Last week's fourth annual "How the Grouch Stole Christmas" show seemed remarkably ascetic for hip-hop. And by ascetic, I mean there were fewer people onstage than there were stereo speakers. There were other accoutrements, though, most of them related to the holiday theme. An inflatable Santa Claus stood opposite an inflatable Frosty the Snowman, both with raised fists. A toy tree glowed greenly in the background. Red bordello lighting hit the exposed brick walls of The New Parish, making the whole nightclub resemble the inside of a chimney.
The whole purpose of this show — conceived by Living Legends rapper The Grouch — is to have an anti-Christmas Christmas. To that end, he assembled an appropriate cast of characters: Panamanian duo Los Rakas, fellow Legend Eligh, and the night's main highlight, Minneapolis-born Muslim rapper Brother Ali. Collectively, they seemed like a perfect antidote to the commercialism and mandatory good cheer that makes Christmas so hard to stomach. And they clearly saw themselves that way, too.
"Do you know how hard it is to be an albino at Christmas time?" Ali joked, showing a sense of humor about his well-publicized genetic condition. "Everywhere I go, kids be trying to climb in my lap, telling me what they want for Christmas and shit." The crowd roared.
The irony, of course, was that all of these rappers embrace the spirit of Christmas, and not in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. So much warmth and brotherly love pervaded the hip-hop show that at points, it looked like we were all about to hold hands and sing a happy kumbaya. And Brother Ali was the main culprit.
Ali is one of the best emcees around if you go for heartfelt, confessional, self-deprecating material that extends from the personal to the general. He's said many times that he's not destined for success, mostly because of the way he looks. He explains that most articulately in "Forest Whitaker." I got red eyes, and one of 'em's lazy/And they both squint when the sun shines, so I get crazy, he rapped, as audience members mouthed the words. Most of his songs deal with persecution, as a theme in his own life, and as an issue in the world at large. He's big on purging insecurities. He talks about being dubbed a terrorist because of his name and his Muslim faith. At The New Parish, he did a medley of songs about marginalized groups: immigrants, kids from broken homes, gay people. Ali seems to love positioning himself as a spokesperson for underrepresented communities.
That said, he's also a champion for all the people he raps about. And his whole m.o. is to make us feel good about ourselves. "How many people in Oakland are beautiful, and love themselves?" Ali asked, to rousing cheers from the audience. He paused a beat. "And how many people here are ugly as hell, and love themselves, too?" The word "ugly" had a certain sting to it, which gave the audience pause. But once we all got his drift, the applause was even more spirited than before.
The show sold out in advance, and the line of people waiting "on stand-by" stretched half a block. It also sold out the night before at The Independent in San Francisco, with the same lineup. And it seemed pretty packed, with only a narrow aisle providing access to the bars and merch tables at either end of the club. The same tour played for a near-capacity crowd at the Fillmore last year, which is at least twice the size of The New Parish. But this year, the Grouch opted to work two nights on both sides of the bay. The decision was partly practical, but it was also sentimental. The Grouch is originally from Oakland. His performance was a homecoming of sorts. And his cohorts professed a special feeling for the East Bay, too.
"Let me tell you something that a lot of entertainers say all the time — but I mean. Because I don't say anything unless I don't mean it," Ali said. "It feels good as fuck to be performing in Oakland."
It was hard not to get swept up in the bathos. A girl at stage left turned to the guy next to her. "You know, you have the most beautiful smile!" she gushed. "I've been looking at you and thinking that all night." The guy grinned. "I'm just happy to be here," he said.
Could this really be happening at a hip-hop show?
As Ali's set drew to a close, he turned to DJ Fresh, who had done triple duty that night as the backing man for Eligh and the Grouch, as well. Fresh cued up a horn-rich soul sample, cribbed from Margie Joseph's 1973 version of the song "Touch Your Woman." Sweat streamed down the rapper's head. He got his audience to clap on beats two and four, swaying side to side like parishioners watching a church choir. Ali let the vamp ride out for several bars before launching into "Take Me Home," a love ballad from his 2007 album The Undisputed Truth. He sang the album's hook in a guttural tenor: I promise if you take me home, I'll sing a song, then I'll leave you alone.
For any other rapper, it would have been an ignoble, cloying outro. No groupie action, no video screens, no entourage. But for a guy perched at the back of the stage, with a camera, it seemed remarkably sedate — and remarkably lacking in technology — compared to a typical hip-hop performance.
All the same, you could almost see the specter of Jimmy Stewart, simpering in the background. Maybe the Grouch didn't steal Christmas, after all.