Turntables and a glockenspiel?

For weeks, I had been waiting to ask the guys in Blackalicious one question: “What do you think of modern hip-hop, and how do you see yourselves fitting into this structure?” Talking to the kings of underground hip-hop, I expected — and wanted — Blackalicious MC Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel to bash the shameless antics of modern hip-hop, claiming Blackalicious itself to be an alternative to mainstream rap.

Chief Xcel said nothing of the sort. “We’re 20-year veterans,” he explained. “I don’t even consider us fitting into modern hip-hop; we are modern hip-hop. If anything, hip-hop fits into us,” he boasted. Although his confidence may come across as arrogance, it is more a sign of risks taken, innovations made, and challenges overcome throughout his career. And from the minute the lights dimmed at AB Concerts’ fall performance Friday night, Blackalicious played with the energy, bounce, and confidence of true 20-year veterans.

Storming the stage with an infectious flow and a maniacal smile between verses, Gift of Gab bobbed, strutted, and waved through politically-charged tunes like “Paragraph President.” His voice, building in intensity and tension, finally escalated to a scream as he shouted, “I pledge allegiance to the pen and the pad and the mic!” After a crowd-pleasing freestyle from Gab, Xcel pulled out the hard rock-influenced “Supreme People.” The crowd bobbed their heads in time with the ever-thumping backbeat that barreled through the subwoofers and echoed off of Wiegand Gymnasium’s ceilings. In “Your Move,” Gift of Gab rapped with Twista speed, Nas grit, and Eric Sermon flow. Combined with his own catchy, West Coast hook (including the soulful “You’ve Got to Groove”), Gab created a brilliant mixture of the now-polarized music form. In “Deception,” off 2002’s NIA, the crowd joined Gift of Gab in humming the chorus’ “la-di-da-da-da-di-da” in not-so-perfect harmony (but blissful nonetheless), bringing smiles to long-time Blackalicious fans and newcomers alike.

The climax of the show, though it came earlier than expected, was simply fantastic. It happened during “Rhythm Sticks,” a brooding, eerie track with subtle drum syncopations cracking behind Gift of Gab’s acronym-based rhymes about the name of Blackalicious. Gab got the crowd jumping with hands in the air while the beat pounded away, bringing the energy in the gymnasium to an impossibly high peak.

“We love playing at colleges,” Chief Xcel said backstage before the show. “It’s a naturally creative, thinking, and fertile environment.” It sure seemed like students here at Carnegie Mellon loved them, too.
Despite doubts that the difference in act styles between Blackalicious and opener Andrew Bird would cause some audience confusion, students were receptive to Bird’s bizarre, yet creative, live show. With a violin resting on his arm, a vintage Gibson electric guitar slung over his shoulder, and a glockenspiel at his side, Bird and drummer Martin Dosh eased their way through a slew of originals, including “Skin,” a samba-influenced groove with touches of whistling and plucked violin. During the show’s energetic opener, “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” Bird raked double-stops on his violin and Dosh pounded on the drum kit with snappy brushes as the crowd bobbed and cheered along.

Of those who knew Bird’s records but had never seen him live, many were surprised at the discrepancy between his recordings and his concerts; Bird is notorious for performing songs on stage differently from the way they are on the record. “Would you rather see a show with people taking risks, or playing exactly what’s on the record?” asked Bird after the show. And even though it seemed at times like he could have used a bigger band behind him to add depth to his compositions, Bird enjoyed the liberty of having just him and a drummer. “It gives me a lot more freedom, and keeps me on my toes,” he said. Bird definitely seemed to be on his toes throughout, laying down bluesy violin lines and then quickly switching to guitar riffs. Bird was once a violin performance major at Northwestern University, and even now he is far more proficient on violin than on any other instrument (voice included). Throughout the show, Bird’s eclectic arsenal of music was a step in the right direction for both of the boxed-in indie rock and singer-songwriter genres.

Even though ticket sales weren’t up to par with last year’s fall concert (the gym was only slilghtly over half filled), Friday night’s show was a “success for AB Concerts and also CMU,” according to AB Concerts co-president, Eileen Angulo, a junior psychology major. She added, “We may not have had a sold-out show, but when four-fifths of the tickets sold go to CMU students who are moved enough out of their element to dance, jump, and even scream at a concert, we’ve done our job.” Agreed. Now, onto Spring Carnival… Arcade Fire, anyone?