Time Travel Reunion at the Metro, Chicago, IL, April 13, 2013. Photo by Ryan Tackitt.
There was a profound sense of poetic justice in the aptly titled Time Travel Reunion show this past Saturday at The Metro Theater in Chicago, IL. The overpowering nostalgia of show headliners Atmosphere and the final opening act Brother Ali was an undeniable presence in the intimate Metro. And, yes you guessed it, they turned the clock back nearly a decade to provide a hip-hop time travel experience uniquely its own.
Originally, Time Travel Radio was a Chicago underground favorite in the local radio scene. The show’s goal was simple; provide hip-hop fans with the most comprehensive underground hip-hop listening. Kevin “AMC the Time Traveler” Beacham was the radio jockey who took control of the show in 1995 and steered its success until 2002. Most notably, the show pushed forward the Rhymesayers collective into the minds of listeners in the Windy City. And who better to step up for the reunion show than that very same collective.
With Atmosphere and Brother Ali firmly in the top two spots for the evening, the rest of the performers were homage to the roots of the original Time Travel Radio. The Get Cryphy DJs (Plain Ole Bill, Last Word, and Jimmy2Times) provided the tone-setting for the evening with mini-sets, featuring a mixture of throwback and modern samples. The billed special guests were a part of the Rhymesayers Entertainment Group (in addition to Atmosphere and Brother Ali), as well. Roster artists Evidence, Blueprint, and Grieves provided the opening energy for the show. Each spit with a unique style; Blueprint spread his sound into a more contemporary Kanye West influence at times, Evidence harkened back to the original foundation of the Time Travel Radio sound (90’s Midwest underground), and Grieves presented perhaps the most modern hip-hop friendly sound, launching into many songs off his popular Together/Apart album.
Even though the openers had little trouble maneuvering through solid sets, it wasn’t until Brother Ali emerged from the right wing of the stage that the crowd became truly invested in the show. Ali’s albino complexion, complete with shaved head and signature lengthy white chin scruff, created a stark contrast to his red jumpsuit jacket, drawing immediate attention to his unique presence. The Rhymesayer vet was greeted whole-heartedly by this crowd of underground hip-hop heads with avid enthusiasm. He launched his set with numerous songs off his critically well received album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. Chicago was receptive, but not fully engaged, until Ali began digging deeper into his catalogue, pulling from 2007’s The Undisputed Truth and 2003’s Shadows on the Sun. Perhaps Ali’s most popular song, “Forrest Whitaker,” provided his most popular reaction, as well. The anthem, that disregards common beauty for a more liberal interpretation of human aesthetic, has become the rapper’s calling card. And, without question, the crowd ate up the peppy and humorous verses. When the chorus came around everyone in the Metro unified, chanting, “I’ma be alright.” If Ali gave anything through his set it was the sense that these underdogs, both on stage and in the audience, were going to be as fine as they always had been.
With Ali firmly setting the stage, anticipation for Atmosphere quickly spread throughout the venue. Quietly, legendary producer Ant (Anthony Davis) took his place behind the row of turntables that stretched across the entire stage. The sight of Ant’s signature slick-backed jet black locks brought a muffled rumble of anticipation. Five minutes later, Slug (Sean Daley) emerged from the shadows to a frenzied applause before starting into “Smart Went Crazy.” The frenzy continued through much of those first three minutes, prompting a sentimental reaction (or as close to sentimental as there could be on this night) from Slug. “Damn Chicago,” the MC began, “I know it hasn’t been that long since we saw you. Thanks for the love.” Throughout the set, Slug was both engaging as a rhyme-slinger and ringmaster. His dry humor approach to music and live performance echoed each other throughout the night. “We’re all friends, right?” Slug posed to the audience at one point, “Well sometimes you gotta throw the scissors at friends and tell ‘em, ‘Fuck you, I’m done,’ not that I’d ever say that to you,” he finished with a chuckle before proceeding into, “The Loser Wins.” That persona carried the crowd into Atmosphere’s somewhat darker and more cynical material without bringing the overall aura to a low. The starving hip-hop contingent bought into every rhyme Slug uttered from “F’@k You Lucy” to “Puppets.”
Yet, the most powerful emissions from the crowd seemed to come from the slight rays of genuine positivity Slug allowed himself to pour out. “Sunshine” may well be the duo’s most popular output, and the crowd was extremely receptive to the hangover cure story Slug used to introduce it. “GodLovesUgly” was an anthem much in the same vain as Ali’s “Forrest Whitaker,” creating that continuity for the evening. Throughout the entire performance, Ant’s mixing was on point with every tight rhyme that Slug was able to slang like drugs to the eager listeners. Over nearly 20 years in the game hasn’t phased the professionalism that these two have when putting together a show.
The night commenced with an ode to the origins of Time Travel Radio with each of the Rhymesayers collective returning to the stage for a 15-minute cypher. There were few in the crowd aware of Slug’s history of being resistant to freestyle rapping, but the MC held his own in the group setting. Undeniably, Brother Ali stole the last five minutes of the show, ripping through a freestyle in a conscious vein. In the end, there would have really been no other way to wrap up the event. In a night filled with reminiscence it was a pleasure to watch these MC’s harp back to their early come-ups in a symbolic manner. If anything, it turned the clock back so the entire crowd could experience a slice of Time Travel.