Live Review: “Winter Heat,” 2/08 at Abbey Pub

Photo by Max Herman.

“Winter Heat” featuring Akrobatik, Juice, 2/08 at the Abbey Pub

More and more promoters/organizers of hip-hop shows are realizing that a straightforward night of rhymers is usually no longer enough. Today’s audiences demand more. With the show dubbed “Winter Heat,” which went down at Chicago’s Abbey Pub, the crowd was given an impressive range of talent to take in within the allotted five hours.

Sponsored by Northwestern University’s WNUR-FM and Chicago indie imprint Gravel Records, “Winter Heat’s” most obvious draw was deserved headliner Akrobatik. Before this imposing Boston MC took command of the stage, though, local artists built the momentum. Graffiti writer and artist Revise CMW drew a good amount of attention throughout the night as he painted abstracts with mixed media. In between energetic sets by under-the-radar acts like Dynamic Vibrations, producers K-Kruz (of Modill) and Maker (of Glue) provided brief beat showcases. K-Kruz particularly got a strong response for his off-kilter yet robust original compositions and remixes of classics by Busta Rhymes and others. Kruz even inspired the handful of b-boys in the building to show off their footwork and power moves – something you don’t see that often at hip-hop shows anymore.

Chicago’s mixtape masters Mass Hysteria also got the crowd amped with their punchline-driven raps and a solid remake of Kanye’s “Good Life.” During Mass Hysteria’s set, nomadic hip-hop stalwart and public transit performer GQ tha Teacha did a routine with DJ Noble; he imitated Noble’s scratches on the tables with beat-boxing. Spots like this definitely kept things unpredictable. Righteous rhymer Iomos Marad also added to the spontaneity by occasionally dipping into stand up mode, divulging the hip-hop feuds he has with the Lil Wayne-loving fourth grade students he works with on Chicago’s West Side.

The last of the local acts on the bill was Juice, former freestyle champion and underground pioneer. Without offering many surprises, Juice still managed to get the crowd’s hands up – even when performing his less potent attempts at club-friendly hip-hop. As expected, though, his defining 1999 single, “Freestyle or Written,” was the highlight of his set. This Molemen-produced heater recalls the days when Juice blurred the line between ad-libs and pre-meditated raps, leaving listeners in awe.

Like Juice, the headliner Akrobatik has been in the indie spotlight since the late-90s. But the Boston vet hasn’t put out many records as of late. Thus it was interesting to hear Akrobatik dedicate a new track to his woman, who he cites for convincing him to stick with hip-hop when he thought he was through. After all, it has been a long five years since his last solo effort (2003’s Balance) and three years since the Perceptionists album (2005’s Black Dialogue) with Mr. Lif and DJ Fakts One.

Akro won over the audience in his abbreviated set with semi-old singles like the black empowerment anthem “Remind My Soul” and material from his forthcoming album, Absolute Value. With his strong presence on the mic and pronounced personality, it’s reassuring to know that the MC didn’t decide to call it quits. He delivers every time, especially live. Unlike a lot of MCs who just stick to a five-to-ten song list and then hit the exits without really connecting with their fans, Akro takes the time to talk to the crowd. Even though his set was cut short because of time restrictions at the venue, he told the Abbey attendees about him and Mr. Lif’s shameful trip to the Super Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz. where their favored New England Patriots took an unexpected loss. Then like the true sports fan and master of ceremony that he is, he went on to bust on the Chicago Bears for not having a real quarterback. He got some “boos,” but it was all in good fun and everyone knew it. Whether he was casually talking sports or fervently rapping, Akro brought this well-balanced night of hip-hop to a triumphant close.

— Max Herman

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