Burning down the house

July 26, 2002


While pandering superstars like Jay-Z and Eminem reign supreme on the pop charts, more ambitious and artistic sounds continue to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in hip-hop.

For evidence, one needed only to turn to the five diverse acts that performed at the Tweeter Center Wednesday as part of the six-hour Smokin' Grooves festival.

Only one of the four major names on the bill has a new album out, but this was the rare summer tour that wasn't about pushing product.

Smokin' Grooves was devoted to celebrating the possibilities of the music, with few cliches and minimal pandering to the crowd. And while the show did not sell out (by the end of the night, the venue was perhaps two-thirds full), fans responded enthusiastically to the artists' ambitions.

Road construction causing a two-hour-plus travel time to Tinley Park from the North Side of Chicago once again cost me an opening act I'd hope to catch: psychedelic rapper Cee-Lo. But I did arrive in time for the half-hour set by Truth Hurts, the statuesque diva whose career was launched by super-producer Dr. Dre.

Like Mary J. Blige, the rapper and singer delivered a welcome message of female empowerment (maybe Dre thinks it's karmic balance for all of the misogyny he's peddled) while fronting an impressive 10-piece band that recalled the group Lauryn Hill toured with several years back.

Finally returning to the spotlight after the long absence that followed her hit album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," it was a very different former Fugee who greeted us this time out. Hill performed alone (except for the drummer who joined her on one song) with just her vocals and an acoustic guitar.

Hill is certainly not a virtuoso guitarist (she had to ask her soundman if the instrument was in tune), and she has never been a particularly strong singer. But her presence and personality are undeniable.

Thankfully avoiding the preachy New Age monologues that detract from her latest album, "MTV Unplugged No. 2.0," Hill upped the anger in her acoustic protest songs. While her message was still fairly muddled, there was no doubting her conviction. Still, the older "To Zion" was the highlight of her five-song set, and longtime fans are clearly hoping she abandons the Odetta/folksinger mode to return to her earlier expansive neo-soul sound.

In between Truth Hurts and Hill, Los Angeles' Jurassic Five (actually a sextet of four rappers and two nimble DJs) played a potent set of old-school rap music that was all about deft, fluid rhymes and bouncing beats. The group is hip-hop's equivalent of back-to-basics garage-rockers the Hives or the White Stripes, but like those groups, it makes a familiar formula sound as fresh as the first time you heard it.

A funny thing has happened to Philadelphia's Roots since they performed at the Tweeter Center during last year's Area: One festival: They have sprouted a rabidly devoted cult following. Those fans sang along with the band's tunes, as well as pressing toward the stage when their heroes performed.

The group has long been a cult favorite for its contributions to great hip-hop and R&B artists such as D'Angelo, Common, and Erykah Badu, as well as for its own gripping recordings. Incredibly talented and versatile musicians, they are virtual human samplers (the coolest groove on Wednesday nicked the bass line from the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog"), and their accomplishments are now being recognized by a following that effectively sees them as the modern-day Booker T. and the MGs.

With one groove flowing right into another, and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson leading the ensemble, the Roots' 45-minute set was a virtual history of black music in America, touching on funk, soul, R&B, jazz and hip-hop, and climaxing with an amazing display of human beat-box pyrotechnics.

Ending the night, Atlanta's Outkast performed on a stage decorated to look like a circus tent. While its P-Funk-style insanity was actually turned down a bit this time through, its bouncy party grooves were as potent as ever.

Emcees Dre and Big Boi are the masters of the hooky, sing-along chant (Marshall Mathers has nothing on them), and the arena was moving as one to their celebratory jams. But Outkast knows how to mix a message into the merriment, as the crew showed during the obligatory reading of its hit "Ms. Jackson," a father's pledge to do the right thing by the mother of his child.

The set built to a rollicking version of "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)," another one of those songs that has taken on new layers of meaning in the wake of Sept. 11. A giant flag unfurled behind the group as it launched into the rampaging rhythm, and for this night, at least, we were indeed one nation under a groove.