I listened to Mark Ronson (pictured below, left) for a long time without ever knowing who he was, what he did, or why he deserved my undying adoration. It started with the music blogs I read posting "Devil's Pie" in the run-up to the release of Rhymefest's (pictured, right) 2006 debut, Blue Collar. This was something that didn't blow my mind, exactly, but came close: here we have 'Fest rhyming over a beat that's made of the Strokes' song "Someday," with very little in the way of editing the original down. It is sad that using some early 00's indie rock as the basis of a hip hop beat could even be considered "mind blowing," but such is the state of hip hop today.
Anyway, once the album dropped later that summer, I snatched it right up. It was worth every penny--the album drips with Rhymefest's exuberant and often funny verses, and it has not left my iPod since. The emcee has an energy like few others, good natured but still street. He also has songwriting and production skills, which doesn't hurt. He's not afraid of far-flung genres, sampling the aforementioned Strokes hit, collaborating with Citizen Cope on a reworking of his tune "Bullet and A Target," and even collaborating with the then-recently deceased Ol' Dirty Bastard on a cover of "Build Me Up Buttercup," simply titled "Build Me Up."
It wasn't until a year or more later that I realized another name in the Blue Collar production credits: Executive Producer Mark Ronson. This was after I'd spent the better part of 2007 reading articles about this wunderkind producer, Ronson, producing the Lily Allen debut Alright, Still and putting the Dap Kings in the same studio as Amy Winehouse and having the masterpiece that is Back to Black emerge (say what you will about Winehouse's trials and tribulations--the fact is that album holds up). Not to denigrate Rhymefest in any way--he's a production powerhouse in his own right and has a Grammy to prove it--but it looked like there may have been more at work on Blue Collar than I thought. Ronson's got the eclectic taste that hip hop, and for that matter soul, R&B, rock, and pop needs these days.
It was with all this in mind that I frantically bought tickets to see the Allido Records CMJ showcase at S.O.B.'s this week (Allido is Mark Ronson's boutique record label). The show was on Tuesday night, and the bill was too good to be true, if a bit misleading: Rhymefest, Wale (another Allido emcee), new signing the Rumble Strips (UK chamber rock, but it was hard to tell), Daniel Merriweather, the Dap Kings, and a DJ set by Ronson himself.
We got to the club and waited for about an hour through a DJ set by... not Mark Ronson. Whoever was spinning, he was pretty good, mostly older hip hop stuff with some newer cuts as well. Then Mr. Allido himself took the stage, introducing "the first act we ever signed," Rhymefest. Fest took us through an exciting but all too short set, playing for no more than twenty minutes. The set included a stripped down version of "More," with Fest regaling us with an a cappella, almost stand-up version of that song's best verse ("This mano a mano, how you gonna catch mono from a girl that work at McDonald's?"). He also brought living legend Rahzel on stage for some impressive beatboxing, teasing us that the two of them want to go on tour together. Before the set was over, Fest performed "Ain't No Sunshine," the song from Man in the Mirror that, like every song on that album, samples Michael Jackson, but in a nod to the family affair vibe of the showcase, remixed the cover version of that song by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, adding another layer of homage to a song that was already Rhymefest riffing on Michael Jackson riffing on Bill Withers. All in all, a fantastic set. I only wish it were longer, to say nothing of the fact that Rhymefest was the first opener. But it was hard to complain after seeing such a strong performance from one of my favorite artists working today. Oh, and there was an Obama rap. Total package, as far as I'm concerned.
Next up was the Rumble Strips, a new band from some crazy land called "England" that have just signed to Allido. They seem to take a page from the Arcade Fire book of swapping instruments, or dropping them altogether from time to time. The songs, however, had a much more straightforward tilt to them. The highlight of this set was a cover of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," a somber march of a tune in the hands of the Rumble Strips. I'll be watching this band to see what comes from them, because their set was quite enjoyable.
Next up was Daniel Merriweather and the Dap Kings. What to say about Mr. Merriweather? He's a perfectly competent British soul singer, known mostly (to me, anyway) from appearances on various Mark Ronson projects, such as "Stop Me," the Smiths cover on last year's Version album (a record of covers where Ronson had the Dap Kings play on almost every track to great effect), or spots on Fest's Man in the Mirror mixtape, also produced by Ronson. What made the set for me was the Dap Kings, who can take any artist and move them from the "just okay" into the "fucking marvelous" just by playing behind them. Bugs Bunny could win a Grammy if he sang in front of the Dap Kings (in fact, this is exactly what Ronson's plan for Winehouse was, and now she's got a... oh, nevermind). So the set was great, though it never reached the transcendent levels that the Dap Kings tap into with their permanent lead singer/powerhouse, Sharon Jones.
Here I must admit that after the Dap Kings played, I bailed. From most accounts (though not all), Wale played a pretty good set with DC go-go band UCB backing him up. Ronson never played his DJ set, from what I heard from my friends who stayed, and whispers in the crowd of "Amy Winehouse is the special guest" were, unfortunately, never confirmed. This show was far from perfect, but its family vibe and strong lineup made it one of the most memorable I've seen in a long time. Hit up the links below for more on the Allido Family.
Allido Records [MySpace...official site currently under construction]
Mark Ronson Presents Rhymefest in The Man in the Mirror [Legal Download, click to start]
The Rumble Strips [MySpace]
The Dap Kings [Daptone Records]
Daniel Merriweather [MySpace]