ARTS

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May 4, 2004

Def Jux showcases hottest in independent hip-hop

"Hey, freak show."

The Spanish-tinged voice coming from the car was anything but friendly. "You ain't from around here. Where you going, amigo?"

I looked around and shrugged.

"The Logan Square Auditorium. Got a hip-hop show to see," I replied warily. An eyebrow was raised. "Yeah, it's a Def Jux thing—Mr. Lif, Murs, Akrobatik, you know—good stuff," I continued gingerly. For the first time in years, I didn't feel like being a smartass.

The man nodded and softened a little, looking stoically at his lit cigarette. He thought a minute, weighed his words carefully, and then turned back to me.

"Fix your hat," he said, and drove off down the dimly-lit boulevard. I took a breath and just kept walking.

Logan Square is one of those in-flux neighborhoods on the edge of the gentrified fringe found in Chicago's near West Side. Filled with an odd mix of check-cashing places, taquerías, neon-lit Baptist churches, and the odd hipster boutique, Logan Square is not quite white bread enough to lure the Wicker Park yuppies away from their sterile enclaves while remaining just dangerous enough to justify an increased police presence and lower rents.

It is here that you can find one of the most unlikely venues for a hip-hop show on the face of the earth—namely, the Logan Square Auditorium. Appearing for all the world like a small-town Elks lodge ripped bodily out of some podunk Nebraska hamlet, this cavernous all-ages venue oozes with all the stylistic hallmarks of our grandparents' generation—albeit in a much dingier, dilapidated fashion.

Owing in no small part to its close association with the Empty Bottle, the Logan Square Auditorium generally specializes in all-ages indie-rock shows, not hip-hop of any stripe. However, as hard times make for unlikely bedfellows, the underground hip-hop and indie-rock scenes share a curious affinity for each other.

And so, I arrived with high hopes for a commingling of the two independent scenes. After trudging up several flights of stairs and offering my ticket, I turned to enter the gaping maw of the auditorium. Sadly, I discovered that the sparse crowd had already separated into groups instantly familiar to anyone who has ever attended a junior high dance.

4th Pyramid, the evening's first act, was charged with the unfortunate task of riling up this very awkward crowd. Hailing from the mean streets of Toronto, 4th Pyramid combined a raspy, unwieldy flow with the brash chest beatings of such legendary partiers as Slick Rick or Snoop Dogg. Unfortunately, 4th Pyramid's set contained few songs as memorable as those laid down by his hedonistic precursors—living proof that even a label as stocked with talent as Def Jux is bound to possess a few less-than-stellar acts.

Taking the stage for a brief between-sets interlude was legendary DJ Fakts One, who warmed up the anemic crowd with some brief turntable heroics before inviting SS Smash to take the stage. A duo from the surprisingly fertile Ohio hip-hop scene, SS Smash was also more interested in partying and getting impaired than with presenting sociopolitical commentary. However, their high-energy set, combined with the excellent beats spun by DJ Fakts One, made for a much better crowd reaction. Irreverent, irrepressible, and a hell of a lot of fun, SS Smash was the unheralded dark horse of the evening.

Without giving us a moment to catch our breath, SS Smash departed, replaced by two of the East Coast's most beloved underground MCs, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik. Combined with DJ Fakts One, these three hip-hop avengers are known as The Perceptionists.

Starting off the set chanting "where are the weapons of mass destruction? We been lookin' for months and ain't found nothing" to a thunderous backbeat, the Perceptionists made it abundantly clear that both booty shaking and soul searching would be in line for the evening.

Aided by an extensive catalog of hits, Mr. Lif and Akrobatic put on a blazing display of linguistic ability matched only by the incredible musicianship of DJ Fakts One. Switching songs mid-verse, spontaneously free-styling on topics ranging from the incredibly bright stage lights to race relations, the Perceptionists' performance was proof of hip-hop's ability to be poetic, intelligent, and even sexy, all within the span of a single song.

Unfortunately, many in the lamentably thin crowd had only come to see the Perceptionists, leaving the headliner, Southern California's Murs, with a much more "intimate" crowd. Murs, touring in support of his critically acclaimed LP 3:16, seemed to take this unfortunate development calmly, gliding onstage in a pair of pajamas, an undershirt, and his trademark devilish goatee to introduce his compatriots, the Living Legends.

Consisting of legendary Digital Underground alumnus/keyboardist Shock G and fellow West Coast rapper Scarab, Murs and the Living Legends specialize in breaking new sonic ground. Like a mad scientist mixing drum-and-bass beats, West Coast G-funk, and the Peanuts theme, Shock G mixed up a potent sonic cocktail, using Scarab's scruffily smart-ass verses as garnish. However, the real star of the set was the talented Murs, who bounded and strolled by turns, shifting from unapologetically (though charmingly) juvenile to sly social commentator at the drop of a hat.

Bantering with the audience, performing wickedly funny skits with the rest of the Living Legends between songs, and leaping like a hip-hop Sid Vicious, Murs proved to be an excellent closer for an exhausting evening with a lousy crowd.