Just moments before the first opener, a thin crowd of mostly thick people was still posted up at the bar in the back and near the scattered chest-high tables. The room was frigid, air conditioned to the max and full of pale, bearded souls who preferred to stand alone, barely nodding to near-silent music. The only quantifiable warmth in the room came from the drifting presences of the night’s three headliners–Homeboy Sandman, Open Mike Eagle, and Megaran were all roaming the bar, free to talk and sell merch. After a rushed introduction from a punkish 30-something, the first of three local appetizers took the stage. This fresh meat was the least inviting, rapping about his insecurities and desire to blow up to run-of-the-mill, piano driven underground loops, though he did exhibit impressive story-telling skills. But he simply lacked the execution or energy to even get the crowd to stop talking over him. Between songs, as he fiddled with his iPod–a move duplicated by both of the amateurs that followed–and made fun of his own lack of professionalism, swaying gently and self-consciously to the intro music. With openers number two and three, the energy and charisma increased, though the permeating self-doubt and utter lack of crowd control (that nearly led the performers to beg the audience to come closer) made the opening portion of the show drag on.
Church immediately came alive when a husky grown man in a pixelated blue tie strutted out on stage, following a lively introduction. The man with the mic announced, “I’m Megaran, and I rap about video games.” A quick tap of Megaran‘s laptop let loose a burst of bleeps and bloops, which he rapped over with precision and goofy energy. Megaran went on to tell the story of his rise, both with a song detailing his video-game-filled childhood in the projects, and with an anecdote he told between songs about a call he got from Capcom, the copyright holder of Megaman. At first, Megaran was sure he was being sued, but as it turned out, he was being sponsored. Capcom “loved it,” he told the crowd, who in turn loved it aswell. Megaran had a surprising amount of fans in the midst; with each video-game reference, there was an over-the-top roar from a few drunk 8-bit aficionados. The loyalest few spat nearly every word along with their hero, who also won over new fans with a freestyle session that saw him spitting about objects from the crowd’s pockets, in the Supernatural tradition.
Next up was Open Mike Eagle, who didn’t even allow for the night’s host to introduce him; he just quietly emerged on stage, set up his laptop, kaossilator, effects pedal, and began to sing-rap. It was his spacey, off-kilter production that drew wanderers back toward the stage, but his vulnerable, emotive pitch that kept them there in a magnetic field. His voice was scratchy but clearly well-honed, reminiscent of Vic Mensa, albeit more tortured. Eagle had his fair share of fans in attendance as well, who knew all the words to “Password,” a violent, whiny protest of the NSA. Perhaps the highlight of Open Mike Eagle‘s set was during “The Processional,” when he half-sung, half-growled “Tonight here is for rapping, keep that gun in your sock drawer” to more than a few “Woo!”‘s from the crowd.
Open Mike Eagle‘s performance helped to draw an important line between what works and what does work not in emotive, underground hip-hop. Whereas the night’s lackluster openers struggled to hold the under populated audience’s attention with over-crowded rhymes, Open Mike Eagle put his faith in his spacious music. Whereas the openers were insecure and emotional in a way that invited pity and dismissal, Eagle highlighted his worst traits, most seething fears, and most inescapable doubts with passion and soothing artistry. He didn’t put himself below the crowd, he brought us up to his level of honesty.The final note of Open Mike Eagle‘s set had barely left the speakers when Homeboy Sandman popped his head through the doorway/stage entrance like a sitcom neighbor. “Whatup with the dead air?!” he asked of his tour partner. It was a problem that had plagued the show all night–not one act outside of Sandman brought a DJ–but one that Sandman, after a few calm moments of preparation and crowd-hyping, would remedy nicely. With humor, poise, astonishing breath control and a harsher delivery than he normally taps for recordings, Homeboy Sandman livened the place up. “We in Church on a Sunday right now…I’m liking the energy a whole lot,” he said. Oddly enough, he may have meant that. Though between songs, Sandman cited a show where he was payed three stacks–“But not for this show, so buy some merch”–he seemed beyond comfortable playing to an audience of 40. That doesn’t mean he was content to leave without rocking the house, though.
From the Tai Chi “energy push” that Homeboy utilized throughout the set (above), to the casually in-your-face attitude he displayed as he dapped up the front row and leaned over the front of the stage, to his mastery of translating his hooks into calls and responses, Sandman made a castle from a few grains. He impressed the crowd while simultaneously relating, behaving like the neighborhood star. He wasn’t above anyone, but he was clearly un-fuck-with-able. He would never Hollywood you, he would battle (and destroy) you. His down to earth attitude and utmost confidence in his bars gave way to clear crowd focus on what he had to say, with audible appreciation of simple and beautiful lines, like “I’ve always been known to keep it real / That’s why I’m making some real keep,” from “Not Really.” Sandman‘s greatest moment of crowd connection came late in the show for “Yeah, But I Can Rhyme Though,” which he introduced to the audience as being dedicated to them. The song, as he explained, is about overshadowing all the other disqualifications in your life with your talents. During the third verse, as he listed discouraging insults–“You’re too big, you’re too small / You’re too dark, too short, you’re too tall / You’re too poor, too old you’re too young / You’re too slow, you dunce, you’re too dumb”–he pointed with shocking accuracy and fluidity to members of the audience who embodied these traits. Those singled out were visibly shaken by the momentary spotlight of the towering man’s fingertip, but that same initial shock proved to be the perfect way to grip them even tighter for the uplifting conclusion. He stayed after the show to give and receive well-earned thanks. Homeboy Sandman‘s latest project, All That I Hold Dear, dropped today. Go get it.
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