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POP MUSIC REVIEW

It Beats Two Turntables and a Microphone

July 25, 1996|CHEO HODARI COKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pop world may be looking at the Smokin' Grooves tour as a test of rap music's viability as a major player on the concert front.

For the estimated 6,000 young fans who danced and cheered through most of the nearly five-hour show Tuesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, however, it was simply a night of celebration and fun.

And that spirit began on this peaceful but party-minded night shortly after 8 when the true spirit of hip-hop raised its Kangol-capped head and began capturing the imagination of the multiracial audience.

The verbal art form was personified by Busta Rhymes, a lanky, muscular man with wild dreadlocks and a long overcoat who appeared to be hot-wired into the sound board--arms flying, body jerking, rapid-fire lyrics and grunts shooting out of his mouth like sparks.

When Rhymes--whose "Woo-hah! Got You All in Check" was a recent No. 1 single--moved his arms forward, the crowd reacted as if shocked by an electric wire.

"Wrrraaagh," the Long Island rapper screamed as he began his set, racing around the stage with the jubilance of a man who had just broken free of chains. Perhaps he was toasting a breakthrough for a branch of music that has been virtually shut out of the pop world's major concert venues, despite its enormous success on record.

Because of some widely publicized security problems in the '80s, major concert promoters around the country have tended to avoid the genre. That opened the doors for inexperienced promoters who gave rap a bad name among the industry and fans because of poor production qualities, including lighting and sound.

But Tuesday's show was a model of efficiency and punch. The House of Blues-sponsored extravaganza lived up to its promise to back some of the hottest names in hip-hop with excellent staging and effects.

"Three hundred sixty degrees of raw ghetto talent is on the stage tonight," said Fugees leader Wyclef Jean during the group's set. "Michael Jackson couldn't be here tonight, but we have A Tribe Called Quest. Prince & the Revolution couldn't be here tonight, but we have Busta Rhymes."

*

The quality of the performances matched the production values. Maybe we've seen the end of the days when hip-hop groups walk on stage without a deejay and perform for 20 minutes with members of the posse on stage doing nothing but glaring at the crowd. One hit song and a halfhearted waving of the hands does not a live show make.

After Call of Da Wild's and Spearhead's brief, relatively tepid opening sets, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest turned in entertaining, energetic performances.

But it was the Fugees and Cypress Hill, with their flashy backdrops and lights, that conveyed an ambition that represents the future of live hip-hop. Musically, both groups delivered their funky, roots-based sounds with an effective combination of live instruments and deejay scratching.

At one point during Cypress Hill's dynamic workout, the mosh pit welled with so much energy that it looked as if a fight had broken out. Instead, the fans were slam-dancing, which is usually seen only at rock shows.

By this time, the audience seemed so drained that almost half of the fans were heading for the exits before Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers ended the night on a mellow note. That's too bad, because the reggae artists were the evening's best musicians.

Overall, Smokin' Grooves demonstrates that rap, when presented correctly, can stand alongside the rest of pop in the nation's leading venues. The most liberating moment came when Bobby Brown, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip all embraced on stage during Tribe's set--as if aware of the importance and beauty of the evening.

* The Smokin' Grooves tour plays Sept. 2 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 5 p.m. $20-$32. (714) 855-4515.

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