seemed to be the first gangsta rap version of a Gregorian chant.

One moment made it almost worthwhile: When the less-than-enticing Eazy-E’s main sidekick commanded the women in the house to repeat the words, “I want to f--- you, Eazy,” the silence spoke volumes. So did the parade of people who immediately headed for the exits, joining an exodus already well in progress. The place was nearly full when Eazy-E’s set began; it was virtually empty when he finished. He concluded with his hit “Real (expletive) G’s,” a song blasting rival rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Being there to watch Eazy-E bomb would have been their best revenge.

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Some critics of Public Enemy’s new album “Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age” have suggested that the much praised band may be over the hill. Rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav seemed bent on establishing that they still have their youthful vigor. They scampered through an almost frolicsome set that was high on energy, if low on the politicized agitation that made Public Enemy famous.

A succession of truncated versions of such oldies as “Fight the Power,” “911 Is a Joke” and “Shut ‘Em Down” lacked thematic bite as the duo emphasized good-time performance. At one point, they seemed like a couple of kids playing touch football, Chuck feinting back and forth like a pass receiver while Flav tried to shadow him. The new single “Give It Back” was most noteworthy for its old-fashioned Southern soul groove.

Newcomer Coolio gave the day’s best rap performance--and benefited from being the first act to play after sundown for a crowd that seemed refreshed at last and eager for danceable beats. He and his large crew bounded about, verging on chaos but keeping the flow of the raps going.

Coolio offered substance along with energy on “County Line,” about the indignities of life on welfare, and “I Remember,” which began as an idyllic account of a safe and innocent early childhood, only to give way to a tale of family turmoil and a move to Los Angeles, “the land of the insane.” He and his ensemble finished with a sharp version of his hit “Fantastic Voyage,” with its daydreaming escape from insane realities. In all, a good blend of entertainment and humor with pointed commentary.

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Of the R&B; bands, Tony Toni Tone, the promising young group from Oakland, suffered the worst from the heat. The Tonys started well with a funk-rock churn reminiscent of Sly & the Family Stone. They even including a snippet of “Dance to the Music.” But nobody in the heat-prostrated crowd was dancing. Without encouragement, the band wilted over the rest of its 24-minute set.

Older and steadier, War was able to withstand the day’s heat and the crowd’s torpor and turned in a solid set of Latinized funk. Three long groove numbers made up the 25-minute set: the classic “Low Rider” and two songs from the band’s comeback album, “Peace Sign.” Co-founder Howard Scott shrugged off the lack of audience reaction: “I know the sun’s got a lot to do with it. At 8 o’clock, we’d be rockin’.”

Blessed with an after-dark starting time, Tevin Campbell, the teen-age protege of Quincy Jones and Prince, seemed headed for a good performance after delivering two songs, including his sleek but emotive hit “Always in My Heart.” But two songs was all Campbell and his 10 member ensemble performed. Why go to the bother of drilling backing singers, dancers and players if you’re only going to play 12 minutes?

Zapp, also playing at night, won the crowd with its familiar combination of clowning, catchiness and assured musicianship. Leader Roger Troutman and his band play pretty much the same set every time they pass through (this one being a truncated, 26-minute version), but one doesn’t build up an immunity to their infectious sense of fun.

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With War representing ‘70s funk and Zapp an ‘80s carry-over of traditional funk, the show’s third historic band was the Isley Brothers, who debuted in 1959. Singer Ronald Isley was in fine voice, sliding effortlessly to high note passages of the 35-minute set’s highlight, a cover of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” Ronald’s creamy voice contrasted with Ernie Isley’s fast, edgy guitar lead to paint an evocative picture that was less about summer itself than a haunting memory of summer.

Ronald’s wife, Angela Winbush, took over lead vocals toward the end of the set. For a band with limited time and a rich trove of songs, that was a mistake. It would have been better to play the classics for a young crowd than to serve up showy set pieces for Winbush, excellent as her voice is.

Some acts took a cheap “sex sells” approach. Laid-back rapper Domino wouldn’t have had much of an act without the visual possibilities afforded by the compliant young ladies in hot pants who accompanied him. Hall, the former Guy singer, mimed various sex acts, bared his chest and paraded through the aisles so women could get a touch while he sang forgettable romantic schlock.

BLACKstreet offered more generic romantic schlock, and leader Riley distinguished himself by using a slur against homosexuals to dismiss males in the house who wouldn’t make noise on demand. The day’s themes were “Unity Through Music” and “No Color Lines.” Maybe Riley should consider the lines he draws to protect his own prejudices.

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During Hall’s set, a helicopter buzzed the amphitheater, making several passes at a height of no more than 100 feet above the crowd to drop leaflets condemning KKBT’s management as racist. The anonymous tirade was itself fraught with bigotry toward Asians, whites and homosexuals. Station personnel swarmed the stage at the next break and dismissed the accusations as the work of a “disgruntled employee.” They announced that federal aviation authorities had been notified of the helicopter’s low flight through amphitheater airspace during a performance.


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