Marc Cabrera has nothing better to do than watch a lot of movies and television, and listen to a lot of music. Luckily, he has a job that pays him to blog about local and national arts, entertainment and pop culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Militant rap is such a rarity in today's hip-hop universe. Whether it was the LA battle cries of NWA or the Strong Island political shotgun blasts from Public Enemy, hip-hop's streak of rebellion has been halted in the mainstream for close to 20 years now. But like any great movement, the pulse has moved underground. And though M1 of Dead Prez and Ghostface Killa of Wu-Tang Clan offer contrasting styles, their militant leanings and anti-authoritarian messages make for a unique performance experience when coupled together. Playing Saturday night at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, M-1 opened up for Ghostface in what seemed like an inspired tour pairing. M-1 showed up rocking a rhinestone camouflage army jacket, looking like a rock star activist. He opened up with the track "War," off of the dead prez "Turn off the Radio" mixtape series. Hearing him bellow "George Bush coming out his mouth, that's War!" over the Black Rob "Whoa" beat was a good way to kick things off, as folks got to bouncing and throwing bows from the jumpoff. M-1's set was paced evenly with a quick-cut setlist. He never spent more than three minutes on a song, and often did just one or two minutes. But for a guy who belongs to a group with less than five years on the hip-hop radar, he came off poised like a veteran prize fighter. Songs like "We Need a Revolution," "Tell Me Are You Down," and the hard rocking "Hell Yeah" showed a depth of catalogue that I wasn't prepared for. "Hell Yeah" was also an interesting selection because it argues (somewhat convincingly) in favor of credit card and welfare fraud as a revolutionary act of defiance. I know folks will get all sad that I just said that, but when M-1 spits it on stage, you kind of get swept up in the frenzy. And though he didn't close his set with "Hip-Hop," dead prez' official street anthem, his rendition was chest-pounding force to be reckoned. He cut out the beat for the second verse's attack on mainstream hip-hop commercialism, and basically justified the existence of all of the street soldiers who were rocking military fatigues and caps that night (and there were a lot in the crowd). He closed with "Walk Like a Warrior," which sounded molotov cocktail smooth with M-1's silky yet rapid-fire midwest flow. One thing I love about this revolutionary but gangsta steez, these guys know how to flip the tongue and the middle finger at the same time. Ghostface, by contrast, was a ruckus showman, like a circus ringleader with thick platinum chains and a hulking frame. Entering the stage to the chants of "Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!" the night suddenly went from freedom fighter to street fighter. Thirteen years after the Wu-Tang Clan warned punk herbs to "Protect Ya Neck" on wax, Ghostface has emerged as the clan's top lyricist. With a back catalogue that boasts four classic albums (Enter the 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Forever, Only Built for Cuban Linx and Supreme Clientele) and numerous near-classics, Ghostface pretty much had an arsenal of weaponry at his disposal. That wealth of material allowed him to perform a hip-hop classic like "Ice Cream" three songs into his set, and make album tracks like "Fish" and "Biscuits" sound like hip-hop plutonium. Even with a crappy-sounding mic, he can make a surfers paradise like Santa Cruz seem like a throwback to the golden age of New York street rap. "I was a part of 1970," he said matter of factly to the crowd, shouting out Al Green and Stevie Wonder while prepping the young crowd for a lesson in soul-music. "I'm an old school cat. I carry a lot of soul." And with that, Marvin Gaye's "Distant Lover bumped through the speakers. I watched more than one couple clutch each other tight. As he ran into "Holla," his old school tribute that features Ghost spitting viciously over the Chicano oldies staple "La La Means I Love You," it made me realize that Ghost has maintained his relevance by simply staying put. He's always been, for lack of a better term, the most felt Wu-Tang-er. When he crouched on the middle monitor to do "All That I Got is You," I was reminded of the video for that song: Ghost sitting at a grand piano, looking like he wanted to be Billy Joel or Barry Manilow, just a New Yorker with so much soul. And the more introspective moments made the hard-rock bangers all the more bangable. "He requested a moment of silence in memory of ODB before tearing into "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," which got everyone going stupid. And he spit his new label mate Nas' verse on "Verbal Intercourse," completely bypassing his own lyrics on the song. Crappy sound and some sloppy sound cues sapped some of the energy from the show, and Ghost did that retarded practice of rappers bringing on all the females in the audience to dance (I really hate that s***). But even that moment was saved when two girls vied for his attention at once. Ghost sang to one of them while putting his arm around the other. Ya boy is a veteran mack from way back. And at the end of the show, he invited a trio of poser-looking Wu-Tang fans on stage to say what's up, which was a classy move. He also told the crowd to call him and "I'll come running back for y'all," which he probably says to all of the crowds he rocks. But it was enough to make even the most militant-minded street soldier crack a smile.