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In hiphop, lines like “keep it real” and “be true to self” are all the rage onstage and in the studio, but few people have an inkling as to what those words really mean. Just as “inner city” has become a polite term for “ghetto,” “keep it real” is a convenient euphemism for the hardness that supposedly represents the core of black reality.

For a while, folks forgot what it was like to be diverse and multifaceted, thought anything that gloried in being outside the norm or tried to be “positive” was whack. And a lot of times it was. P.M. Dawn? Yeah, whatever. So the gangstas and hardcore heads stormed the palace because they had the phattest beats and slickest production. Some of us didn’t like the regular disrespect of women and lack of genuine self-love evidenced in the lyrics, but we bought it anyway. It was bad medicine that tasted good. It had a beat we could dance to, so we gave it a 10. The beautiful militancy of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions seemed to be of a bygone era. The day of the hardhead was declared, but fortunately, that day is over.

Assailing our ears with something original, a break from the same ol’ same, enter Fugees, the Roots, and Goodie Mob. Reflecting different experiences but sharing a devotion to the religion of hiphop, they come direct and uncompromising. While adding something new to the mix, they never forget the fundamentals—beats, rhymes, and next-level-reaching production.

It was supposed to be a religious experience, the Capitol Ballroom becoming revival time at the old country church. Fugees, Roots, and Goodie Mob providing charismatic preaching, evangelists from different cities coming together to deliver the word of truth. Twenty-five-dollar tickets, sold-out weeks in advance. We looked forward to a night of singin’, shoutin’, yes y’allin.’ A time to to get in touch with the soul again and remember why we became believers in the first place.

Hailing from Atlanta, Ga., Goodie Mob exceeds expectation. But many folks still don’t know this quartet’s abundant virtues because they haven’t bothered to look past the book’s cover. Folks don’t expect good rap, let alone hardcore, to come from the South. Those who do know about Southern rap may have been expecting some booty-shake, Cadillac-cruising, players’ music, but Goodie Mob is intent on delivering a message while representing the reality of the “dirty South.”

The Mob has been compared to Public Enemy because of its political lyrics and decidedly dope beats. Thick Southern accents make the message sometimes hard to decipher, but the CD thankfully comes with a lyric sheet. The four men who comprise the group bring their distinct voices and childhood experiences together to form a complicated unity. Listening to Cee-Lo, the impassioned preacher/philosopher, and Khujo, the mad dog with the baritone voice, you get the feeling they walk different paths to the same end—racial, political, and spiritual liberation.

Rapping about life, death, hard-workin’ mamas, big-brother government, and freedom, the in-your-face subject matter of Soul Food, the Mob’s debut album, is balanced by mellow bass beats and R&B hooks for a surprisingly smooth sound. The title track, with its funky bass line and sense of humor, has that summer-jam, barbecuing-in-the-park feel. Songs like “Thought Process” and “Cell Therapy” define the group’s sound and mentality. Not like the East Coast rappers, with their verbal acrobatics and wordplay, or like the West Coast’s gangbangin’, slow-cruising drawlers, Goodie Mob opts for telling stories from the heart, and in the process creates its own Southern flavor. If anything, the Mob’s members are the most true-to-self rap artists to emerge in some time. I, for one, hope they stay that way.

Who would’ve guessed, but the Mob kicks it instrumental with a five-piece band. Cee-Lo arrives first on the scene, gold teeth shining, singing the R&B jam that opens up the album. “I wanna be free, completely free.” Black fists in the air greet him. Meanwhile the guitar gets funky, working that wah-wah pedal. The bass thrusts across the stage, sending sensations up my legs. One drummer comes with steady hiphop beats, the other sounds like he might have D.C. blood—there’s definitely some go-go in his swing. Khujo, Big Gipp, and T-Mo enter one at a time to the crowd’s delight. They wreck shit with “Soul Food” and “Cell Therapy.” Even the white girl with the ponytails is movin’ side-to-side. Too soon, it’s over, and I’m left want-ing more. The sound quality is terrible, but the band perseveres—once again exceeding expectation.

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Self-defined as an “organic, hiphop jazz, 100-percent, Philadelphia-based rap group,” the Roots draw on a number of eclectic sounds and styles. They are rooted in black music and rooted in their sense of self, the rich soil providing fertile ground for the growth of new sounds. Their ability to so easily transcend the barriers between jazz and rap owes much to the fact that they rap in the jazz idiom. As speaking vocalists they become instruments, adding another element to the band. There’s the rhythm section, the horn section, percussion, and now the rhyme section.

“So who did you come to see?” I ask a group of girls, Georgetown freshmen originally from Brooklyn. “The Roots!” Nicole, Maria, and Mei answer in unison, their gold hoop earrings flickering in the sweeping stage lights. “The Roots have 10 times more talent. They should be headlining,” says Mei. I’m apt to agree, remembering the first time I saw them—top billed at the 9:30 Club. Made me believe the hype.

