People Under the Stairs, Kenan Bell, Budo and Grieves, D-Tension - Jan 23rd Middle East Downstairs

Starting the set was a cat out of Lowell, MA: D-Tension. I’ll admit that beforehand, I had very little faith in this man’s ability to rap (and, even more so, his ability to perform) based the silliness of his name and his hometown. It would only be after his set was over that I’d realize how mistaken I’d been; how pseudonyms are rarely ever indicative of ability, no matter how bizarre or obnoxious they might seem (cf. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Jay Electronica) and how where a performer comes from doesn’t really matter. Even if not many MCs have come from there before.

Admittedly, the fact that he didn’t do much but stand at center stage, wireless mic in hand, annoyed me somewhat. But, for the first time in a while, I really didn’t care. He was just too damn nice. Spitting 92-era lyrics over productions which seemed like they had spawned from Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s twenty-year-old fingertips (though this is very unlikely, I understand), D-Tension had me laughing. And not in a condescending way; it might be easy for some to mock this acknowledged self-deprecator with beats like a school kid and raps like “Ya Mama”, but if you were paying attention at all to D-Tension’s set you would’ve realized how genuinely happy the guy was to be there, spitting his rhymes, opening for People Under the Stairs. He never once broke stride: two-and-a-half-minute song, banter, two-and-a-half-minute song ad infinitum. In a rap world where self-propagation often leads to straight up falsehood, it’s nice to see someone not care if he’s not on top of the world and have some fun with hip hop.

I don’t have much to say about Budo and Grieves’ . Honestly, the only thing that struck me about this set was how UN-struck I was, which was strange, because Budo’s music still attracts me to the point of repeat-playing. I guess I’ll just have to see them again.

On a track, Kenan Bell sports deft lyrical control with a voice so high up in his sinuses sometimes it sounds like the guy could use a good nose-blowin’. I really didn’t know what to expect from Kenan Bell, beyond several well-produced songs and a quick tongue on the mic. What followed was a set that I can say was the best I’ve seen at the Middle East Downstairs, hip-hop-wise.  And, lest I forget, his band played some damn funky music right from the get-go ( opened with “Joy and Pain”) and didn’t let up ‘till the half hour was done. The bass was pulsing so hard I swear I felt like I was getting a defibrillator shock four times per measure.

People Under the Stairs played a magnificent set which I doubt will be topped by any I see for a long time. They used the audience, encouraging participation but without resorting to those old-pony tricks ("Everybody say yeah" was as close as it got to being 1987, and only for a minute) and they made the people at the ME get  down. Jam.

--Daniel Schneider