The omnipresence of N.W.A shirts before Saturday night’s West Coast hip-hop focused bill at Staples Center was the most telling of what fans who packed the concert, the final night of headlining acts for the 2015 BET Experience, came to see.
For the first time in two decades, surviving members of the groundbreaking rap group reunited onstage to perform some of the records that helped define gangsta rap and put the West Coast on the map for hip-hop.
After a night that included opening sets from Top Dawg Entertainment rappers Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and crowd-pleasing headlining sets from Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube closed things out.
“This is my first time performing at the Staples Center. A lot of people thought I was done ... movied out. I got one thing to say to those people,” Cube half-joked before he jumped into his classic “Check Yo Self,” a reel of some of his standout film roles flashing behind him.
Halfway through his set came the moment most were waiting for.
An extended trailer for N.W.A’s forthcoming biopic, “Straight Outta Compton,” which Ice Cube co-produced, began playing on the massive video wall hanging over the stage – much to the excitement of the crowd, who hollered and cheered.
And then Cube reemerged, with MC Ren by his side and DJ Yella at the turntables.
The partially reunited group – as expected Dr. Dre did not perform – opened with 1999’s “Chin Check,” the first single the group recorded after the death of group founder Eazy-E in 1995 and the first collaboration with Ice Cube after he famously left the group in 1989.
“These three men ain’t performed together onstage in 26 years,” Ice Cube gleefully shouted, albeit a bit more profane.
After moving through quasi-reunion track “Hello,” the trio took things back to their more hard-core past.
The crowd ignited when the opening bars of “Straight Outta Compton” rang out, many shouting the lyrics right back to the group.
They stopped to pay tribute to Eazy, with Yella spinning a number of his solo records as pictures of both Eazy and the group cycled on the screen. “It’s only right to give respect to the Godfather,” Ice Cube announced. “Without his vision, you wouldn’t see a lot of what you see today.”
Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who portrays his father in the highly anticipated film, performed “Dopeman” while looking exactly like a late-'80s version of Ice Cube (jheri curl, black hat and black and white ensemble).
The reunion concluded with Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella tackling the group’s most incendiary, and infamous, tune, “… Tha Police.” Arriving in a police car – yes, a cop car was wheeled onstage – Ice Cube jumped out (from the front seat, of course) and launched into the controversial song. As the song went on, old footage of police brutality incidents was meshed with recent cases and scenes of protest.
As for that chorus? It’s likely the first and last time you’ll hear it shouted 13,000 strong.
The return of N.W.A (minus Dre) wasn’t the night’s only massive rap moment.
As Ice Cube wound down at Staples Center, across the street at Club Nokia the Roots were slowly unpacking a night of freewheeling grooves.
At last year’s BET Experience, the subversive hip-hop and soul band focused its late-night set on time traveling through the glory days of rap with guests that included Warren G, Doug E. Fresh, Talib Kweli, Method Man and Redman. It was a standout of last year’s festival, and on Saturday night the group manged to top themselves.
Paying tribute to the late influential producer and rapper J Dilla, this was the can’t-miss show for hip-hop purists.
Dilla’s lush hip-hop and soul beats have served as the backdrop or inspiration for countless artists -- A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, De La Soul and the Roots are just a few who he worked with – and a number were on hand to pay homage to the creative force.
Badu, who previously played the 2013 BET Experience, joined the band and served as somewhat of a co-captain. She moved through her own cuts, including “On & On,” “Bag Lady” and the Dilla-produced gem “Didn’t Cha Kno?,” sang background vocals and helped connect the night’s many guests.
And there were many guests.
Slum Village and Bilal popped up for sets. Busta Rhymes shared an emotional story of his friendship with Dilla and working with the producer in his final years when he was battling a rare blood disease. The Pharcyde moved through a mini-set that included their seminal Dilla hit “Runnin.’”
The night’s biggest surprise was Lauryn Hill.
Arriving with a trio of backing vocalists, the hip-hop-soul singer stunned the crowd with a tight, powerful set that quickly eviscerated memories of hours-late waits and unfocused, erratic showings.
Hill tore through a swinging version of “Lost Ones” and a guitar-driven version of her wrenching “Ex Factor” transformed the tune from a slow-burning torch song to an uplifting foot stomper. She didn’t, however, veer far outside the lines of her classic, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” much to the thrill of the crowd.
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