Gangsta rap arrived a decade or so ago looking pretty much like cultural apocalypse, the stuff of presidential-campaign ranting, multimillion-dollar corporate restructuring and First Amendment reassessment. It has turned out to be just good, old-fashioned show biz.
Okay, so depending on your perspective, that may be the same thing. But when the Up in Smoke tour swung through the Pond in Anaheim for two sold-out shows on June 16 and 18, there was no mistaking the audience's position on the matter. They were standing —cheering, dancing, singing, reminiscing, celebrating—for about four hours a night.
There was a lot to get excited about. Just about all the West Coast O.G.'s were there: Dre, Snoop, Cube, Warren G, Mack 10, Dub-C, Nate, Kurupt. It was a veritable Who's Who of Who the Fuck You Lookin' At. Their yellowing list of prior offenses—from the illegal to the distasteful to the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time circumstantial—is still well-known. But the shock has worn off.
Looking back, Bob Dole's spin-doctor-ordered condemnations of Tha Dogg Pound, Time-Warner's under-fire sale of Interscope/Death Row Records, and the tent-preacher police state advocated by William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker seem so naive. By now, everybody knows that transmogrifying the terror of semiautomatic gunfire through recording-studio synthesizers is just drum roll and fanfare.
It was a telling coincidence that the Up in Smoke tour came through Orange County's biggest arena the same weekend that the remake of Shaft opened in dozens of multiplexes. In fact, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg introduced their set with a short, graphic shoot-'em-up flick of their own. But rather than conveying fear, their straight-faced, bullet-riddled response to a gang of liquor-store robbers who had disrupted their pot buy was played as over-the-top farce. Exaggerated indifference to gruesome death hasn't been portrayed with so much camp since Sylvester Stallone. Or maybe even John Wayne.
Dre and Snoop went on to deliver a delightful 90-minute show, shuffling around a set that re-created the Long Beach/Compton neighborhoods where they grew up. The collage of graffitied walls and liquor stores and rusted-shut factories was as evocative as one of Disney's lands—except for all the huge neon marijuana leaves, of course, another nod to the good-naturedly outrageous.
Not that the bad old days were the Up in Smoke tour's only attraction. Eminem, the worry doll of the moment, arrived for his set fresh off his very first weapons charge back in his hometown of Detroit (and the instantly multiplatinum debut of his second solo album)—the new kid on the block, you might say, if you get the feeling Marshall Mathers just might have what it takes to become the next Marky Mark.
But the validation of good old American core values—and a certain kind of blissful satisfaction—turns out to be the bottom line of the Up in Smoke tour. The show is practically an autobiography of Dr. Dre, who has previously risen, been ripped off and fallen as upstart N.W.A hood rat and acclaimed Death Row production genius. Now he is returned as a mastermind show-biz impresario. It is his best incarnation yet. Dre has reassembled the blasts from his past—all the performers are either his actual prodigies or direct legacies—and packaged them into a dazzling multimedia production that is inventive, powerful and incredibly fun.
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The Up in Smoke tour shapes up as nothing less than the greatest traveling show in hip-hop history—and, actually, that description still doesn't say enough for this extravaganza. Hip-hop history simply hasn't featured many major tours. There was the Fresh Fest with Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J in the mid-'80s, the MC Hammer spectaculars in the early '90s, and the noble Smoking Grooves tours the past couple of years. Mostly, however, the most ubiquitous popular music of the last generation has been noticeably absent from major stages, hampered by issues ranging from limited financing to fear of violence to lack of imagination. It has been virtually confined to house parties, small clubs and occasional bare-bones showcases, like the Summer Jams that the Beat (KKBT-FM) has brought to Irvine Meadows, or the Budweiser Superfest that once played the Pond.
The effect of this void was most evident in the sweetly conflicting emotions of the audience. On the one hand, the concert had the feel of a reunion show, attracting hip-hoppers the same way baby boomers will be flocking to see the Who. On the other hand, it was all brand-new because they've never had the chance to do this before.
The same tone came through the performances of the stars. "Y'all don't know how good it feels to be up here with my nigga again," Dre confided stoically at one point, while Snoop grinned with affectionate embarrassment. Their reunion, years after being driven apart by the dangerous inner politics and eventual disintegration of Death Row Records, provides these shows with their greatest significance. But it also constitutes the tour's greatest risk. Two sources close to the production acknowledged concern over possible resentment of Snoop and Dre by incarcerated Death Row Records chief Marion "Suge" Knight. The possibility that he could order others to disrupt this tour has been considered. Security is high. And Snoop and Dre's warnings from the stage to possible, unspecified agitators constituted the one moment of the show in which the expressions of hostility didn't come across as a joke.
The chill of that moment also distilled a question that had lingered over the show all evening: What happens to gangsta rap when its hard edge is draped with a little glitz? The answer came while watching Eminem. His hyperkinetic performance proved he's more than a blond-haired, blue-eyed novelty. His lyrics give voice to the furious resentments that might stream through a frustrated young man's mind as he lies awake at night thinking about what he should have said or done in a too-late-now situation. He epitomizes extreme. But Eminem's presence on this tour teaches a different kind of lesson, one that incorporates opposing messages. The serious credibility he gains comes surrounded with the evidence of the not-so-hardcore place where his predecessors are finally finding happiness. Cultural apocalypse ain't no fun if the homies can't have none.