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[whitespace] Beats and Blood

SnoCore heats up, Saul Williams slams and Blackalicious grooves

By David Espinoza

EMMA GOLDMAN'S WORDS, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be a part of the revolution," never made more sense than at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium Sunday, Feb. 17, for the seventh annual SnoCore tour featuring artists Saul Williams, Blackalicious, Spearhead and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.

Contrary to the tour's name, the show had very little to do with snowboarding, skiing or the particularly lame Winter Olympics, and everything to do with the activist nature of hip-hop, funk and rock & roll. Add in the factor that all the bands were fronted by African Americans (an anomaly outside of commercial hip-hop), and SnoCore was nothing less than a diamond in the rough.

While the majority of the bands on the bill had consistently packed in the crowds in Santa Cruz on many separate occasions, the name on everyone's lips throughout the night was "Saul Williams." The slam poet/rock emcee and star of the 1998 film Slam, Williams is rich in critical acclaim but still largely unknown outside of the college circuit. His debut album, Amethyst Rock Star, released late last year, is easily one of the most important albums of the decade, on a par with Dead Presidents' Let's Get Free. Coming on first, when folks were still filtering in from outside, Williams translated his words of fire from the album flawlessly onto the big Civic stage. On the track, "Om Nia Merica (Omni American)" Williams broke it down, "I'm the Omni American, born of beats and blood, the concert of the sun unplugged."

Similar to Mos Def, who's been dusting off the vaults and applying CPR to black rock & roll, a lot of curiosity has surrounded Williams' project as it incorporates guitar, bass, drums and cello. Most of the time, the combination works; however, sometimes it doesn't. Williams' voice is like Zach De La Rocha's in that it's made for rhyming, not singing. Such a vocal ambidexterity is best left up to folks like Blackalicious' Gift of Gab and Spearhead's Michael Franti. And while Williams may receive a comparison or two to Rage Against the Machine, his beats and lyrics are by in large experimental--he's still a slam poet at heart.

If Saul Williams gave everyone something to ponder, Blackalicious gave everyone something to shake it to. There really isn't a band right now that can groove so easily through funk, soul and hip-hop and not come off as if it's all hastily stitched together. The whole crew of Blackalicious (Joyo Velarde, Gift of Gab and DJ Xcel, with cameos from Lyrics Born or Lateef) seems to live for performing live and always keep things on a positive tip. The only disappointing part of Blackalicious' performance was when they left the stage--especially if you know how much more material they have up their sleeves. Then again, with their major label debut, Blazing Arrow, set to drop on April 30, it's possible Blackalicious will be headlining their own major tours sooner than you think.

With the end of Blackalicious' set came the close of the straight underground hip-hop lineup and the start of the crossover jam bands like Michael Franti's Spearhead and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Franti deserves credit for bridging the division between beathead purists and the post-Deadhead crowds, though the music is considerably watered down. To put it another way, Franti is lyrically revolutionary; the music unfortunately isn't. The highlight of Spearhead's set was the debut of a new song written after 9/11, in which Franti flies solo on an acoustic guitar and sings, "We can bomb the world to pieces but we can't bomb it into peace."

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From the February 27-March 6, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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