In the heady but laidback hip-hop of Chisme, one doesn’t need to search hard for some nuanced dialogue on seeking the artistic life. On the musical sketch “It’s Only Writing,” the rap duo weaves a quilt of dialogue on the art experience: how fringe scenes inevitably become exclusionary, how gentrification destroys working artist communities, or how Da Vinci was detached from people in a way that led him to his greatest ideas. The crux verbiage states, “The thing about writing is it’s only writing,” and raises the question of how art helps us at all.
How does such dystopian hip-hop translate to the stage? Eagerly. MCs R-e-L and Progeny — from local rap acts ASTEX and Pointing Fingers, respectively — celebrated their debut album release Storytellers with no lack of enthusiasm or attendees. Progeny re-produced Chisme’s tunes live using an MPC-1000 phrase sampler and pulled hype-man duty, while R-e-L worked the turntables and sang most verses. Chisme weaved an aural pastiche of beatmakers old and new. “Mark of Excellence” floated glitchy handclaps over an organ sample that could be stolen from DJ Shadow. “Mr. Overseas” recalled the RZA with its kitschy Asian string melody. Progeny, in an admirable Cut Chemist impression, interweaved 1950s era PSA dialogues with ease.
R-e-L is a dope rhyme-sayer but was nearly upstaged by guest appearances by Mexican Stepgrandfather and Apaso. The problem was a disconnect between band and audience. Save for one mohawked drunk who kept screaming as if at a Mötley Crüe show, most of the audience stood still. Maybe attendants needed to have heard the band’s music ahead of time. Maybe Chisme’s subdued textures don’t call for much ruckus, but the bass Moogs and snares were some of the hardest beats this side of the Wu. Maybe being anchored by the decks kept R-e-L from being a more charismatic, up front, and thereby more infectious MC. Or maybe the Pedicab really is intended only for nodding heads and stacking cans of Lone Star.
In any case, it felt like Chisme wasn’t getting a fair shake. They’re headphone hip-hoppers that have more than enough energy for the stage. I say, next time, play Limelight.