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Hip-Hop Holiday

A living legend and a band of upstarts bring live hip-hop to town.

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Hip-hop doesn't have a hall of fame, but when that inevitable day comes booming Bronx rapper KRS-ONE will be one of the first names inducted. As blastmaster mouthpiece for the duo Boogie Down Productions, KRS-ONE pushed hip-hop hardcore with his classic 1987 debut album Criminal Minded, along the way instigating one of hip-hop's first public feuds in his back-and-forth exchanges with Queens rapper MC Shan.

Soon after Criminal Minded dropped, KRS-ONE's producer/DJ partner Scott La Rock was slain while trying to break up a street fight, an event that turned KRS "conscious" and launched him -- alongside Public Enemy's Chuck D. -- at the forefront of a new, politically confrontational era of hip-hop. Along the way, the hip-hop scholar and activist became a sought-after speaker (particularly on college campuses) and a widely published columnist, helping foment an intellectual underground that still exists alongside its more mainstream counterpart.

The underground seems to suit him. According to Tonya Dyson-Jerry of Chiku Urban Marketing & Promotions [also a Flyer employee], who booked KRS-ONE for his first Memphis performance last year and is bringing him back to town this week, the onetime hip-hop celebrity prizes his connection to the music's current underground.

Every spring, according to Dyson-Jerry, KRS-ONE takes a roadtrip from his current home in California to New York, where he catches a plane for a slate of European concerts. Along the way from Cali to NYC and back again, KRS-ONE books concerts, lectures, and speaking engagements across the country.

"That keeps him in the underground," Dyson-Jerry says. "If he likes the group [that opens for him] in one city, he'll invite them to come play with him at another show."

This happened last year after KRS-ONE performed at the Plush Club. He was so impressed by local openers Iron-Mic Coalition that he invited them to open for him in New York.

This year, KRS-ONE will be at the Complex, where Iron-Mic and other members of Memphis' underground hip-hop scene will join him. Earlier that day, KRS will sponsor his own lecture at the club, which Dyson-Jerry says he's calling the "Hip-Hop Resurrection Conference."

"He speaks a lot on the preservation of hip-hop, which has become a big thing at colleges and universities," says Dyson-Jerry, who suspects that KRS-ONE might have something to say about the recent Oscar win by Three 6 Mafia for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp."

The lecture is set to start at 3 p.m., but Dyson-Jerry isn't sure when it will end. "That man's got the gift of gab, dude. Last year I had to cut him off," she says of a lecture KRS-ONE gave at the Center for Southern Folklore.

If KRS-ONE isn't enough of a treat for hip-hop fans whose tastes run outside the mainstream, you couldn't ask for a better warm-up than the hip-hop package scheduled for the New Daisy Theatre the night before, when headliner Blackalicious brings a group of significant West Coast indie acts to town.

No one on the Daisy bill Saturday night is as politically or musically confrontational as KRS-ONE, but the lineup still gives a pretty good indication of the strength and depth of the indie hip-hop scene.

The headliner -- producer Chief Xcel and MC Gift of Gab -- is a lucid, vibrant, laid-back duo that matches rapid-fire articulation with lyrics that are "conscious" without being too self-conscious and music of opulent soulfulness. Blackalicious is the centerpiece act for the West Coast indie collective Quannum Projects, a group that also includes DJ Shadow and rapper Lyrics Born.

On record and on stage, Blackalicious has served as den parents for emerging Quannum acts. California solo artist Pigeon John and Oregon trio Lifesavas appear on Blackalicious' current album The Craft and are supporting the duo on this current tour.

Pigeon John is probably the most hyped supporting act on the tour, though his 2005 album Pigeon John Sings the Blues! reveals a flow that's sometimes a little too limp. More exciting are the Lifesavas, a group whose similar but more powerful style threatens to overshadow the headliners.

The Lifesavas' 2003 debut Spirit in Stone is indie-rap De La Soul. There's a modest-yet-expansive musical ease to Spirit in Stone that is matched by a lyrical worldview that's calm, direct, gentle, and witty.

But the best bet Saturday night might be the one artist not connected to Quannum. Ex-Pharcyde MC Fatlip is as intellectually and culturally confrontational as anyone in hip-hop, as witnessed by his amazing 2000 single "What's Up Fatlip?," an act of comically defiant self-deprecation that might be the smartest, funniest, and most subtly moving song anyone's released this decade. It took Fatlip five years to build an album around the song, 2005's The Loneliest Punk. Nothing else on the record compares to that song, but the fact that a few tracks come close is victory enough.

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