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This Rap Tour Is Really Smokin’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s one of those music fan mental exercises, like assembling a “desert island” list of essential albums: What would the ultimate concert be? In rock maybe you go with the fantasy bill of Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Clash. For country, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are surely tenable. And in R & B, try to find a better lineup than Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

But what about rap?

Well, how about Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube? And, just for fun, throw in that mercurial upstart Eminem, just to keep the kids interested. Now that would be a dream team for sure--but it’s no daydream. In fact, that stellar squad is on its way to an arena near you.

The Up in Smoke tour, headlined by Dre and featuring a deep supporting cast (Warren G, Xzibit, Kurupt, Mack 10, WC, Tha Eastsidaz, MC Ren), assembles tonight in Chula Vista to kick off a national tour that visits the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim on Friday and Sunday.

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“It is, without a doubt, the greatest rap tour in our time,” says Michael Papale, a partner in The Firm, the management company for Cube, the Backstreet Boys and Korn. “I equate it to when the Who and Clash toured. . . . This tour galvanizes a generation and galvanizes the races. You won’t believe the crowd, it’s going to be like going to a Laker game.”

Even if this tour boasts more stars than the Lakers, it may not qualify with some as the clear-cut winner as the ultimate fantasy rap concert. There are strong cases to be made, of course, for Tupac Shakur, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys or Run DMC.

“Yeah, so I’m not going to say it’s the greatest ever,” Cube says. “But it is definitely something special. . . . Everybody on this bill is as famous as famous can be. They have nothing to prove to anybody, so there’s a comfort level. We’re all here as a West Coast family.”

The tour also benefits from some intriguing subplots, among them Eminem’s recent legal woes, the reunion of three of N.W.A’s surviving members and, despite Cube’s view of it as a family affair, the task of juggling major star egos.

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“It’s hard; the problem is there’s not enough time and too much talent,” says Xzibit, the 25-year-old Los Angeles rapper. “It was extremely hard sequencing the show. . . . It’s about 3 1/2 hours, but Dre took care of it. It came down to the best of the best from everybody. The show never stops moving.”

Didn’t some acts want a bigger chunk of stage time? “Oh yeah,” Xzibit said with a chuckle. “But Dre is the president, this is his show. It’s Dre time.”

Or, as Papale, Cube’s manager, says: “It’s Dre’s world right now, we just live in it.” That’s what they used to say about Frank Sinatra, and its not a stretch to say Dre is now the chairman of the board in the rap world. Besides his work in the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A, Dre has now put his imprint on several key moments in hip-hop history.

His “Dr. Dre 2001" disc, released in November, is closing in on 5 million copies sold and has, remarkably, outsold his watershed 1992 disc “The Chronic,” which introduced the world to a young rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg and yielded the song “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” named by Spin Magazine as the best single of the 1990s.

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Dre is playing the role of mentor-producer for a young phenom again, this time with the 26-year-old Marshall Mathers--better known as Eminem, the hottest rapper today. Anointed and accompanied by Dre, Eminem has become the first solo white rapper to earn huge commercial success and street credibility within a genre dominated by black artists.

Eminem’s guest appearances on “Dr. Dre 2001" hits such as “Forgot About Dre” not only pumped up sales of that disc, they also churned up further fan interest in the young rapper. That paid off at the end of last month, when Eminem’s second album, “The Marshall Mathers LP,” sold 1.8 million copies in its first week. That set a record for single-week sales by a solo artist and set the stage for quick sell-outs for the Up in Smoke tour. The disc has held on to the No. 1 spot for three weeks now.

“The timing absolutely could not be better for this tour,” says Gary Bongiovanni, the editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication for the concert industry. “It has an incredibly strong bill, and Eminem is hanging on at No. 1. Eminem brings a huge cross-cultural appeal.”

The heat surrounding Eminem might suggest that he would be better served by a splashy solo tour.

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“Yeah, it’s a concern,” says Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s manager. “But we made this commitment to Dre a while ago, and the best thing for Eminem long term is tour with Dre right now, not to go out and do something quick. . . . This helps take him to the next level, performing in front of large crowds with Dr. Dre, which is what people want to see right now.”

The West Coast version of the show opens with Warren G and Eastsidaz. Then comes Eminem’s solo set; Cube with MC Ren, Mack 10 and WC; and finally Dre and Snoop. But throughout the show (which will be staged on multiple sets, including one that an insider compared to Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude), they’ll perform in various combinations. More than once, most or all the rappers will be on stage together. And, while MC Ren is not on the official bill, several sources say he will join the tour, setting the stage for him to join Cube and Dre for a reunion of most of N.W.A.

