Compton-born rapper Ice Cube probably already knew the answer, but he asked the question anyway at the Greek Theatre on Sunday : “Is this an old school crowd or a new school crowd?”
The old schoolers bellowed louder, of course. Cube, founding member of N.W.A and a platinum solo star before becoming a well-known actor, was touring as part of the Kings of the Mic tour, a retro-focused, self-described "real hip hop" show also starring De La Soul, Public Enemy and headliner (and fellow actor) LL Cool J.
Combined, the nearly four-hour concert, the closing night of a 26-date American tour, seamlessly delivered beats and rhymes that when originally released helped chart a course for rap as it was maturing from a New York trend into a multi-faceted, sophisticated genre.
Fans traveled through the Daisy Age and beyond with De La Soul, visited the Terrordome with Public Enemy, rode with Ice Cube by Fatburger at 2 a.m. during “It Was a Good Day.” LL Cool J and DJ Z-Trip vowed to never return to Cali -- on stage in Cali.
And though their middles are thicker and their features more pronounced, the rappers proved that a quarter-century on the road will make for assured gigs. This is especially true of artists who spent their early careers fighting a concert industry that was wary (to put it politely) of investing in their talent.
In fact, though this was by all means a nostalgic return to an era of "real hip-hop," Kings of the Mic should also be noted as a celebration of artists whose tours in the mid- and late-1980s helped break out rap music as a national phenomenon.
Public Enemy and N.W.A, for example, performed together as far back as 1988, when rap tours were rare and not only brought legions of new fans to witness the music live for the first time but also drew uptight police harboring ill will toward rappers who criticized them on stage and on record. (My first rap concert was as a teen in St. Louis, when Kool Moe D, Eric B & Rakim, Ice T and Doug E. Fresh performed despite fierce concern on the part of the police and local media.)
Ditto LL Cool J and fellow former Def Jam Records labelmates Run DMC, whose work pushing beats throughout America and onto MTV helped make Jay-Z's upcoming Rose Bowl performance possible. DMC, in fact, joined LL onstage for a medley of Run DMC tracks.
Alone on stage, headliner LL, 45, looked as powerful as ever and deserves respect (or, depending on your vantage point, critique) for pushing hip-hop off the streets and into the bedroom. Few rappers, in fact, have bridged gaps as successfully as the artist born James Todd Smith has, as DJ Z-Trip, an expert performer in his own right, reminded fans during his intro. LL backed it up with a set that included "Mama Said Knock You Out," "Radio" and, of course, "Going Back to Cali."
Public Enemy, also alumni of Def Jam, offered timeless power that, depressingly, still rings true today: "911 is a joke," rapped Flava Flav while the fans screamed along. Chuck D railed against commercial radio for ignoring their music, dissed BET for ignoring older MCs during the TV station's annual awards ceremony and punched at an unnamed critic who suggested this tour consisted of has-beens.
Earlier, De La Soul, whose debut album, “3 Feet High and Rising,” remains one of the most important hip-hop albums of the genre’s first decade, accepted the challenge of being openers. Delivering classics including “Buddy,” “Oooh” and “Potholes in My Lawn,” the trio from Long Island playfully, joyfully chided the Los Angeles crowd to its feet early on and helped keep the packed house standing.
This being Los Angeles, though, the evening belonged to Ice Cube, who had home field advantage. Running through tracks from throughout his career while video clips and photos of he and his peers in their youth played above, the artist born O'Shea Jackson pushed as if he had something to prove.
He did. Now 44, Ice Cube, like LL Cool J, is better known for his acting in TV and film (and, he jokingly reminded people, as a Coors Light pitch-man) than for running the streets of Compton. But you wouldn't know it from his energy and fury on his classics, which on Sunday included "Check Yo Self," "Natural Born Killers" and a few of his verses from N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton" album, as well as Westside Connection's "Gangsta Nation."
Lyrically, Cube traded mostly in delivering bad news via expert flow. But a classic feel-good track made the biggest dent -- of course. On "It Was a Good Day," released a few years after the 1991 riots, captured an L.A. trying to heal by focusing on the positive -- getting drunk (but "no throwing up"), smoking weed, playing basketball (and getting a triple-double), gambling, watching "Yo! MTV Raps," and having sex.
Granted, Ice Cube's pager, which he described as "blowing up" in 1993, has long been retired, and the Lakers can no longer beat the Supersonics because they're now the Oklahoma City Thunder. But few at the Greek could argue that Sunday concluded as anything but a very good day.
Twitter / @liledit