Kings of the Mic at the Santa Barbara Bowl

LL Cool J, Public Enemy Played on Sunday, May 26

LL Cool J
Paul Wellman

There is something mentally off-putting about casually strolling your way through the shaded native plant wonderland that is Jerry Garcia Glen while hearing Chuck D aggressively declare, “F*#k the immigration laws!” from the stage somewhere up above you. But such cognitive dissonance, it seems, is par for the course on the Kings of the Mic Tour, a feel-good revival of sorts for aging hip-hop lions Public Enemy, De La Soul, Ice Cube, and LL Cool J.

Once upon a time, hip-hop music — and the wild river of creative urban culture that flows through it — was at the leading edge of progressive people-powered music. In those heady days, a billing as star-studded and ego heavy as the Kings of the Mic Tour would have been pure gold and potentially criminal in its unpredictability. Now, more than two decades removed from that zenith, the gathering, though certainly still holding in the entertainment department, plays out like a particularly poorly scripted porn film; the overall experience certainly serves its purpose, but the infectious vitality of raw authenticity is missing. Example? How about a cartoonishly muscle-bound LL Cool J in full hip-hop diva mode, closing out his headlining set by passing out wilted roses to female fans while a load of red and white balloons dropped from above. As much as the scene may have made sense — after all, Ladies Love Cool James is the guy who brought us smooth-talking ballads like “I Need Love” and “Around the Way Girl” — it also played out like a bad parody of itself, especially for those of us that had the pleasure of knowing and loving hip-hop when it was still plugged in directly to the source.

Flavor Flav of Public Enemy
Paul Wellman

Glimmers of said source could be found peppered throughout Sunday evening’s show, though, especially during Public Enemy’s and Ice Cube’s respective sets. While the former proved that they are in no danger of losing their political urgency, it was their clock-clad hype man, Flavor Flav, who provided one of the show’s most honest glimpses into the free-form, in-your-face fun that hip-hop was founded on. (He also delivered some of the most athletic stage dives in the history of the Bowl.) Of course, even Flav had to close out PE’s set with a few stolen minutes of stage time to promote his new single (one that, it should be noted, the audience never actually heard) that is dedicated to the late, great gloved one from Santa Ynez, Michael Jackson.


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