The Granada on a Wednesday can be a cold and cavernous place for opening acts to do what opening acts should do: Warm up a crowd. So when Kansas City's Greg Enemy walked onstage with merely a microphone and white MacBook in hand, the odds were already against him.
Openers in hip-hop have no instruments to hide behind, no guitar feedback to catch the ear or a flailing drummer for the eye. And openers in independent hip-hop can't even guarantee that the crowd will know their hooks to shout back in affirmation. So, as Greg Enemy slid a worn denim jacket off his meager frame (he's small and raps about it often), the growing Granada crowd clenched Bud Lights in expectation.
"I was going to play a new song, but I don't know if y'all are feeling it," Enemy said, before a voice in the crowd reminded him that all the songs were probably new to them. "That's a very good point," he said, flashing a smile under his thick square glasses. New songs or not, Enemy came through. He rhymed over his own deep-cutting beats with the self-assured dance kicks and toe spins that I only unleash when I'm home alone. In short, he displayed -- to use hip-hop's waning buzzword -- swag. The endearing DIY moment followed each song, when Enemy ran back to his laptop to select his next backing track on iTunes.
The next two acts, Topeka natives Stik Figa and Ebony Tusks, highlighted the debt that Kansas hip-hop owes to its capital city. Joining Stik Figa onstage was his longtime collaborator and DJ, D/Will, who handled beats and played Max Weinberg to Stik Figa's Conan for between-song banter. Stik Figa thanked Lawrence for welcoming him "into y'all's home with peach cobbler," before opening with "Hello" from D/Will and his 2009 LP, Hello and Goodbye.
Looking back, Stik Figa perhaps brought the most mature-sounding flows of the night. His delivery was so tight and well-paced, quick yet articulate, that D/Will cautioned him before a song: "Stik, you better gargle some water. You're gonna need it for this shit." In his set's highlight, Stik Figa invited Greg Enemy to collaborate on "Caked Up," The Pitch's Best Song of 2009.
It's worth nothing that Stik Figa may have been the only person onstage, nay, the whole room, not wearing skinny jeans. "The cool kids are out in full force," a guy behind me quipped.
Then came Ebony Tusks, the stage name of Stik Figa's longtime friend Marty Hillard, whom I met before the show in The Granada's front bar. Hillard introduced himself to me between puffs into a black balloon, with a bag of aired-up ones resting at his feet. The balloons fell en masse at the beginning of his set, to be popped or to float softly for the rest of the night.
Ebony Tusks was backed by his DJ, Morri$, with 20 or so members of Team Bear Club, their Lawrence beat collective, flanking the stage's wings. Morri$ ushered Ebony Tusks through a short set that included the recent and quite excellent release, Midas. The new album showcases Hillard's understated, smooth delivery and raw lyrics (The jungle's hazardous / Guerillas and banana clips) over addictively brooding beats.
Hillard is perhaps most known for playing in Cowboy Indian Bear, but without a guitar and microphone stand to anchor him, he raced around the stage, his iconic-in-Lawrence dreadlocks spinning like chopper wings. Hillard's Cowboy Indian Bear pal Katlyn Conroy grooved behind him onstage, wearing a homemade shirt that read "Ivory Hooves," a no-doubt subtle allusion to a forthcoming Lawrence supergroup, Cowboy Indian Bear Club. (The scene can only hope.)
After Ebony Tusks exited the stage, some Bear Club boys stayed on to DJ the inevitably way-too-long intermission to which headlining acts always feel entitled. One Team Bear Club member made this more bearable, however (pun!), by playing one of those wooden train whistles into the microphone. It was the night's only acoustic instrument.
Das Racist -- Victor Vazquez, Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu -- made way to the stage to the voracious cheers of a now-packed Granada. After giving a shout-out to some kids up front from Lawrence High, Kondabolu mentioned visiting his cousins in Topeka while growing up. "Ask me about their Burger King," he said. (Top City has no combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.) The group opened with "Who's That? Brooown!," the bombastic lead-off from their critically praised Shut Up, Man. The guys darted about the floor like mad, throwing ball caps, playing microphone stands as air guitars, and chugging the 24-pack of Coca-Cola Classic, no doubt on their rider.
Meanwhile, projected footage on a background screen alternated between remixed footage of Rush Limbaugh and a little girl dancing with forest animals. Yet for all the visual stimuli, Das Racist was noticeably the first of three acts to lack a DJ, costing them audible energy. Instead, their tracks were played off a tiny blue Netbook on a nearby table. With three rappers moving and often delivering lines simultaneously, the lyrics sometimes seemed scattered, but when they synced-up, the phrases packed a wallop.
The New Yorker called Das Racist "subtly and insistently political," a quality exemplified when one song, "Rainbow in the Dark" ended with the line about Guantanamo Bay and a projected image of Limbaugh dancing. During one song, as I took the above picture, my camera's flash caught the attention of Kandabolu, who promptly lobbed a half-full can of Bud Light across the crowd, hitting my left leg. "I don't think he wants his picture taken," said the guy next to me. I threw what was left of the can back at Kandabolu, splattering his left leg as well. He shrugged with an impressed nod. Retribution was mine.
Critic's Bias: With a disappointingly short set, Das Racist seemed anti-climactic following the vast showcase of talent in the local acts. Topeka to KC, represent.
Critic's Notebook: OMG, Das Racist just pelted me with a beer can!
Rough Set List:
"Who's That? Brooown!"
"Rapping 2 U"
"You Can Sell Anything"
"You Oughtta Know"
"Rainbow in the Dark"