An unmistakable old-school vibe permeated Zune's free BBQ concert in Chicago's Union Park yesterday. It was like a laid-back street-corner party circa 1978, only with a considerably stronger emphasis on building brand awareness of Microsoft-engineered portable MP3 players and more people taking pictures with their cell phones. The whole giddy fandango was imbued with the spirit not only of '78 but also of '88, that halcyon Golden Year when hip hop hit its creative peak, and '98, when Rawkus dominated the underground landscape and offered an invigorating alternative to the shiny suits and 2Pac wannabes ruling mainstream rap.
When Rawkus golden boys Mos Def and Talib Kweli performed "Respiration" to an ecstatic, almost hyperventilating crowd the excitement was widespread and palpable. It was downright transcendent, a high water mark that unfortunately ensured that everything that followed seemed faintly anti-climactic, particularly a sometimes brilliant but wildly uneven Mos Def set that combined classic nineties material (yay!) and lots of newer songs (non-yay!).
But first audiences were treated to barbecue, a selection of games that ran the gamut from Dominoes to Chutes and Ladders and a tent where hip hop heads could rock out to Guitar Hero and try out the Microsoft Zune. You could literally feel brand awareness growing with each passing moment. But the real attraction was the music and oh what a lineup it was! After openers Qualo, North Carolina's Phonte Maxwell and Big Pooh of Little Brother solidified their standing as two of the most agile, exuberant fat men in the business with a wonderfully animated performance that combined favorites from The Listening and The Minstrel Show with more obscure cuts like "Life Of The Party", an ingratiatingly self-deprecating riff on the highs and lows of indie-rap semi-stardom and being "only the most famous rapper in your apartment complex". After the performance I caught up with Phonte and Big Pooh for an impromptu mini-interview in the press tent you'll hopefully be seeing in some form in the near future. They're a group in a profound state of flux but hot damn do they put on a good show.
Neo-soul super-genius Bilal followed with a scorching half-hour set that left the crowd panting for more. At an advanced level soul music isn't just an unbeatable soundtrack for sex: it is sex and Bilal enveloped the audience in an ecstatic post-coital haze, vamping his way through extended, seductive takes on "Sometimes" and "Soul Sista" and a few newer songs.
It's not easy following an act like that but Talib Kweli gave it his all, performing lots of tracks from his stellar forthcoming CD (call it a comeback: it's his best album in years) and ceding the spotlight frequently to Jean Grae, one of the first signings to his Blacksmith label.
After a mind-blowing beginning Mos Def's solo set and Black Starry joint gig with Kweli was full of highs, lows and creamy middles. Def seemed a little lost performing new songs but won the crowd back with sterling versions of "Ms. Fat Booty" and "Umi Says" as well as a smattering of Black Star favorites. Also, he totally quoted from Melvin Van Peebles' Don't Play Us Cheap and sang "Leaving On A Jet Plane". That was kind of awesome. You can't go home again but the Zune BBQ nevertheless resurrected the goodtimey vibe of hip hop's past in service of promoting today's miracle technology.