Rap concerts these days are often defined by overproduced theatrics or mediocre performances in which rappers do little but jump around and yell over prerecorded tracks. With Kanye West and Drake on tour with light show extravaganzas in arenas with thousands of fans, hip-hop concerts aren’t as intimate or enjoyable as they once were.
But The Smokers Club Tour brought back that classic hip-hop experience Friday night at the Fillmore in Silver Spring. Headliners Ab-Soul and Joey Bada$$ and the Pro Era crew gave an incredible show blessedly free of gimmicks, the way hip-hop is supposed to be presented.
The crowd in the Fillmore was a sure representation of underground hip-hop culture. Everyone was clad in beanies, hoodies and snapbacks as if they were required entry attire. As the “Smokers Club” moniker suggests, weed culture is an inescapable part of the experience, as if imposed by law on the arena. Puffs of marijuana smoke sporadically sprouted from all corners like smoke signals. Without fail, each artist arrived on stage and asked, “Who’s smoking tonight?”
Top Dawg Entertainment member Ab-Soul hit the stage with his trademark shades and wild mane, performing hits such as “Illuminate,” “Terrorist Threats” and “Soulo Ho3” from his 2012 album Control System. He further turned up the crowd by playing some hits by fellow TDE members Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. Ab-Soul had a relaxed Cali-style swag in his stage presence — it was just him and the DJ onstage for most of the set, and he received help from the crowd members, who shouted out many verses word-for-word.
But it was Pro Era — the talented crew out of Brooklyn, N.Y., making seismic waves through the hip-hop industry with its ’90s-throwback style and incredible wordplay — that stole the show.
Bada$$ began the group’s set with “Summer Knights,” the first track off his hit debut mixtape, 1999, which put him on the map in summer 2012. It was the “classic” songs, the ones everyone knew the words to and shouted requests for, that got the crowd hyped. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, Bada$$ launched into hits such as “Snakes,” “World Domination” and “Funky Ho.”
But he truly shined when performing with his crew. The 11-member collective has incredible chemistry and, despite Bada$$’ exponential career growth in the past few months, keeps up with its frontman every step of the way.
The members came out one by one to join Bada$$ on features and to perform their own tracks, interacting with one another onstage and hyping up their set. At any given point they could be seen laughing, dapping each other up and cheering on their fellow members.
CJ Fly performed tracks off his recently released mixtape Thee Way Eye See It, and Kirk Knight performed songs from his own upcoming release. Each member sounded exactly like his recordings. From Joey Bada$$’ grimy flow on songs such as “95 Til Infinity” to A la $ole’s signature fast-paced delivery, each proved that his success is defined not by fancy studio editing but by pure talent.
Skillfully showing off is what Pro Era does best. The crew recreated pieces from the freestyle cypher it released in response to its lack of recognition at the BET Hip Hop Awards in mid-October. Together, the members rap with the arrogance of knowing they’re the best newcomers in the game right now, while still maintaining the hunger of up-and-comers fighting for the respect they deserve. Their solidarity showed when they honored fallen member Capital Steez, who committed suicide last December. With two fingers in the air and the entire crew onstage, rappers and audience both rapped Steez’s verse from the song “Like Water,” from the mixtape Peep the aPROcalypse, in its entirety.
Seeing Pro Era live is like stepping into a time machine bound for 1995. From the intimate setting full of die-hard fans who love the genre as much as the artist to the interactive and show-boating DJs, it feels like what you would expect a show from rap’s early years to be. The group brought back not only the beats and style of hip-hop’s golden era but the performance quality as well — a rare and much-needed boost for live hip-hop today.