I’m wishin’ there was a DJ between sets. Instead, the same Yellowman song plays on the PA for the third time in 30 minutes. To my right, Alexis, one of the many HU students packing the house, tells me she came to see Goodie Mob, but equally anticipates the guest appearance by Bahamadia, the taking-no-shorts female rapper from Philly.

Despite minimal promotion by their U.S. label (their European release is a huge success), the Roots have a large underground following here. In much the way that top go-go bands sell out shows week after week, heads come out on a regular to see the Roots. Why? Because they’re not caught up in that movie-star, make-’em-wait-for-hours-do-two-songs-and-jet mentality. Admittedly, rap is at a disadvantage when it comes to live performance, because so much of it is dependent on studio gadgets. But too many people in hiphop think it’s enough to make a good album and show up for a quick appearance, sometimes lip-syncing a rhyme. The Roots are like the JBs of rap, valuing showmanship as much as lyrical innovation. Whenever they play, they bring a whole crew of MCs and musicians.

Black Thought becomes Eddie Jefferson, doing a jazz/spoken word/scat thing. The drummer changes speeds and styles almost magically. Biz Markie’s surprise cameo really gets the crowd jumping out of their pants. The other highlight of the night—Hub’s electric-bass solo, distortion pedal invoking memories of Jimi before returning to straight-ahead funk again. “Proceed” and “Mellow My Man” hype the crowd, but expectations run too high. The back-in-the-day medley, covers of everything from Run-D.M.C to Method Man, goes on for too long, and some of the new stuff just doesn’t strike a nerve. Something’s missing. Rahzel, the astounding human beat box, isn’t around, for one. But then, maybe it’s just never as good as the first time.

On wax, Fugees don’t try to pretend they’re gangsta or ghetto, they simply tell it like it is. As Wyclef raps on The Score’s title track, “…Keep it real?/If you real, it’ll manifest through your skills/Not through how many shells that you peel.” These self-righteous teachers pull out all the stops when it comes to their brutal deconstruction of whack hiphop.

Lauryn Hill (aka L-Boogie), Wyclef, and Pras form a grand triad, taking out fake MCs with karate-chop verses. Not a female prop or side show, Lauryn is the central force of the group. Her lyrical skills are unquestionable. And how many people do you know can rap and do justice to Roberta Flack? Wyclef provides the haunting guitar melodies on “Family Business” and adds melodic vocals as well as holding his own on the mic. Pras’ pared-down lyrical sensibility and slower style provides a counterpoint to the rolling flow of the others.

The album showcases both their musicality and their lyrical soapboxing about black politics and the music industry. On most LPs, between-song interludes are used as a time for shout-outs and acting silly. Fugees enlist Ras Baraka, writer, activist, and son of poet Amiri, to provide segues and deftly summarize each track’s theme. “It’s easy to kill niggas cause they look like you, they smell like you. Shit, they even live on your same muthafuckin’ block,” he says on “Manifest.” “If you want to impress me, shoot the muthafucka who turned off my lights.”

Sung “samples” of Kenny Rogers, Tracy Chapman, Cyndi Lauper, and Corey Hart mix it up a bit. They flip the script with lines like “Claimin’ that you got a new style/Your attempts are futile/Ooh chile, you’re puerile/Brain waves are sterile” and “Even after all my logic and my theory, I add a ‘muthafucker’ so you ign’ant niggas hear me.”

I feel like I’ve been workin’ in a Safeway checkout stand. Same Yellowman track keeps playing. Waiting half an hour for the DJ to come out. Another half-hour for the group to finally show. The DJ has crazy skills, though. He mixes some old Doug E. Fresh, slowing down tracks and scratching so that his turntables become musical instruments playing the melody to Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love,” and B.D.P.’s “The Bridge Is Over.” From offstage, we hear Wyclef’s voice. Instead of coming out to perform, he’s saying some ignorant things like “All the people with AIDS make some noise” and “All my niggas gettin’ some pussy tonight make some noise.” He comes out to sing “No Woman, No Cry,” then feels obliged to do the back-in-the-day thing, rapping other people’s songs.

At 11:30, Pras and Lauryn finally hit the stage. Once again the body gets hype. Fugees do a couple of songs from their first disc before ripping into “How Many Mics?”. Wyclef almost redeems himself with an impressive multilingual rap—Arabic, Spanish, French, even Japanese. Some Jamaican cats come out and do some toasting, but it’s not like they’re the most amazing rappers to come off the island. ’Round midnight, Lauryn sings “Killing Me Softly.” Lush voice filling the room with love. The show continues and Fugees perform almost the whole album, workin’ hard to give the people their money’s worth. Rap demigod status is hard to live up to. Their show is tight and they have skills. But in the end, they’re only human—contradictions come through. I am human, too. By night’s tide my feet hurt. I have tinnitus. And fewer fantastic tales to regale friends with than I had hoped. Lamenting that the Holy Ghost didn’t descend long enough for the natural high to last, but still glad I came.CP