Common, Talib Kweli, Gang Starr | The Fillmore | San Francisco, CA | 03.16.03

Walking up to The Fillmore was a different experience this time. The anxiety of great music about to come was still there, but the crowd and the vibe was a bit different. People were coming from all over the Bay Area to see one of the most amazing hip-hop bills in recent history, which included Gang Starr, Talib Kweli, and Common.

All three of these artists rank exceptionally high on an ever-growing list of hip-hop artists. But what tends to set the likes of these men apart is their almost never-bending air of consciousness. Furthermore, this triple bill of head fruit offered a recent history of where this conscious hip-hop began, and where it is going.

Gang Starr, which is two men — Guru (Keith Elam) and DJ Premier — dropped Step In The Arena back in 1991, setting the standard for what was to come. The jazzed-out beats of Premier and the smooth, social-heavy lyrics of Guru brought the duo heaps of respect and paved a road that they are still walking today.

From Gang Starr, Guru went onto record a solo album, Jazzmataz Vol. 1, and in doing so opened up the doors to a huge audience. While Guru went off on his own, Premier did the same, becoming a highly coveted producer for superstars such as the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z, and KRS-One. So needless to say, when I saw these hip-hop icons OPENING a show right here in my backyard, I was there!

Gang Starr started off the set with "Code Of The Streets," coming off their album Hard to Earn (1994). Guru and Premier held the stage for the first few songs, busting out a few more classics highlighted by their most famous ode "Who's Gonna Take The Weight?" Somewhere along the lines, Guru brought out another MC who added some bass heavy rhymes on top of Premiers bumpin' beats.

In line with the history lesson that seemed to be the focus of the evening, both Guru and DJ Premier kept referring to old school hip-hop, dropping the names of a few legends like Biggie and De La Soul. While I could have easily dealt with a bit more from Gang Starr, their set was strong, but relatively short.

This dream line-up of headliners was punctuated by great DJs spinning some of that old-school hip-hop, such as Run DMC, Black Sheep, Mos Def, Biggie, etc. The DJs did a good job of keeping the crowd into the music and waiting for the next set, and there was never a moment when my ears didn't have beats ringing through them.

In keeping with the lesson at hand (hip-hop's history) Gang Starr served as the roots and history of what is currently growing around our feet, while Talib Kweli is the future. Kweli always rhymes about the right things. He is as conscious as they come and his message is full of positive images and mind expansion. Kweli clearly possesses the rare ability to keep a crowd mesmerized while educating and affecting all the while. Kweli is a Brooklyn native. His parents are both educators, which has obvious influences running through his lyrics. In fact it seems clear that Kweli is an educator as well, enlightening those from all walks of life, whether they realize it or not. This thirst for knowledge runs through all areas of Kweli, even through his name. “Talib” is an Arabian name meaning "the seeker or student," while his last name is a Ghanaian name meaning "of truth or knowledge." Kweli was always gifted at writing, honing his skills for friends and himself. In high school, he met a guy named Dante Smith, who later became Mos Def, and they shared their passion for hip-hop. They would go down to Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan and battle the other aspiring hip-hop artists.

In 1994, Kweli met DJ Hi-Tek (Tony Cottrell) who was in a group called Mood. Hi-Tek was instantly impressed with Kweli's style and decided to tap his voice for one of Mood's albums called Doom. Later Mood Hi-Tek and Kweli became Reflection Eternal, before adding Mos Def to the mix and giving birth to the renowned group (and self-titled album) Black Star.

In the late ‘90s, most rap artists were spitting rhymes about money, cars, guns, and degrading women. Kweli and Mos Def gave birth to a new kind of hip-hop. They were talking about real issues that mattered, and were concerned with their communities, not just their crews. They rhymed about love, social well-being, and politics backed with intricate, highly developed beats. Kweli's words are not the only thing that is inspiring; his actions are too. Late in 1998, he and Mos Def purchased an old bookstore in Brooklyn and converted it into the Nkiru Center for Education and Culture. It is a non-profit organization that promotes literacy and multicultural awareness.

By 2000, Kweli and Hi-Tek recorded another inspiring album called Reflection Eternal. In 2002, Kweli headlined his first solo tour, promoting his new album Quality. Still supporting this marvelous album, Kweli gave a performance at The Fillmore that was just as impressive as his headlining gig back at the Great American Music Hall a few months ago.

Talib Kweli came out with his incredible beat-man, DJ Chapps, who makes spinning records look like a sport as he hits records under his leg and around his back, never even coming close to missing a note. Kweli also came equipped with two female vocalists off Quality who filled out a warm and wonderful sound.

