It’s probably not a good sign when you pull up to a venue and the first thing you see is a drunken rowdy getting pepper-sprayed by a security guard outside the front door. Thankfully, the vibe was significantly more upbeat inside Chaser’s, a grungy little place in a south Scottsdale strip mall that used to host punk bands under its former name, the Atomic Cafe.
By the time I got out of work, we were able to catch a little less than half of Busdriver’s set (thank you, hip-hop shows, for always starting late). This is a man everyone should hear rap on record at least once. To see his fast-rapping dexterity live is pretty mind-boggling. Backed by a DJ who employs one of those trigger-pad devices, Busdriver cranked out rhymes at a dizzying pace. It makes you wonder how the hell he remembers all his own lyrics and never trips over his own tongue. At his speed, one verse of rhymes for him has to equal at least two for all the emcees in the slow lane.
And it’s not just that Busdriver spits out an abundance of words, but that he actually uses them well. Clearly this is a man who is more concerned about syntax than he is filling dead space with meaningless words. (Check the verses on Imaginary Places, off Temporary Forever.)
If the transition from Busdriver’s hyper-literate style to Pigeon John’s laid-back party vibe was a concern, PJ pretty much squashed that from the get-go. This guy was meant to entertain. Yeah, there was the laundry list of usual hip-hop show demands: throw ya hands up, say hoooo, say ho-ho, now screeeeam. It wouldn’t be a live show without ‘em. But Pigeon John never threatened to reduce himself to a hip-hop cliche. After all, we’re talking about a man who takes the stage wearing pleated jeans.
Pigeon John’s honest, self-deprecating approach – which comes through on stage – makes him seem, you know, like a normal human being, unlike a lot of rappers who inevitably become caricatures of themselves. Honestly, he seems like a nerd, but he embraces it, which makes him more real than any rapper claiming to be real could ever be. When he asked the crowd to “gimme some skin” it felt like he was mocking some image or idea of what people expect a rapper to do.
On stage, PJ’s songs, backed by a DJ and a drummer, are vibrant. One of his new tracks, Freaks! Freaks! – with its catchy chorus – inspired all sorts of fist-pumping and awkward white-boy dancing. Emily showcases Pigeon’s storytelling style, even if its somewhat dark lyrics don’t quite fit the fun spirit of a live show. But fear not, PJ was all about levity, doing his “Pigeon Dance” and even breaking out a guitar on one track, for which he strummed all of one string. And let’s not forget the drunk guy who came on stage to rap out a chorus, which PJ encouraged by handing over the microphone as he danced laps around this total stranger.
I hate to get corny, but it’s shows like this that pretty much reaffirm why hip-hop is fun, or at least should be. Pigeon John plucking that one guitar string and singing “Be yourself” seemed so ludicrous, but it somehow transposed itself into a message from which we could all learn a little something.