The Lyricist Lounge Presents Pete Rock vs. DJ Premier in New York’s East River Park

Last night at Manhattan’s East River Park, the legendary Lyricist Lounge continued their 20th anniversary celebration with a free show featuring two of Hip-Hop’s all-time greatest producers and deejays, Pete Rock and DJ Premier. Hosted by Lyricist Lounge founders Danny Castro and Ant Marshall, the show was dubbed “Pete Rock vs. DJ Premier,” though it was really less a battle than a collaborative showcase. Castro began the show by schooling the audience on a bit of trivia about the East River Park bandshell, which is where the finale of the 1983 Hip-Hop classic “Wild Style” was filmed.

Pete Rock and Premo opened their shared set with a tribute to Rock’s cousin, the late, great Heavy D, taking turns spinning some of his best-loved jams, including the classic “Nuttin’ But Love.” The evening was heavy on R.I.P. shout outs to some of the great musicians of the past, including a medley of Rick James songs like “Give It to Me Baby” and “Mary Jane,” a brief medley of the Jackson 5 hits “I Want You Back” and “ABC,” and a much more extended medley of the James Brown classics “The Payback,” “Soul Power,” “Make It Funky,” and “Sex Machine.” Along with cuts from Al Green, Kool & the Gang, the Commodores and more, Premo and Rock’s set felt like a miniature history lesson in black music, continuing into the rest of the evening.

Promising to soon go head to head with some of their own original beats, the two deejays first segued into the Hip-Hop portion of the evening with some ’80s favorites like Afrika Bambaataa‘s “Planet Rock,” MC Lyte‘s “Survival of the Fittest,” Audio Two‘s “Top Billin’,” Eric B. & Rakim‘s “Move the Crowd,” and Biz Markie‘s “Nobody Beats the Biz.” When Premo spun the Boogie Down Productions battle classic “The Bridge is Over,” a diss track aimed partly at Marley Marl (a huge influence on both Rock and Premo), Rock observed, “It’s even hard to hear at a distance, ’cause those are my people.”

Unfortunately, before they could get into the golden era of ’90s Hip-Hop, including the promised battle of their own productions and a promised special guest rapper (who, based on the outstanding scope of their past collaborations, could have been virtually any heavyweight emcee still alive and breathing), there was a power failure that brought the show to a premature end. I thought it was a gimmick at first, and much of the crowd began chanting “Hip-Hop,” as if our true belief could bring the lights and sound back on. Sad to say, in a city with subways full of ads featuring the slogan “Never be powerless,” the promoters and technicians were unable to bring the show back. It was a disappointing ending to an otherwise enjoyable evening of music brought to us by two of the greatest deejays alive. 

  

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UCB Presents All-Stars of Improv in New York’s East River Park

The Upright Citizens Brigade theater, nationally renowned as one of the absolute best resources for improv and sketch comedy in the country, presented a couple of its best troupes last night in New York City’s East River Park, as part of the annual SummerStage festival. Showcasing two distinctly different collectives with a brief intermission, the show was a great example of how good improvisational theater can be when carried out by skilled performers adept at thinking on their feet. It was a unique treat to be in attendance, especially since this particular show will, by definition, never be seen again.

The first troupe, known as The Pox, followed the format of UCB’s celebrated “ASSSSCAT!” show, featuring a monologist telling a personal anecdote based on an audience suggestion, followed by a series of improvisational sketches based on that monologue. Their skits revolved heavily around the experience of out-of-towners visiting New York, such as a scene in which a tourist is robbed at gunpoint in Central Park, then decides that video of the robbery would be a great souvenir of his visit and begins directing the robber while his friends film it. Another highlight was a sketch in which a teacher ruins the joy of swearing for her twelve-year-old students by telling them that Shakespeare coined many of the English language’s best curse words. One of their best ideas, however, was the last scene of the first set, in which a man gives god credit for everything from work promotions to his wife’s pregnancy (“No, I think I knocked god up … or god knocked himself up”), then likewise shifts the blame for a car accident in which he is at fault onto the almighty.

The second troupe, Sandino, was even better, weaving their sketches seamlessly together into a bizarre, alternate-world scenario until, by the end, they felt less like random sketches than cohesive scenes in a play. Using a shouted audience suggestion, “P90X” (which further research tells me is some sort of workout program for which I am undoubtedly too lazy), Sandino improvised a dystopian tale of a world in which robots are programmed for only three functions – rage, sex and boredom – and people have jobs like drunkenly dancing nude in glass towers. Though the set begins with two of the performers working out, the phrase “P90X” ended up referring to a prisoner who has become a problem for his captors, one of whom suggests that the solution is to let him loose in Detroit and see who survives, him or the city of Detroit. This is all part of an evolutionary experiment he feels is vital to the human race, and later this same character reappears to serve an arsenic-laced dinner to a friend, for the same reason. “It’s not a lethal dosage,” he insists. “It’s just going to hurt real bad.”

It’s truly amazing how well Sandino incorporated elements of all their sketches into one large narrative, to the point that the final revelation that prisoner P90X is actually Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson (who designed the boredom robot in order to gain perspective on his overly exciting life) made perfect sense. This is a tremendously talented group of performers, and while I feel privileged to have attended their only performance of this specific material, I certainly hope a video recording is made available in the near future. 

  

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