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Live review: Old School Fest featuring Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, Soulsonic Force & Egyptian Lover at the Greek Theatre

September 14, 2009 |  3:03 pm

Kurtisblow400 You can tell an audience is having a good time when by intermission, people are already openly scheming plans to call in sick the next day. And assessing the euphoric crowd response at Sunday night’s Old School Jams show at the Greek Theatre, there were a lot of employers this morning baffled by the sudden spate of illness.

There was a wonderful irony in the lineup of legends assembled in Los Feliz, performing in indirect competition with MTV’s Video Music Awards: a show well-known for its worship of the evanescent (and Evanescence) versus the progenitors of the art forms whose current icons took home Moonmen on Sunday night. Indeed, watching the Egyptian Lover, Melle Mel (minus the Furious Five), the Soulsonic Force (minus Afrika Bambaataa) and Kurtis Blow was something akin to a billion dollar NASA telescope where you can see back to the dawn of the universe — or, at least, the time before gangsta rap made a criminal record and an icy stare de rigueur for industry acceptance.

The last year has seen hip-hop’s paradigm shift from the steroid-inflated 50 Cent era to a more electronic-oriented skinny jeans-wearing aesthetic. Of course, the results of this trend have been mixed, but it’s inarguable that artists like the New Boyz, Wale, the Knux, et. al, hew closer to hip-hop’s roots in the post-disco world, where Kraftwerk was more likely to be sampled than anything on Stax.

Indeed, both the Egyptian Lover and the Soulsonic Force utilized bits of the “Trans-Europe Express” sample to perform their respective hits, “Egypt, Egypt” and “Planet Rock.” Dressed in outlandish costumes including Indian headdresses, sorcerer’s hats and capes, Soulsonic delivered a dynamic performance that helped mitigate the fact that the Soulsonic Force without the legendary Bambaataa is cognate to Creedence Clearwater Revival minus John Fogerty.

Clad in a pimp’s all-pink suit, Melle Mel, the first to ever invoke the word “MC” to describe a rapper, performed his long-canonized hits “The Message” and “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” the latter famously utilizing a Sugar Hill Band rendition of “Cavern” from legendary downtown New York post-punk outfit Liquid Liquid. Despite taking long obsolete cheap shots at Vanilla Ice, Mel’s rhymes never failed to resonate, even though the well-manicured mansions of Los Feliz are far removed from the battle-scarred late '70s South Bronx description in the song.

Perhaps the most commercially viable rapper of the old school, an Adidas tracksuit-clad Kurtis Blow   delivered arguably the finest performance of the bunch, backed by a crew of break dancers and his son, Kurtis Blow Jr. Running through the almost prog-like structures of “The Breaks” and “Basketball,” Blow represented the nexus between the “on-and-on to the break-a-dawn” style popularized by his predecessors and the more complex syllabics of the new school that Run DMC ushered in during the mid-'80s.

With a median age in their 40s, people in the audience hung on to every word of their idols — dancing in the aisles, clapping their hands, rapping along to every verse. The emcees onstage may have been nearing AARP age, but they proved that they still possess the ability to rock a crowd -- let’s just hope they still have sick days available.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo of Kurtis Blow circa 1985: Polygram Records