This is how a night can and should play out in hip-hop’s new summer season: Scores of rappers descending on the physical center of it’s universe while remaining seemingly oblivious to the worlds colliding around them, only allowing brief moments of awareness to focus on the world they’ve created for themselves.
Converse Rubber Tracks, the Brooklyn recording studio/performance space/linchpin in the new era of self-sufficiency in the local music scene, has been at the forefront of creating these platforms for up-and-coming musicians to obtain—or create—their own statements and paths to artistic vindication. Said vindication coming in the form of finally recording your band’s EP outside of your uncle’s basement or, as was proposed in a recent show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in the form of a star-making performance in what might have been considered as the “other” important rap show happening in New York that night.
A bridge away from Manhattan’s Best Buy Theatre, where XXL was hosting the inaugural-ceremony for its annual Freshmen List, Converse Rubber Tracks hosted the latest edition of it’s live concert series, a showcase that has become increasingly less about savvy product placement and more about putting together a damn good show. The featured guests, Phony Ppl, the Brooklyn hip-hop (but pop and r&b and soul and…and…) band and Iamsu!, the Bay Area everyman that is isn't like any man, tell two different stories both sonically and on their respective roads to commercial viability—yet both offered equally assured arguments supporting their roles in the future of mainstream rap.
At their core, both have an unmistakable allegiance to the traditions of their respective locales, using what is known to work without being emulative to the point of owing a spiraling amount of debt.
Phony Ppl's storyline begins at band camp (as in, the summer arts destination, not the online music host), most likely with a conversation about a girl. Harmoniously and poetically they have had a slower road to omnipresence than might have been assumed when they first surfaced on Tumblrs throughout many a Brooklyn IP address with their 2012 mixtape, Phonyland. However, there are different rules that you can apply when you subscribe to being a band and not a rap group/artist collective/talentless social-media darling. Rule 1: Go away and get better. Rule 2: See Rule 1.
Two years ago, they could have easily been dismissed as little more than a sartorially gifted Roots knock-off. What appeared on stage was a mature, polished, and poised assemblage of musicians that commanded half a house with a chemistry only known amongst brothers. Sharing the stage with equal parts buoyancy and calculated inhibition, frontmen Elbee Thrie and Sheriff PJ loosely traversed through a scaled version of their catalog, ranging from Phonyland to the Elbee Thrie’s solo offering, 53,000, and culminating with selections from their as-yet-titled forthcoming album.
Loose, varying tones and textures with a perfect amount of mid-set shenanigans, I'd say that a year from now, we could be placing Phony Ppl finely within a lineage of organically driven bands with a mind for melody and a personality built for television. The comparisons this time around coming with a similar degree of anxious optimism.
Where Phony Ppl used the nights stage as a familiar sharpening board, testing old and new recipes on a familiar home crowd, Iamsu! approached the stage with a celebratory sense of urgency to his performance, immediately pocketing the crowd with a set that aggressively included a sampling of the current Hot97 playlist and could easily lay claim to the argument that the Richmond, CA native might very well be the commercial breakthrough act of 2014. A chubby-cheeked smile shining off an affability that draws you in through the hazed wash of auto-tune and synths, Su was one of the more noteworthy omissions from XXL’s list. Though the artist humbly accepted his place amongst the excluded, many of his fans and supporters used Su’s presence on the radio as reason enough to call foul. His performance transformed the floor from a friendly ‘Burg jam session into a championship parade that would and could possibly one day be be, down to the light amounts of confetti that appeared after every song, possibly from a loose bag in the ceiling.
Iamsu!’s setlist doubles as a “He’s On This Too?!” Jeopardy category: John Hart’s “Who Booty” (peaked at #20 R&B), E-40’s “Function” (#22 Rap), LoveRance’s “Up!” (#2 R&B). All of these radio staples inter-spliced between his own growing number of hits off of his independently released projects, Kilt 2 and his first single, “Only That Real” from his recently released album, Sincerely Yours (HBK Gang). Instantly enjoyable. Sneakingly lovable. A deceptive amount of lyrical candor placed within the bloop-bleep-bloop-bloop-bleep of the music that would act as a distress signal across the East River to any rap fan looking for a safe haven where reclined backs, twisting shoulders, and flailing arms were received with full amnesty. Su lead into every song with more energy than the previous, yet found enough control to thank the crowd for their support, resting back into the blissful obliviousness of his world. The DJ cued he and fellow HBK Gang comrade Sage The Gemini’s ubiquitous smash, “Gas Pedal”… just as every other DJ spinning at any show in any city most likely did at some point that night.
“Wow, it’s so crazy I can come all the way to New York and you guys know the words to the songs. That’s real,” he said with that same inviting grin. “Let’s keep it going."
Ugi Ugwuomo is a music and culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @RLfNowhere