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Review: Public Enemy, Ice Cube and LL Cool J rattle the Mahaffey with rap's boisterous past

Ice Cube reached back to his N.W.A. past for his set, with old-school gangsta tunes like Straight Outta Compton.
Published Jun. 7, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — With the cranium-rattling levels of bass, chaos and raised-fist rap lyricism filling up the Mahaffey Theater Thursday — De La Soul! Public Enemy! Ice Cube! LL Cool J — it was easy to get seduced by the Kings of the Mic Tour.

A little older, a little thicker, a lot richer, these hip-hop progenitors still possess the sweat, passion, VOLUME to stir the blood, make you feel youthful, unconquerable. They made you feel like it was okay to wear your baseball hat backwards again. Oh yeah, feels good!

Every now and then over the three-hour-plus show, however, the near-capacity crowd of 2,000-some would get knocked back into a 21st century reality. For instance, when PE's Chuck D barked out a ferocious rhyme — and then gave everyone his Twitter address. He even said "Tweet me!" I wasn't sure whether I should fight the power or go cry in the bathroom.

Hey, that's a retro reunion show for you. It was loud and sloppy and silly, and the ferocious societal wallop these guys once delivered has been turned into a feel-good sing-along.

But hey, these are darn good songs to sing along to. Give me PE's thunderous Can't Truss It — quite possibly the most insane jam the Mahaffey has hosted — over most of today's pretty rap. (Kids, get off my lawn, right? Rap is always more meaningful when you're 18 years old.)

The trio of De La Soul smartalecks are still nimble, and the show had its first gloriously transcendent high when, at the end of their short set, they launched into Me, Myself and I.

Backed by a full band, a DJ and a small army, PE was next, with Chuck D and notorious clock-wearer Flavor Flav — both in their early 50s and recent inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — refusing to act their age. The volume was way too pumped, and their powerful words were buried under needless boom. But it wasn't hard singing along to 911 Is a Joke (Flav doing his squirmy spaz dance, natch), Bring the Noise and Don't Believe the Hype.

Long before he was considered family entertainment, Ice Cube was the most incendiary mouthpiece in music, the most dangerous man in the most awesomely dangerous band on the planet: N.W.A. He's not as fearsome at 43, but he still has the gift of those naturally arched eyebrows, which make him look like he's about to slug someone. His set was compact and hard, old-school gangsta, opening with Natural Born Killaz. Cube showed his melodic side on Check Yo Self ("Cuz shotgun bullets are bad for your health") then caused a minor riot with N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton.

Closer LL Cool J (aka 45-year-old James Todd Smith) is also a household name and multi-hyphenate: movies, TV, licking his lips as host of the Grammys. But let it be known the man responsible for Mama Said Knock You Out and Going Back to Cali is still a pugilistic MC. Backed by DJ Z-Trip, LL made sure his vocal was high and mighty during his hit-packed set. For all his Hollywood trappings these days, his performance was in-your-face and unfettered, including a haymaker version of I'm Bad. Call me crazy, but LL and Cube and PE sell their boasts better as middle-aged survivors. All hail the Kings — they've earned the title.

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