Anyone who thinks hip-hop suffers in a live setting would have done well to attend "All City," a free, all-ages show presented as part of Festival Sundiata at Seattle Center last Saturday. "You're not home, not on the Internet—you're live and direct!" observed Wordsayer, the concert's organizer, and none in the diverse crowd of several hundred could disagree.
Earlier, he had explained that the concert was an attempt to present three of the four elements of hip-hop (DJing, MCing, and b-boy/b-girling, a.k.a. break dancing) to the larger Seattle citizenry. But graffiti writing, the fourth element, was there in spirit, from the presence of old-school writer Specs, who sat quietly onstage observing the proceedings, to the show's title itself.
"'All City' is a term that was coined by graffiti writers in the early '70s in New York for someone who was recognized—their style was recognized—outside of their particular borough," explained Wordsayer. "I'm trying to make a symbolic connection with these crews, giving them an opportunity, since it is a citywide festival, for them to be recognized by people all over the city.
"That's really what the theme is about," he continued. "'Cause you wanted to put your tightest piece on a train that was all-city. Because that represented you, wherever it went. And not only did that represent you, but that represented what borough you were from."
Things began with the traditional record-wrecking talents of DJs Topspin and E-Rok. The live element was brought to the fore when E-Rok threw on the 1987 classic "Eric B. Is President": b-boys and b-girls around the room took that as their cue to begin popping, floor-rocking, and battling, in dance circles that would splinter and reform for the remainder of the evening.
First on the bill was Double Vision, who presented thoughtful rhymes over DJ Bean One's melodic beats. Next up was Oracles Creed, who performs what would at one time have been called "hard-core" hip-hop. Aside from the intensity of the music (which often included all five MCs rhyming in unison), the audience also responded to its copious crowd-hyping strategies, which included frequent requests that "all the stupid people be quiet!"
Then came Beyond Reality—clearly a crowd favorite—led by Kylea, from Jasiri Media Group. In addition to Negus I's always tasteful beats and the supportive collaboration of Wordsayer, this performance also featured some live flute, as well as the stage debut of Upendo Selassie, Kylea and Wordsayer's 6-month-old son. At this point in the show, you couldn't help but feel the family atmosphere; during Beyond Reality's set, I counted no less than seven young children on stage, several of whom were playing maracas or holding microphones in apparent anticipation of lucrative rap careers.
For some reason, the show's headliners, the Micranots (who hail from Atlanta), performed fourth out of the six scheduled acts, but no one seemed to be complaining. The group, which consists of MC I-Self and DJ Kool Akiem, performed with the confidence of experienced crowd-rockers. They were soon mixing complex, uplifting lyrics with fiendishly clever beats, several of which were creative reconfigurations of hip-hop classics like "Nobody Beats the Biz." The Micranots' sincerity and commitment were apparent from the moment they stepped on stage, and the audience reacted accordingly. Plus, at one point I-Self was rhyming into three microphones simultaneously. I didn't understand it, but it sure looked cool.
Any concerns about whether the remaining groups would be able to follow the Micranots were immediately put to rest by Piece of Sol, a three-woman crew who presented powerfully intellectual hip-hop rhyming and poetry that seemed to break over the crowd in waves. If you doubt the depth, let me just say that one of the MCs actually rocked "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Messenger" in Arabic. The evening wound down with Footprints, who played (through no fault of their own) to a dwindling crowd that had already experienced more than three hours of high-intensity hip-hop.
On the way out, I ran into DJ E-Rok. "Be sure to mention the three diehards in the front," he advised me, referring to a group of young adults whose unflagging exuberance actually startled several of the evening's performers; who reminded me of how much minors appreciate the rare opportunity to see live hip-hop; whose ethnic balance seemed almost as if it had been contrived by an ad agency; and who easily could have won a gold medal if "synchronized jumping up and down" were a recognized Olympic event. Consider it done.