He sang some of his old songs such as "Love Language," "Africa Dream," and "Move Somethin'," mixing them with some new ones like "Get By," and the guitar heavy rocker "Rush." His performance was inspirational and very tight, but it was not only Kweli but also Chapps who would shine, both as back-up and lead man. He is certainly one of the more talented DJs in the game.

Kweli is continuing to grow as a hip-hop artist. People not only love his beats, but resonate with what he has to say. His message is strong and compelling, and with a man like Kweli leading the charge, we might have reason for hope.

Thus far we have witnessed the roots of hip-hop and taken a glance at the future. In the middle is a man at the top of his game, touching more people than ever and showing no signs of slowing down.

Common stands tall in every way possible: stature, clout, ability and vision. Lonnie Rashied Lynn, or Common, got his career going in the ‘90s on the South Side of Chicago. While gangster rap was killing everything and everyone in its path, Common stayed under the radar with smooth rhymes, intelligent words and jazz undertones. Originally performing and recording under the name Common Sense, he released a strong debut with the single "Take It EZ." His 1994 album Resurrection made serious waves and put him on the map as one to watch.

Coming off Resurrection, his 1997 release One Day It'll All Make Sense seemed to fall right in line with the conscious movement that Common would help to lead. With guest spots by Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, De La Soul, Erykah Badu, Cee-Lo, and the Roots' Black Thought, One Day It'll All Make Sense was already making sense, and putting Common atop a long list of MCs. Common went on to collaborate with Talib Kweli and Mos Def on Black Star and The Roots' Things Fall Apart, further painting the picture of a legend in the making.

Enlisting ?uestlove from The Roots to produce his MCA debut Like Water for Chocolate proved to be a marvelous decision, as this album remains one of my favorite to date by any artist. Special guests on this seminal album include Macy Gray, MC Lyte, Cee-Lo, Mos Def, D'Angelo, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and Femi Kuti.

Because of his strong career that seems to never stop getting better, expectations were high for Common’s latest release, Electric Circus. With a heavy, layered sound and obvious rock influences including Hendrix-esque guitars followed by deep bass beats, this album will prove to open him up to an even larger audience. On Electric Circus Common weaves his street poetry in between Stereolab, Jill Scott, Bilal, and Erykah Badu. While incorporating some new styles, Common certainly does not loose his smooth delivery, as he remains a tender storyteller and inspirational performer.

Common came bouncing on stage full of energy sporting some old school clothes (almost thrift style), maybe trying to personify the old-school hip-hop atmosphere, or maybe he just felt like wearing some nice Puma and Adidas gear. Common was backed by a full band that would put quite a few more familiar bands to shame. With a sick bass player, tight drummer, keys, percussion and, of course, an unbelievable DJ, the crew on stage put on one hell of a show.

Common's energy seemed to permeate everything he did and said. His eyes were full of a warm glow and shined with the type of confidence that you can't fake. His delivery was spot on and the conviction with which he rapped reeked of a genuine man who has nothing to hide. Jumping from the drum platform back to the stage, picking up the mic stand and throwing it back stage, his enthusiasm touched everyone in The Fillmore as hands reached up to touch his fly gear.

In between older tracks like "I Used to Love H.E.R." and newer ones such as the hit "Star *69 (PS With Love)" off Electric Circus, Common led the crowd through the history of hip-hop, drawing attention to many of the same artists Kweli and Gang Starr were giving props to. Mos Def's name was all over the place (and for good reason), as was Biggie's, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Eric B.

While giving it up to the forefathers, Common started rappin' about Kweli, and before you knew it the two were rockin' duo style, trading lyrics like brothers. Flowing out of this Common gave the DJ his and stepped off, allowing his man to showcase his incredible skills. Without notice Chapps, Kweli's DJ, rolled out and the two danced around the decks, mesmerizing the crowd and almost stealing the show. Personally, I was blown away by what these cats can do with a pair of turntables. There are DJs who play music and then there are turntablists who create new music; you can rest assured that these beat makers lie in the second category.

Never to be upstaged, Common came back still radiating with the brilliance of a true leader. To further up the stakes on this wonderful evening of music, the lucky few inside the very sold-out Fillmore would be privy to the one, the only Erykah Badu. This gorgeous woman and voice were be the perfect compliment to Common, and would cap off a night to remember.

The artists highlighted on this amazing tour mark the progression of hip-hop that is now influencing the young ones who reign in the underground. Touching on rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and sampling from all over the place, the various genres continue to blur and the crossover appears to be unlimited.

At this point in our history conscious leaders have never been more important. When you can't turn to the "elected officials" for truth, justice or knowledge you must turn to the artists. With men like Gang Starr laying down the foundation, Talib Kweli following the path, and Common championing the scene, the fertile hip-hop world has never been more influential.

All words and images by Mary Grace Dunn & The Kayceman
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 3/20/03]

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