By Bruce Britt
So I'm shaking my booty Thursday night at the GRAMMY Foundation's Word Revolution: A Celebration Of The Evolution Of Hip-Hop event and it hits me — hip-hop culture has come full circle. The tight-fitting styles that defined hip-hop's early days are back in vogue, while much of the best new rap shares the same innovative crossover sensibilities that marked the classic hits of Run D.M.C., M.C. Hammer, De La Soul and more (think contemporary rap eccentrics such as Kanye West, Drake, Kid Cudi and Nicki Minaj).
Anyone requiring proof of hip-hop's retrograde thrust need look no further than Thursday night's event, which took place at the art deco-styled Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles. Marking the GRAMMY Foundation's 13th annual Music Preservation Project, the event showcased a lineup that teamed old-school standard-bearers (Naughty By Nature, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Arrested Development, Everlast, MC Lyte, and Phife of A Tribe Called Quest) and new-guard artists (Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michele, Lil Mama, and Marsha Ambrosius).
The resulting show was a loose-limbed chronicle of hip-hop's evolution through music, video, dance, and live commentary, connecting the dots of rap's development in ways that were joyous, raucous, mellow, educational, and revelatory. For example, Recording Academy and GRAMMY Foundation President/CEO Neil Portnow introduced archival footage showing an old man spitting rhymes about World War II. Word to your great-grandmother!
The momentum never let up, thanks in large part to expert pacing and powerful musical accompaniment. The latter was supplied by Adam Blackstone's backing band, which included a two-piece horn section and dual percussionists. Can you say "bottom end"?
You want memorable musical moments? How about the Beat Freaks dance crew b-boying, popping and locking as if they had time traveled from 1984. Phife of A Tribe Called Quest's fiery interpretation of the classic "Check The Rhime," while turntablist DJ Jazzy Jeff provided his own history lesson, mixing pop originals (such as Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'") with the sampled rap hits they inspired (in this case, Warren G's smooth 1994 smash "Regulate").
Appropriately enough, the night often seemed like a Jeep cruise down Memory Lane. Arrested Development performed their '90s hits "Mr. Wendal" and "Tennessee." Boston rapper Everlast made the crowd literally hip-hop with his version of House Of Pain's 1992 classic "Jump Around." MC Lyte rhymed about her desire for a "Ruffneck" lover, while rap-centric vocalist Michele — she of the angelic face and the equally heaven-sent voice — illustrated hip-hop's jazz roots with an urbanized interpretation of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable."
But it was Naughty By Nature who supplied the evening's most galvanizing moment. Singing along to the group's 1993 hit "Hip Hop Hooray," it felt like we were all taking part in some beautiful urban ritual. Like tipsy patriots at a sporting event, we proudly bellowed the national anthem of rap, paying props to a vital musical genre that continues to sustain us through good times and bad.