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Pick Up Your Microphones

Who would have thought Elwood Blues would bring us the premier hip-hop tour of the summer and, so far, the decade?

Dan Aykroyd's House of Blues--the juke-joint-themed chain-restaurant-and-music venue he established in 1992 with Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett--is the sponsor behind the 33-city, multiact Smokin' Grooves Tour. The HOB package offers the most diverse lineup of topnotch, contemporary black music in years: R&B/rap chart-toppers the Fugees; boho-rap luminaries A Tribe Called Quest; conscious-funk rappers Spearhead; hip-hop wild-styler Busta Rhymes; reggae royal family Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers; and perpetually blunted hard-core rappers Cypress Hill. Inevitably, it's been dubbed "Hip-Hopalooza." Tigrett deserves a hefty flogging for his press-release claim that Smokin' Grooves "brings a taste of urban culture to cities that don't have a House of Blues venue," but if you can stomach the corresponding faux-inner-city stage set (graffiti, corrugated-metal siding and a chain-link fence), the music should more than compensate.

The tour specializes in that rare breed of rapper who knows how to connect with an audience. Whether through the live instrumentation of the Fugees and Spearhead or the freestyling of A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes, Smokin' Grooves spotlights rappers who do more than walk around stage looking tough, regurgitating old raps over prerecorded tapes.

Michael Franti, leader of the seven-piece Bay Area hip-hop band Spearhead and one of the most outspoken rappers in the game, notes that "every group on the bill has an interest in more than the music and is outspoken about what's going on in the world." That political and social consciousness has earned most of the Smokin' Groovers the label "alternative rap," a title the acts resist because of its implication that they're outside the core hip-hop community. Paraphrasing fellow accused alt-rapper Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Franti argues, "The alternative to rap is nothing. Hip-hop is a culture, not just a music. A dress, an attitude, artwork, dance, everything. The alternative is an absence of culture."

When Franti began recording in the late '80s, groups like KRS-One and Public Enemy had already blazed the trail for his brand of social-critic rap. His first group, the Beatnigs, was more about political theatre than hip-hop skills. And Franti's early-'90s project with San Francisco deejay Rono Tse, Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, took a similarly confrontational approach, inspired in equal parts by Chuck D and protorapper Gil Scott-Heron.

But it wasn't until he released Spearhead's 1994 debut, Home, that Franti learned to put rhythm before rhetoric. Still pushing topical lyrics, Franti now used melodicism and organic funk to make Home his most successful recording to date. "Before, I really wasn't thinking as much about the enjoyment of music as about getting an idea across," Franti says. "But at some point I said, 'I love listening to Sly Stone and Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye.' They were all saying something, but they would put it through music you could just listen to and enjoy. If you didn't care about what it was saying, then you didn't have to check for it."

Spearhead's upcoming album Chocolate Supahighway (due in October) features a more hip-hop-oriented beat and bass sound, Franti says, with songs "about life as a whole--whether that means political things, partying, my girlfriend, smoking herb, or God." The new material will get its first airing on the Smokin' Grooves stage, backed by a full funk band. For Franti, though, it's still pure hip-hop: "We play live, but we try to retain the roots of hip-hop: the audience participation with the group, the beats, the rhythms and flowing on top of the music--using your voice the way a jazz artist uses a saxophone."

Smokin' Grooves act A Tribe Called Quest was among the first generation of rappers branded alternative, receiving the mark when it came on the scene in 1988, along with fellow Native Tongues collective members De La Soul. Quest earned its reputation for its combination of pop-and-jazz-tinged tracks with a spiritual, nonaggressive flow that appealed to outsiders--namely, white music critics and college students.

Over three highly praised and commercially successful albums, Quest has managed the rare feat of retaining street credibility while consistently attracting suburban fans. Its first release since 1993's Midnight Marauders--the just-out Beats, Rhymes and Life--continues Quest's winning formula: immaculately produced tracks coupled with positive, playful, soulful rapping.

It's also the group's first recording since front man Q-Tip's conversion to Islam, a change that makes Quest sound more alternative to mainstream rap than ever. An early version of Beats, Rhymes and Life found the 25-year-old Queens, New York, native uttering the rap blasphemy, "Hip-hop could never be a way of life/It doesn't teach you how to raise a child or treat a wife." The lines have since been removed because, Q-Tip says, "I think I spoke hastily. . . . What I should have said is just that there's another way of life that supersedes hip-hop, because there are traits in hip-hop that don't hit a code of moral standards."

But like Franti, Q-Tip knows that all the preaching in the world won't inspire listeners the way a kicking beat and a smooth groove will. "It's important to have a balance, because otherwise you're going to be looked at as excessive," he says. "And that's not going to aid our plan, which is to implement good music and good vibes."

With an approach that incorporates Spearhead's live hip-hop dynamism and Quest's street-friendly virtuousness, it's the Fugees who earlier this year usurped gangsta rap's chart dominance. After the group's promising debut album, Blunted on Reality, failed to take root in 1993, the co-ed trio that features two Haitian-American cousins (Pras and Wyclef) and a Columbia University undergrad (Lauryn Hill) has hit big with The Score, its multiplatinum follow-up.

While the group's success came as a shock to those convinced socially conscious rap couldn't sell, the victory is less decisive when you consider it earned a mainstream audience through a Roberta Flack cover, "Killing Me Softly." Relying on The Score's great rap tracks, massive sales would've been far less likely.

Still, with any luck, the Fugees' coup over gangsta rap's dark reign could signal the most momentous shift in popular music since Nirvana smelled teen spirit. Like Cobain and company, the Fugees are that rarest of cultural commodities: a hugely popular group that deserves to be. They combine hip-hop electronics with roots acoustics, East Coast style with reggae and soul touches, gracious singing with energetic raps, and a cocky swagger with intelligence and sensitivity.

Live on the Smokin' Grooves stage, Fugees rapper and multi-instrumentalist Wyclef says, "You might see me on the accordion, you might see me on the keyboards, you might see L [singer Lauryn Hill] grab a guitar, Pras grab a bass. It's just gonna be real. I think the Fugees have made a statement in hip-hop within the past two years. . . . I've seen people's shows get a lot better after performing with us."

If what Wyclef says is true, Smokin' Grooves is the best indication in years of hip-hop's continuing vitality. Or, to acknowledge House of Blues' job well-done, the tour ably lives up to black music's substantial legacy.

The Smokin' Grooves Tour is scheduled to hit Phoenix on Thursday, July 25, at Desert Sky Pavilion. The music starts at 6 p.m.


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