ANAHEIM — LL Cool J, no gangsta rapper he, came to Southern California, heartland of gang-inspired rap, and got dissed with a big orange salute.
It wasn't a gang salute. In fact, if there were any gang members present Saturday night at the Celebrity Theatre, they were on good behavior. Other than the usual delays that stretched three acts playing two hours of music into a 3 1/2-hour marathon, the evening went off without a problem.
That was a welcome development, since this was the first show by a black rap headliner at the Celebrity since a nonfatal shooting took place just outside the theater during a December, 1990, concert by Ice Cube, the Los Angeles gangsta rapper. Anaheim Police Sgt. Kirt Robertson reported after the Cool J show that everything had been "nice and quiet."
Which brings us back to that taunting show of colors. The salute was made in unison by 1,700 or more empty orange theater seats.
Cool J, one of the most enduring and steady-selling figures in rap since he came on the scene more than eight years ago, played to a sparse house that appeared to occupy fewer than a third of the Celebrity's 2,500 seats (at $26.50 per ticket, price might have had something to do with the low turnout).
Under those daunting conditions, the 25-year-old rapper, whose real name is James Todd Smith, showed why he has had staying power in a genre known for its fickle shifts in fashions and tastes.
In a word, Cool J was a trouper.
Never mind the size of the audience--he worked it hard, doing his best to rouse the fans with his quick-paced show. Dressed in a warm-up suit and Michael Jordan basketball jersey, Cool J roamed the double-tiered stage set and barked his rhymes in a husky, trenchant voice.
In terms of clarity and bite, Cool J is probably the most technically adept MC in all of rap, and his hourlong performance backed that up.
The use of a sharp live drummer banging synth-drum pads helped give some freedom to the rhythms and allowed Cool J to make quick shifts in dynamics and pace.
The six-man backing unit offered a full sound, but its electric bassist and keyboards player spent most of their time merely accentuating the beat. They could have done a lot more to enrich the mix with melody.
In concert, despite the live instruments, Cool J remained strictly "old school" with his rhymes-and-rhythms approach.
His choice of material also was backward-looking. Cool J has developed to the point where his latest album, "14 Shots to the Dome," includes a couple of strong, pointed social commentaries. But onstage, he offered a thematically conservative program of boasts, energy, sex and romance--just the good-time stuff he was serving up in his teens.
Playing to a predominantly female audience, he milked the romantic angle, doling out long-stemmed roses and serving up his dreamy 1987-vintage ballad, "I Need Love."
Oddly, in this number devoted to romancing, Cool J also went in for rabble rousing, hollering at the crowd to make noise and fire up the old butanes. Somehow, it added up to a nice moment in which Cool J, through the force of his own brash self-assertion, managed to generate a sense of community with the audience.
It was only at the end of the show that he let on he had been bothered by the small turnout.
"We gonna do this again, and you gonna tell your friends that I ripped this (expletive)," he growled, claiming victory on a night that could have been one to forget. Those empty seats tried to dis him, but Cool J kept his dignity by being a pro.
Second-billed H-Town is a purported harmony trio from Houston that rarely blended harmoniously in its 45-minute set. A bland lead voice, inept secondary singers, torpid material (only the hit "Knockin' Da Boots," has a melody line you can remember after the song is over) and a pedestrian backing band spelled doom for these proteges of 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell.
H-Town's threesome communicated most effectively to their admirers with pelvic thrusts and by dropping their trousers and gyrating in their skivvies during the climactic "Knockin' Da Boots." Somebody tell these guys that there is nothing more ridiculous than the sight of a grown man with his pants around his ankles.
DRS (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is a Los Angeles vocal ensemble that claims to be the first gangsta singing group. Thankfully, its 15-minute opening set barely allowed it to touch on the exploitative purported realism about street mayhem that dominates its debut album.
Instead, DRS served up a couple of plaintive ballads, one of them, "Gangsta Lean," a dirge for dead homies. The group's lead baritone singer (there were no introductions) displayed a husky ardor that called to mind Eddie Levert of the O'Jays. Here's hoping that he finds more artistic material to sing than DRS typically musters.
The album includes a track called "Strip" (omitted in concert) that is a vile and brutish justification of date rape. Spare us the explanations about it showing "reality," or it not applying to "those who were legitimately raped" (now there's a felicitous combination of words for you), as a Capitol Records press release about DRS attempts to do.
In the song, a man demands sex as his due for an expensive date, grabs it when it is not forthcoming, and invites his friends to join in. The song does not find anything wrong with this. The song is trash.