If only one of Rock the Bells' four rap powerhouses were rolling through Spokane, it would still be a huge event. Amazingly, RtB has maintained touring lineups of major rap figures on the verge of becoming institutions, artists and groups that not only own a significant piece of history, but improbably remain every bit as relevant today as when they first burst on the scene. Illustrating this uncommon feat will be Redman, Raekwon, Smif-N-Wessun and Supernatural, all decorated vets with years in the game and street credibility intact.
The first Wu-Tang member to release a classic solo album, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995) stands up against anything else released in the 1990s. A cocaine hustler of mythical proportions, Raekwon is also a linguistic alchemist, a true rap innovator that changed the game in more ways than one. Near single-handedly popularizing the Mafioso rap style that influenced Nas, Biggie and Jay-Z, Rae cooked up multi-syllabic rhymes drenched in nearly indecipherable slanguage of his own design, suggesting a kingpin playing by his own rules. A descendent of Kool G Rap's highly lyrical gangsterism, Raekwon's contributions to Scarface-inspired hip-hop are crucial.
With Ghostface, Method Man, Masta Killa and several second-tier Wu-crew members releasing excellent albums this year, Raekwon's upcoming Cuban Linx 2 could signal that, indeed, the Wu is back. He recently dropped the blazing "Vatican" mixtape and guested successfully on much of Ghostface's Def Jam debut, Fishscale, proving he's still got fire for the fiends. My favorite proof that Raekwon the Chef is back on point is his Myspace profile picture, wherein he stares down the camera, exhausted and menacing, with cocaine all over his face next to a mountain of fishscale.
From the '90s to today, Redman (Reggie Noble) has never slipped on the microphone. Starting under the wing of legendary pioneers EPMD, he's been known from the get-go as a man who loves dirty funk and purty skunk; his boundless energy has made him a legendary guest star (EPMD's "Headbanger"), group member ("Blackout" with Method Man, continued involvement with Def Squad), and solo artist (his first three albums are classics; the rest are well above average). A perennial source of levity in today's way-too-serious rap world, Redman (with the right label push) has the charisma and skill to save hip-hop.
The secret to his success is that there's no secret: He's really good at what he does. The apparent ease with which he raps eclipses the unparalleled delivery and breath control that make him legendary among die-hard rap fans, but he's content to publicize his personality and keep his ace in the hole. De-emphasizing his rap dexterity by assuming the role of obnoxious party animal, the foil keeps Redman from devolving into a self-obsessed rapper who raps about how great he is. Instead, he's just great.
Members of NYC's fabled Boot Camp Clik, Smif-N-Wessun are true survivors of the gritty, street-level hip-hop scene Wu-Tang brought to the masses. The duo (made up of Tek and Steele, both gun-themed aliases) is raw by way of style, a swirling mess of camouflage, Timberland boots, weed smoke and hooded sweatshirts. From "Dah Shinin'," their '95 classic, through their Rawkus-revival days as Cocoa Brovaz and into their current re-establishment as Smif-N-Wessun, the "Bucktown" favorites have suffered mainstream indifference but enjoyed underground acclaim. Their newest record, Tek and Steele: Reloaded, was a solid contribution to the recent resurgence of Boot Camp Clik's (their crew, along with Black Moon, Buckshot and Heltah Skeltah) label, Duck Down Records.
Due to their uncompromisingly hardcore image (makes people uncomfortable) and gallows humor (makes people feel stupid), label A & amp;Rs, radio program directors and the powers that be at MTV and BET roundly ignore S-N-W. That, coupled with their copyright troubles (concerning their name as well as their "Super Brooklyn" song, an underground smash that sampled Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. music), pretty much relegates these East Coast legends to cult status. Having Da Beatminerz as in-house producers helps with underground approval, but their primary contribution to rap is their furthering of the "Brooklyn as Vietnam" worldview, a savage place where pessimism reigns, everybody rhymes and careers are ended in tenement shadows.
Emceeing the event is Supernatural, the best freestyle rapper in the world. At the San Bernardino Rock the Bells, he freestyled off the top of his head for nine hours, setting a world record. His ability to follow instructions while rhyming is unparalleled, as is his gift for maintaining topical references that guarantee nothing is planned in advance. While many freestyle rappers get caught up in who beat who and who owns which crown, I don't think it's necessary to debate (for the millionth time) whether Supernatural defeated the Craig G. I do not care to discuss his feud with the other best freestyle rapper in the world, Juice. I only wish to expound on this man's gift.
From the same school of rapping that birthed artists like KRS-1 and Akrobatik, Supernatural's voice is big and booming, his speech well-enunciated and easy to understand. He flows simply with linear connections between rhymes, but then again complicated turns of phrase and double entendres are not what Supernat is about. When his beefy frame and wild dreads bounce around the Big Easy's stage, you'll see that Supernatural is a wellspring of hip-hop energy, the essence of the emcee, and a true renaissance man of the microphone. While some Raekwon couplets are bound to puzzle the audience at first and reveal their meaning later, Supernatural's rhymes are immediately impressive. Unlike your stoner friends who tentatively freestyle mini-stanzas in the parking lots of mini-marts, Supernatural raps with concrete-crushing conviction, certain he will not lose his flow's focus. It's an impossible, beautiful thing to behold.
Rock the Bells featuring Raekwon, Redman, Smif-N-Wessun, Supernatural and Dirty Heads at the Big Easy on Monday, Dec. 11, at 8 pm. $28. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT