Unlike many of my fellow suburban high school students, I didn’t attend concerts.
There were several reasons for this, but it was largely because the only music I liked was hip-hop and the closest shows were at least an hour away and everything I ever heard about rap shows were that they sucked, so I had very little interest in attending. I was right. Many hip-hop shows, especially back then, began two hours late and consisted of deafening bass that distorted the speakers while a probably-not-sober rapper rhymed along to his backing track as two hundred of his closest friends loitered around the stage.
Even the doomed Wu-Tang/Rage Against the Machine tour didn’t intrigue me much, probably because I liked to experience music by myself back then. I would talk and debate albums and artists, but I preferred to listen to it in my earbuds. That’s probably why I never had a system with subwoofers like 85% of my high school.
In the spring of 1998, shortly before I graduated, my friend said he wanted to attend the third iteration of Smokin’ Grooves, the traveling hip-hop festival, when it came to the then-Tweeter Center in Camden. I wasn’t too interested until I saw the lineup.
At that point, I was in.
This was the early days of the internet, so we still bought our tickets in person. At the mall. At Macy’s. They went on sale on a Saturday morning and we went and stood in line. The rest of the people waiting were all women in their 40’s, most wearing mom jeans and rocking perms. Were they huge rap fans? Nope. Turns out, Rod Stewart tickets went on sale that day too.
When we received our tickets, I noticed that we were second row center. Niiiiice.
Compared to today, when everything is photographed, recorded, shared, blogged, and dissected, it’s so weird to see how little content remains from that tour. There are a few MTV News articles and some passing references and that’s it. There were no camera phones and I had not yet developed my affinity for carrying around my camera, so once the show was over, that was it.For me, it was kind of like Broadway in that sense.
We arrived early and sat in our seats, the venue maybe 1/100th full. And onto the stage came a group that I had heard of but to whom I had never really paid much attention. They were known as The Black Eyed Peas.
This was before Fergie and “Let’s Get It Started.” They were the opening act. They ran on stage, hopping and dancing, their energy infectious, even though most seats were empty. I remember will.i.am at one point exhorting, “Come on! All twenty of you get on your feet!” In his autobiography, Fallin’ Up, Taboo remembered that tour:
“As the first act on stage, the grass fields and sun-scorched knolls were always only half full as we began our set. The challenge was to turn the ‘Who the fuck are these guys?’ into ‘Wow – these guys are fresh!'”
BEP has never been my preference, but I was impressed by their performance that day. They had an undeniable energy and made the most of their opportunity.
Next up was the lovely Mýa.
Not yet 19, she was an emerging star, her debut album having dropped a few months earlier and while I’ve never been into R&B, I was infatuated with her. When she winked at me, I was so in love that I would’ve murdered my siblings if she asked to do so.
There was another reason I was so excited. After her set, it was time for Gang Starr. And I was hyped. Just like Mýa, they had released an album that spring, the stellar Moment of Truth, and this was a group I had wanted to see for years.
Sadly, it was disappointing.
I love Guru, I think he is one of the greatest to ever spit a verse, but the downside for a cerebral rapper with a monotone voice and methodical flow is that his music doesn’t translate to a live summer show at an amphitheater. DJ Premier was behind the turntables and ran the set from there, but while I was hoping for some live scratching, it didn’t happen. I’m sure Gang Starr was a great show in a small, dark, tight venue, but Smokin’ Grooves wasn’t a good fit for them. Still, I’m happy I was able to see them.
The next act to hit the stage was the complete opposite of Guru: Busta Rhymes.
The human cartoon character rushed the stage with his Flipmode Squad, all in matching velour track suits, and the place went insane. The most energetic – and among the best – performance I’ve ever witnessed, Busta ripped it, running through his hits “Wooo-Hah!! Got You All In Check,” “Dangerous,” “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” and the Knight Rider-jacking, “Turn It Up” Remix. Flipmode was never the greatest group lyrically, but their energy matched that of their leader, and kept it going. Rah Digga pouring water all over herself was a nice touch, too.
While no one could match Busta’s energy, Wyclef Jean, at the peak of his popularity off The Score and The Carnival, came out with his guitar and his Refugee All-Stars. Wyclef’s biggest songs were group efforts and he was happy to share the stage. John Forte, who appears on “We Trying to Stay Alive,” performed his (now largely forgotten) single, “Ninety-Nine (Flash the Message),” followed by Pras, who brought Mýa back out for “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are),” a top-20 hit and one of the biggest songs of that summer, before he and ‘Clef rocked “Fu-Gee-La.” Then, Canibus, at the time one of the most anticipated hip-hop artists in history, ran out for his guest spot “Gone Till November,” and stuck around to perform his vicious LL Cool J diss, “Second Round K.O.”
Following those two high-octane sets, Cypress Hill was a bit of a let down. They’re a great group and they unleashed their classics, including “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Insane in the Membrane,” but they didn’t have the greatest stage presence. Plus, B-Real’s extended monologue about weed and how every concert should have it falling from the rafters like snow didn’t excite me as much as others. They also passed out rolling papers, which I gave to the very grateful people behind us.
Finally came the headliners.
After several years of discord and tension, the entire posse – Chuck D and Flavor Flav, Terminator X, Professor Griff and, of course, the S1W’s – were back together. They hit the stage hard, X behind the turntables and Chuck D’s voice booming throughout the arena while Flavor Flav emerged on stage riding a bike as the set design itself almost became a character.
The classics were performed – “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “911 Is a Joke,” “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” and “Fight the Power” – along with their latest, the Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth”-inspired, “He Got Game.” For a group that I had been listening to for a decade – more than half my life – and were living legends, they not only met expectations, they exceeded them.
Chuck D threw his water bottle into the crowd. I caught it. And I kept it. For years, it sat on my shelf, in my bedroom. I went away to college and when I came home, it would be there. There was nothing special about it. No markings or logos. It was like any other half-consumed water bottle. Except I knew that there was something special. It had belonged to Chuck D, a rap legend, and he had thrown it to me.
It was my only souvenir from my first concert.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.