If you’ve ever attended a concert at Orange County’s The Observatory, you know that the suburban venue is not the ideal place to witness dance music. The three tiered floor, segmented by walls and steps leads to inconsistent crowd movement, awful vantage points and a disconnect between performer and crowd. I knew all of this as I entered the Santa Ana venue on Monday night (November 18), but pushed it to the back of my mind as I primed myself for a night that would feature buzzing rapper Chance (The Rapper) and footwork pioneers DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn. Dubbed the “Social Experiment” tour, the three performers (plus Chance’s three man band) had been on the road since October 25 and had played 17 shows in only 24 days. With all of the performers hailing from Chicago, the night promised an air of cohesion that few touring acts can fulfill.
At first glance, the selection of DJs Rashad and Spinn as openers might be confusing, but the decision makes all too much sense when you consider that Chance has evoked his reverence for Chicago’s juke/footwork scene on multiple occasions in the past. Rashad and Spinn’s lightning fast, syncopated rhythms might come off as at odds with Chance’s gospel-infused hip hop, but one only has to examine the Windy City’s long history of dance music with hip hop leanings and vice versa. The crowd at The Observatory might not have been ready for the 160 beats per minute flurry that Rashad and Spinn would throw at them, but Chance knew what he was getting into when he brought the two artists along with him.
After wading our way through The Observatory’s outsized parking lot, we made our way into the venue and took our place among the hordes of Chance fans chomping at the bit to shower their hero with love and reverence. Overwhelmingly Caucasian and college aged, the crowd was, by and large, dressed in the Southern California norm of street wear brands, 5 panel hats and lots and lots of camouflage. Chance came on promptly after we arrived, joined on stage by a drummer, keyboardist and trumpet player. Over the next hour, Chance would lead the crowd through most of his recent Acid Rap tape in an expansive performance that straddled the line between hip hop show and performance art.
Hit the jump to read the full recap…
With home videos and slideshows playing on the projection screen behind the stage, Chance ran through enhanced versions of Acid Rap songs “NaNa” “Pusha Man and “Everybody’s Something”. Showing an impressive familiarity with the show’s logistics and his band’s movements, the majority of the early portion of the show was made up of deeply consonant numbers, highlighted by the drummer’s manic accuracy and a number of brilliant, triumphant trumpet solos. With time constraints in site, Chance performed only the first verse on most of these early songs, provoking the crowd with his raspy, sing song flow and call and response chants. The crowd was jovial and compliant, showing an impressive familiarity with Chance’s catalogue and in reality, were far more interested in concealing their spliffs from security and chanting lyrics like “pimp slappin’, toe taggin’, I’m just trynna fight the man” and “nasty, ashy, cigarette ashin’, ‘til my voice get raspy”.
Chance’s set came to an apex with Acid Rap highlight “Paranoia”, a prudent take on the gun violence that has struck Chicago in recent years and a prime example of political rap done right (as in it doesn’t sound like political rap). Bolstered by an on-point performance by the trumpeter, Chance’s vocal performance elicited goose bumps as he nimbly cut through complex wordplay, taking shots at Katie Couric and lamenting on the onset of summer in a gun saturated city. Chance is the rare rapper that draws in devout hip hop fans and non-fans alike, permeating the masses with his ephemeral relatability, while maintaining a connection to the harder-to-please crowd (myself included). His performance in Santa Ana mirrored this, ranging from the high-energy jump up of “Juice” to the chillingly prescient rendition of “Paranoia”.
After a brief encore, Chance came back on stage to perform “JukeJuke” a song from his breakout first mixtape, titled 10Day, that draws a connection between the footwork music that Rashad and Spinn epitomize and the hip hop that has brought Chance so much fame. Footwork’s breakneck speed makes it especially difficult to approximate with live instruments, but the drummer did an admirable job at replicating the layered rhythmic textures of the original, proving himself a dexterous talent. With the pounding bass drum acting as tactus, the crowd jumped around jubilantly as Chance chanted “juke juke” over and over again, putting the crowd into an almost trance-like state.
After a few more songs and plenty of effusive praise on the part of the performers, Chance and his band left the stage to raucous applause, followed by 75% of the crowd filtering out of the venue. Of course we were staying. It was only 10:15 and we still had plenty of Rashad and Spinn to come. As stagehands carried a solitary table adorned with two CDJs and a mixer, Rashad and Spinn, who have both been DJing since the mid-1990s, emerged to scattered applause. In Chicago, footwork is almost always accompanied by a thrilling dance of the same name, made up of frenetic below the waist movements that have become a Youtube phenomenon in recent years. While few, if any, of the crowd knew how to footwork, many reached a consensus of a half-time bob, moving at a fraction of the speed of the music being played.
While the majority of the crowd had left and the remainder looked largely bored, there were clearly some footwork devotees who remained in The Observatory. Over the next hour, Spinn and Rashad traded off turns on the turntables, running through remixes of popular American hits (Kanye West, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan) and British favorites (Julio Bashmore, Hudson Mohawke), establishing a pleasurable yet disorienting groove. A jarring takedown of Julio Bashmore’s “Battle For Middle You” left the crowd dazed and numerous cuts from Rashad’s recent Double Cup LP (out now on Hyperdub) left yours truly starry eyed.
Leaving The Observatory later that night, it was hard not to be jealous of Chicago’s present music landscape. Chance, Rashad and Spinn all brought a unique take on hip hop, dance music and soul tropes, often blending the three with culturally kaleidoscopic results. The show also represented different facets of performance culture with Chance often performing mellow love songs with frantic energy while Spinn and Rashad opted for a cool demeanor while playing out speed-freak dance music. In the end, it’s Teklife or no life.