We’ll get to the Hip Hop Live review in a second, but first, let’s pour a forty for our homey, Norman Mailer. During the weekend, The Original Wigger passed away at the age of eighty-four. It’s been more than fifty years since Mailer wrote “The White Negro,” a 1956 magazine essay that basically lauded a “white hipster elite” for talking, listening, and playing like black people. “The White Negro” is collected in Mailer’s first anthology of self-aggrandizement, Advertisements for Myself. In Advertisements, Mailer prefaces “The White Negro” by explaining that when he wrote it, he was smoking a lot of reefer while simultaneously trying to kick cigarettes. You can tell—it’s full of jazzy bebopsterisms such as “swing” and “goof,” and there are definitely parts where Mailer comes off like a poseur attempting to articulate this minority mimicking a minority, these white kids’ existential attempt to deal with the “psychic havoc” of the atomic age though jazz and dope. Although almost derailed by incomprehensible beatnik babble, “The White Negro” was a well written, antiestablishment rant that actually argued for the psychopath trapped within what Mailer characterized as a constipated, conformist post-war American society. No doubt, Mailer was ridiculed for what he wrote, excoriated in turn by everybody from Eleanor Roosevelt to William Faulkner to James Baldwin. Although later, even Baldwin came to admit, “White is a not a color, it’s an attitude. You’re as white as you think you are.”
So on Sunday night at First Avenue, the same Sunday night Larry David, another middle-aged Jewish guy, moved on from the shiksa who broke his heart to embrace Vivica A. Fox’s brown sugar on Curb, it was obvious Mailer was just as much onto something as he was on something. Here was Brother Ali, the albino Muslim from the north side, our own God emcee, backed by the Rhythm Roots All Stars, a ten piece, mixed-race funk-and-soul revue out of Los Angeles, while the audience, at least 75 percent white negro, nodded along to the beat in their oversized New Era caps and their brightly printed hoodies. “Every time I play this place, it turns into North Minneapolis,” Ali boasted. My buddy turned to me and said, “It looks more like a bar mitzvah in here.”
Ali’s fight-the-power preaching can sound a little corny, especially in front of a band full of unwashed Portland burnouts wearing knit caps while pounding on their bongos. The man has a commanding, booming voice, and on “Uncle Sam Goddamn”—chorus: “land of the thief/home of the slave”—he used it in a way that Mailer, the old pugilist, might have appreciated, as a blunt, rhetorical weapon. The crowd loved it, probably because they mistrust the establishment to a similar degree as their hero, but there’s something forced and conventional about the Brother’s lyrics—in the same way that an outraged letter to the editor written by a suburban dad sounds strident but by the book. For all his shout outs to “independent hip hop,” he sounded like he was striving for the middle of the road I’m-just-a-regular-guy-trying-to-get-by-and-raise-my-son sort of thing. And although the kids were responding, there’s nothing hip or outsider about relating to the mainstream. He has a big voice, but he couches it in little-guy terminology. It’s a little square, maybe. Too Horatio Alger. Too evangelical. Ultimately, an affirmation of traditional American values even in its dissent.
But when Staten Island’s Ghostface Killah, aka Ironman, aka Toney Starks, aka Pretty Toney, aka Black Jesus (all noms de street), stepped on stage, here was Mailer’s cool-cat orgasmic psychopath. Ghost is the emcee I was there for, the biggest star, at least commercially, on the bill. He’s the McCartneyesque “cute one” in the Wu Tang Clan—both physically and lyrically—who’s grown into his rough whine to the point where now he’s really the only Wu Tang solo act left selling any records. Early on, he dropped “Ice Cream,” a hit about appreciating fifty-seven flavors of female, and he had the entire Hopkins High Class of 2004 in attendance rapping along with him. Ghostface’s show wasn’t flawless by any means—the Rhythm All-Stars had trouble translating some of the more minimalist Wu Tang beats to a live setting, and Ironman’s crew of sidemen were a little overeager, stepping on some of his best punch lines. So the most entertaining moments happened in between songs—such as challenging the crowd to a Wu-off. (The audience made it through quite a bit of “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin to F*&k Wit” before he cut ‘em off and said, “Ok, that was pretty cool . . . but nah, I ain’t convinced.”) Or when he told everybody a story to introduce “Greddy Bitches.” (He was inspired by a murder of groupies that ate all his Oreos from his tour bus’s refrigerator—Ghost is diabetic). Laughing along, it seemed to me an artist such as Ghost is the model for Mailer’s hipsters—the black guru so committed to living in his own lunatic world, he doesn’t worry about violating the genteel mores of the crowd outside the building. Although Ghost did demur, “I don’t refer to all women as ‘bitches’ all the time, you know . . . we just talkin’.”
In “The White Negro,” Mailer writes, “To swing is to be able to learn, and by learning take a step toward making it, toward creating. What [the hipster] must do . . . is find his courage at the moment of violence, or equally make it in the act of love . . .” Uh, I didn’t really get all of that, but Mailer could have been writing about Hip Hop Live’s headliner, Rakim. What old jazz heads called “swing,” hip hop calls “flow.” And Rakim’s flow is universally acknowledged—and on this night, reaffirmed by both Ali and Ghostface within their own sets—as being The Truth. Deep down, back in ’56, Mailer wished he could flow like that, wished he could approach anything as “far out” as Rakim doing what he do. Ra took the stage with a posse, but they didn’t say a word. And the Rhythm Roots All Stars were behind him, but he barely needed them either (although their sound complemented Rakim’s old school flavor most effectively). This dude didn’t even need choruses or hooks. He went through his great 104 bar opuses, one marathon font of hypnotizing verbal knowledge: “My Melody,” “Paid in Full,” “Microphone Fiend,” even brought Brother Ali out to duet on “Ain’t No Joke” before closing with “Eric B is President.” The crowd knew every word. Rakim’s tone is as serious as Ali’s, as anti-establishment as Ghostface’s. But befitting his ancient thirty-nine years, he never felt the need to shout. He just prowled the stage, striking few poses, holding the microphone to his vein like a needle, dropping into a boxer’s crouch, and rapped about the streets, the dark outskirts of town, all of the places Mailer entitles “the enormous present.”