You might not know it from listening to the radio, but hip-hop is by nature a political music. It's aspirational, with a history of socially aware artists who came up from dire circumstances to make defiant and self-affirming beats and rhymes.
Sometimes hip-hop's activist bent is more a matter of subtext than overt content. But not Tuesday night at Trees, where Talib Kweli and Immortal Technique each turned in sets that acknowledged firebrand forebearers without sacrificing here-and-now relevance and a funky good time.
The Brooklyn-bred Kweli has been on the scene since the '90s, when he helped put Rawkus Records on the map and teamed with Mos Def to make the sublime Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. The Trees crowd was happy to revel in a couple songs from that album, "Definition" and "K.O.S (Determination)." Most of his set was composed of solo cuts, many of them played before a video screen that flashed images of social engagement (Martin Luther King leading marchers) and more recent world unrest.
Kweli, who was ever eager to rattle off the names of illustrious past collaborators (The RZA, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar), raps with a staccato delivery that can get brittle in a live setting. But he kept things loose with frequent callbacks to hip-hop classics, from Audio Two's "Top Billin'" to A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhime," a reggae medley, and a tone that suggested dancing and agitating needn't be mutually exclusive.
Compared to Immortal Technique, however, Kweli was downright cuddly. Within moments of taking the stage the Harlem rapper born Felipe Andres Coronel demanded some noise for the "working class" toilers at Trees, the bartenders, stagehands and unfortunates who had to clean up for us after the show. He gave frequent and impassioned lectures on everything from legalizing pot to community empowerment. Immortal Technique has a lot on his mind. (He also came to Tuesday's show with a bit of extracurricular buzz: Technique was arrested last Thursday after a show in Orange County. He allegedly beat down some guys who were selling merchandise with the IT trademark logo).
All of which would be merely interesting if Immortal Technique weren't also a hellacious performer. He was equal parts enraged, incredulous and impassioned, and he clearly loves his fans, with whom he happily pressed the flesh after his set. His entire set was both mischievous and substantive, and his flow was impressively clear and relaxed (a fascinating contrast to his fierce demeanor and topical verve). Even an ostensibly jocular song like "Obnoxious" jabbed out references to America's business dealings with Nazi Germany.
That's the thing about hip-hop, at least in its less glitzy form: It can invite righteous anger to a swinging party, and the two can hit it off for all to enjoy.