Two hip-hop acts took to the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse Thursday night: one an ambitious rising star whose performance pushed the limits of the genre, the other a well-established vet who demonstrated the merits of the old school.
Milwaukee’s own Klassik was clearly worthy of the night’s penultimate slot, attracting a crowd six rows deep at the outset that multiplied as the night went on. Klassik was joined by three violinists and three female backup vocalists – clad in matching black dresses and red pumps – an electric guitarist, a hype man and a DJ. The arrangement played with expectations about how a hip-hop show should look and sound, with the strings and vocals dramatically lifting the songs and the electric guitar lending a funky rock edge. Klassik even played some guitar himself, trading in the mic for an acoustic to strum out a couple brand new originals. He’s only been playing for six months, and has a long way to go before he’s as lucid on the strings as he is with a mic in his hand. But it’s another intriguing move for an artist who seems intent on pushing limits. Indeed, not even a time limit could contain him Thursday. Ignoring the pleas of the soundman, he overstayed his time by about 10 minutes, but not his welcome. When he finally left the stage, the audience was still chanting his name.
Talib Kweli’s setup was of the old-fashioned, two-turntables-and-a-microphone variety, placing the emphasis solely on beats, bass and the Brooklyn rapper’s complex, mincing rhymes. Kweli made the stripped-down thing work for an hour-and-a-half on charisma and skill alone, staying connected to the audience in a really genuine way (sincerely wondering where the after-party would be) and showcasing his intricate lyrics with a brisk, tongue-twisting flow. He spent a lot of time verbally promoting his new album Prisoner of Conscious and letting us know which of his songs were produced by Kanye – which felt like a too-desperate attempt to remind us of his relevance – but he also performed a handful of tracks from his lesser-known collaborations with Hi-Tek that ended up being some of the best of the night. Other highlights were “Lonely People,” which flips “Elanor Rigby,” an impressive a cappella version of “Distractions” from Prisoner of Conscious, and his big hit, “Get By,” which he saved for last. Besides that song, Kweli has never been much of a hit-maker – you won’t hear his music at parties or ballgames – but the atmosphere of the set was carefree and rowdy, perfect for the boisterous audience that packed the bleachers and filled the air with a permanent haze.
The Big Gig is a big party, and these two acts embodied the festival perfectly by making fun a priority. At one point during Kweli’s set, the guy next to me stopped dancing, seeming truly concerned, to ask if I was having a good time. I assured him I was. “Just wanted to make sure,” he said – as if one person not having a good time could ruin it for everyone else – and with a hoot, he threw his arms back into the air.