It was a perfect New Mexico evening at the Santa Fe Brewing Company’s outdoor concert space. The air was crisp, with a slight fall breeze wafting the smells of tobacco smoke and a few other distinctive aromas. An excited crowd jostled for position in front of the outdoor stage, trying not to spill their cups of craft beer.
The weather was perfect, but the crowd came for the performance — and the Rhymesayers crew did not disappoint.
The biggest names from the Minneapolis hip hop label, Atmosphere and Brother Ali, gave a performance that would’ve blown away a Saturday night crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Despite playing in front of a relatively small audience on a Wednesday night in New Mexico, the rappers gave the performance everything they had, and left the crowd feeling like they had witnessed something truly special.
Devoted fans were thrilled that Atmosphere’s Freshwater Fly Fishermen Tour decided to stop in New Mexico. Slug, the underground hip hop darling and MC of Atmosphere, has had mixed experiences playing in the state.
At an Albuquerque show in 2003, a 16-year-old girl was raped and murdered during Slug’s performance — an experience that affected him deeply and led him to write a song called “That Night” about the incident.
But Slug had nothing but love for the New Mexico audience on Wednesday. The show got off to a strong start, with rising Rhymesayers MC deM atlaS giving a solid opening performance.
As the sun began to set, Brother Ali took the stage, with about half the crowd still in line to get inside. Ali has a striking appearance onstage. He is well known as being the world’s only legally blind, albino Muslim rapper — and he absolutely owns it.
Ali’s lyrics were clear and powerful over the sound system, full of scathing social commentary and appeals to racial and religious tolerance. His delivery was a like a mixture of a sociology professor and a rousing baptist preacher, and the crowd was on fire after only the first few songs.
The message of the night was about love and faith in humanity. Ali called for the audience to shout the word “Love” about 30 times.
“It doesn’t matter how good you sing,” Ali said between songs. “It’s how loud you sing, and how much you believe in what you sing.”
With the sun down, the stage lights flashing and the crowd in the mood to party, Ali stepped down and Atmosphere took the stage.
In the early 2000s, Atmosphere was probably the biggest name in underground hip hop. His smart, personal, self-examining style separated him from much of the hip hop scene at the time, when most rappers were consumed with bling and “making it rain.”
It’s been nearly 15 years since those days, and the world has changed, as well as the genre. As a fan of his early work, I was skeptical whether he could still deliver the magic that had attracted so many devoted listeners.
He proved me wrong, and then some.
Slug came out hard, full of energy and at the top of his game. His flow was perfect, he never missed a beat, and throughout the night he fed off the crowd’s energy and gave it right back to them.
One of the highlights of the performance was the song “God Loves Ugly,” one of the first big hits off his 2002 album of the same name. Every audience member seemed to know every word, and sang along in unison.
Another high point was when he brought Brother Ali back onstage for a duet performance of Ali’s song “Blah Blah Blah,” which features some brilliant verses from Slug.
The DJs delivered a stellar performance as well. Ant, Plain Ole Bill and Last Word delivered the beats with precision, mixing live cuts, record scratching and vocal effects throughout the show.
All night Slug acted as a true Master of Ceremonies (or “MC” for the kids out there), chatting with the crowd between songs, leading them in call-and-response and even inviting a little boy onstage to sing along to his favorite Atmosphere track.
There was plenty of love shown for the local crowd, with Slug working “Santa Fe” and “New Mexico” into his songs whenever he could. The love was definitely mutual.
The absolute best moment of the night was during Atmosphere’s encore, when Slug directed everyone to turn on their phone’s flashlights and wave them in the air. I’m generally old-school when it comes to this sort of thing, but I must admit — hundreds of bright white lights above the audience is cool as hell, even better than the Bic lighters of olden days.
With all the lights glowing, Slug invited Ali and deM atlaS back onstage to “bust the freestyle,” leading them in a final improvised jam. It’s hard to say whose game was flowing better that night, but all three were clearly loving every minute of it.
Love was definitely in the air, and everyone came home with a smile on their face and a beat stuck in their head. Amazingly, at a hip hop show in New Mexico, there wasn’t a single brawl between audience members — suggesting that maybe rap can save the world after all.
Jonathan Baca is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JonGabrielB.