SAN FRANCISCO -- By the bill alone -- political rap group the
Coup, turntable star Mix Master Mike and Bay Area underground giants
Mystic Journeymen and the Earthlings -- one could tell this was not
going to be your average benefit concert.
And by the time the Coup's DJ Pam the Funkstress took her bra off with
her shirt still on while flawlessly juggling a Queen Latifah record, it
was clear: This was a benefit concert like no other before, and perhaps
like none for many moons to come.
The show Thursday night at the Maritime Hall was a benefit for the S.F.
Garden Project, an organization that works to maintain gardens in urban
areas. Perhaps using the odd juxtaposition of gardens in an urban
setting as an inspiration, the evening's main attractions turned in a
lesson in comparing and contrasting two purely American art forms: jazz
Mix Master Mike (born Mike Schwartz) was the first to touch on this theme,
in an hour-long set. Performing in a city he called the "mecca of
turntablism," he seemed anxious to blow away any perceptions that
working and touring with chart-topping rappers the Beastie Boys over the
past year has softened him up.
He attacked the wheels of steel with fury, chopping up beats and rhythms
so they were unrecognizable. He flawlessly juggled beats to keep songs
going. He never dwelled on one song for more than a minute. The
instrumental break from Southern gangsta rapper Juvenile's "Ha" was the
only record identifiable to anyone without an insanely deep record
All that is par for the course for Mix Master Mike. The thing that
amazed, however, was that he didn't use headphones during his set. He
continually switched records, put the needle on the record and began
mixing, scratching and creating new sounds by playing with the record's
pitch and speed, without the benefit of headphones to monitor his segues
in advance. At one point, he manipulated the speaker balance to make it
seem as if a tweety bird were zooming around the hall with a microphone.
It was even more impressive when DJ Q-Bert (Rich Quitevis) -- Mix Master
Mike's bandmate in the Invisibl Skratch Piklz -- stepped up for a
cutting session while Mix Master Mike scratched out a beat. Both worked
Even Mix Master Mike seemed amazed at his accomplishment. "Yeah, I'm
working on my headphone-less routine tonight," he told the crowd while
grinning from ear to ear during a short break in the action.
The overall effect of Mix Master Mike's set was not unlike that of
witnessing a jazz horn player belt out a song using circular breathing -- inhaling
through the nose while exhaling through the mouth, to keep the horn
blowing for longer than seems humanly possible. The insane cutting,
scratching and beat juggling never stopped, and that was the point: Why
would you want it to stop?
Political rap group the Coup also worked a jazz vibe. Armed with a
six-piece band, rapper Boots and DJ Pam the Funkstress swayed from funk
to spoken word to loungy-jazz and back again. They concentrated mostly
on songs from Steal This Album (1998), though they tipped their
hats to their older fans by playing "Gunsmoke" and "Fat Cats, Bigger
Fish" from Genocide and Juice (1994).
The Coup's live show has become tighter since their album release party
late last year. Set opener "The Shipment"
(RealAudio excerpt), for example, has congealed into a hard-hitting intro
song -- it got the entire audience jumping -- while the lengthy ballad,
(RealAudio excerpt) benefited from an infusion of funk energy in the chorus.
The Coup also earned a strong reaction with the uptempo funk of "20,000
Gun Salute," Boots' hyper-quick rapping on "Fixation" and "U.C.P.A.S.,"
which featured an angry cameo by the Sacramento rap duo F.T.S.
And then there was the bra removal while mixing, another in a long line
of pop-culture references to the movie "Flashdance." Only the muses
know how DJ Pam the Funkstress was able take her bra off and pull it
through her sleeve without missing a beat on the Queen Latifah records
she was mixing, but the audience knew enough to give her a loud cheer
when she completed the trick without batting an eyelash or breaking a
"I know girls who can't even do that under normal conditions," Margaret
Kranyak, 38, said after the show.
Not wanting to peak midway through the show, the Coup upped the ante.
While continuing in their jazz-funk groove, they invited trumpet
player Eddie Gale to "battle" DJ Pam the Funkstress. A
call-and-response ensued between the two artists and, by extension,
between jazz and hip-hop. Eddie would blow a complicated note sequence
and Pam would scratch it right back at him. Pam would manipulate the
turntables to hit high and low notes in rapid succession, and Eddie
would repeat the sounds note for note.
The last thing anyone expects from a benefit concert is a night of
experimentation. But Mix Master Mike and the Coup pulled it off. And
they made it look easy.