“There will be just a smidgen of N.W.A,” Cube says, “We want to do a full N.W.A tour later this year, so we’re just going to give people a taste, just enough. . . . There will be a lot going on, the show will be almost four hours. But it’s not going to be one of those shows you get tired of, believe me.”

Rap Has Proved Weak on the Road

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So promoters in the 40-plus cities on the tour must be thrilled, right? “That’s tough to read,” Bongiovanni says. The reason is that hard-core rap and hip-hop in general have rarely spawned blockbuster tours. The rap genre may be a dynamo in record stores, but it has often fizzled on the road.

The Hard Knock Life tour, headlined by Jay-Z and DMX, was a strong performer in 1999, and the Smokin’ Grooves festival logged a few good years on the road before it was discontinued last year, but they have been the exceptions to the rule. No hard-core show hasbeen among the Top 10-grossing tours in any of the last four years, even though the genre’s albums are routinely among the top sellers at retail.

Bongiovanni and others point to a variety of factors for the rap-concert doldrums, among them fans’ perception of possible danger. There’s also the ethos of the shows themselves: The genre is so married to studio and turntable wizardry that live performances can rarely match the recorded versions of the music. Some tours have been fraught with disorganization and poor sound technology as well, perhaps a reflection of the dearth of top promoters risking their time and money on the genre.

Last year, the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Millionaires tour--featuring multi-platinum stars such as DMX, Juvenile and Eve--was the top hip-hop offering, and it stumbled badly. Shows in Irvine, Miami, Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., were canceled or postponed in the weeks after six people were stabbed during a backstage melee at a Boston area arena.

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“With the hard-core rap shows, a lot of promoters fear that there might be some incident at their show or at one the week before,” Bongiovanni says. “It only takes a few knuckleheads.”

Another variable might cross the minds of promoters for the Up in Smoke tour--the volatility of Eminem, who may be the biggest draw on the bill.

A week after “The Marshall Mathers LP” debuted at No. 1, the Detroit rapper was in a Michigan court to answer felony assault and weapons charges stemming from two confrontations. A judge ordered Eminem to return to court in July, but he also allowed the rapper to leave the state and join the tour. (“It’s not like we won’t know where he is,” notes William Harding, a Macomb County, Mich., prosecutor.)

Eminem has been praised by many critics as a superior wordsmith who offers both wry and scathing appraisals of youthful angst, but he also has been the target of advocacy groups for parents, women, gays and lesbians, all of whom take exception to the clowning rapper’s delight at profane, graphic and violent lyrics.

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Of course, all of that notoriety may actually help the tour.

“We sold out two shows in one day,” says Ken Scher, an executive vice president at Nederlander, which handles bookings at the Arrowhead Pond. “You can’t get any stronger indication of how marketable this genre is and the strength of this package.”

This tour also has an advantage that few hip-hop tours can claim: history.

“Part of the problem with hip-hop tours is there isn’t a legacy,” says Peter Paterno, Dre’s attorney. “Metallica has been playing since 1982, U2 has been playing since the early ‘80s, so they’ve built bonds over years and years. . . . Not a lot of hip-hop artists have that, or material that deep. . . . With these guys, it’s just hit after hit after hit.”

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Agreements Were Reached in March

The all-star tour concept was hatched by Dre late last year and began taking its final form in January and February, and by March the agreements had been made, according to managers for the acts. Organizers acknowledge there were struggles reaching accord on money issues and stage time, but Papale, Cube’s manager, said those squabbles were never bitter or drawn out.

“Really there was a sense of a family atmosphere,” he said. “These guys work great together. It developed and grew very organically or it never would have happened.”

Added Paterno: “It was a nightmare, but it was a good nightmare.”

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Xzibit, a junior partner in this grand stable of stars, says he would never have let financial matters keep him off a stage with Dre and Cube. “Even if I was going along without a dime, I would still go,” he says, “This isn’t even about the money. It’s a big show and its going to be under a magnifying glass.”

That scrutiny explains why Dre--a famously meticulous craftsman--ordered what Xzibit calls a “lock-down” for rehearsals early this week in Chula Vista. Only the crew and performers were allowed in, according to an official with Interscope Records, Dre’s label. Dre also spent two days last week working with the tour’s sound system. “Believe me,” Paterno says, “it’ll be state of the art . . . and it’s going to be the best rap tour ever. There isn’t any doubt about it.”

BE THERE

Up in Smoke with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Warren G, Westside Connection, Mack 10, Tha Eastsidaz, Kurupt, Xzibit tonight at Coors Amphitheatre, 2050 Otay Valley Road, Chula Vista. 7 p.m. (619) 671-3600. Also Saturday and Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. 7:30 p.m. Sold out. (714) 704-2500.

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