As we age, we no longer follow the concert calendar as closely. We sometimes rely on the next generation for information. That’s why I appreciated this text from the daughter of my friend, mentor, and traveling companion, Willie Hooks.
Michelle learned of my fanhood a few years ago over dinner in L.A. one night when Willie and I had Lakers tickets. She was dubious until I threw down the first part of “Who Am I?” from Kane’s 1990 album, “Taste of Chocolate.”
I’d rehearsed that verse for a spoken-word event at my son’s elementary school about 15 years ago. That first minute of the track captures 400 years of Black history like nothing else I’ve ever read or heard. It became my go-to out of all the verbally magical, socially conscious raps Kane rocked on his first five albums.
On another of our Lakers trips, Willie enjoyed “Wake Me When I’m Free,” the immersive Tupac exhibit I’d dragged him to, so he was willing to take a chance on Big Daddy Kane. As an elder, Willie opted for the early show this past Saturday night with his date, Angela, and me and my wife, Val.
From our dinner table, Yoshi’s staff ushered us into the music venue, seating only about 400 souls, many wearing derbies, form fitting dresses, or Wakanda t-shirts. Soon after we settled in at table 46, about 30 feet from the stage, the lights fell.
When they rose again, Big Daddy Kane stood front and center of a band rolling 12 deep on the crowded stage. We had wondered how Kane could replicate the mix of samples and live instrumentation to make the sounds we knew, thinking he might just rap over old recordings.
But no, he introduced Tim on keys, Vanessa Ferguson on vocals, never mentioned the percussionist, welcomed Achilles on guitar, a bassist hiding somewhere on the back line, Big Sexy on drums, a turntablist, and four horns out front. In no time, Big Daddy Kane — age 54, wearing pants of leather or pleather and what Val called a dad-bod t-shirt — “set it off.”
From the jump, Kane delivered high-energy entertainment, releasing irresistible toe-tapping, leg-pumping, rap-along adrenaline. He sounded exactly as he did 35 years ago: fast, furious, lyrical, literary, in rhythm, in rhyme, right on time. The cleverest-ever writer I know.
The set did not include “Who Am I?” understandable, because the third verse — by Gamilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X — could not be replicated on stage. Kane also left out “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” despite the pleas from the boisterous crew at the table behind ours.
Kane couldn’t have played all the cuts the crowd wanted or he’d still be up there now. But he did give into one old head during frequent banter and crowd interactions. That brother in the audience just started rapping the lyrics to “The Day Your Mine” during some relative quiet, and Kane engaged, asking why that particular, romantic tune, and then, before the old head could offer TMI, Kane said, “Never mind, I know why” and completed the first verse, ending with “Sweetheart, you’re my aphrodisiac.”
Other off-stage antics included visits to tables during “Smooth Operator” to chat with fans and let them try their hands at a scatting hook over the bass line. One visit with a wheelchair-bound fan had Kane adjusting the man’s beanie and encouraging him to “gangster that shit up.” At another stop, Kane eased onto a lady’s lap for some sweet talk, which he cleared with her massive male companion by making sure, “We good, right? Yo big ass, ain’t gonna start nothin’?”
Back on-stage, band member introductions and solos went well beyond standard. Ferguson led for a couple numbers while Kane recharged his batteries backstage (presumably “chillin’ like a villain” as he claims in his song “Raw”). Big Sexy’s drum solo stood out. But the best was Kane as conductor of the horn section, holding up fingers to set the number of horn hits he wanted, and that section delivering as impeccably as the J.B.’s ever did.
More high points:
“Raw” was so frantic, I lost control of my phone, symptomatic of our generation.
Kane’s speed-up and slow-down act left us room to breathe. As always, he provoked thought, too. Invoking a song title, Kane exhorted us — whether doctor, lawyer, or burger flipper — to adopt his ethic and make sure that in whatever our craft, there “Ain’t No Half- Steppin’.”
Then, as you can see below, he set the example.
After this show, possibly my favorite stage performance ever, we all left feeling younger than when we arrived.