Rennie Harris' New York Legends of Hip-Hop
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 7, 2006
Anyone who still isn't convinced that hip-hop culture has been embraced by mainstream white America need look no further than Rennie Harris' New York Legends of Hip-Hop for definitive proof. In the middle of this exuberant new show, the furious rhymes and beats of legendary hip-hop group Public Enemy burst forth from the P.A. system and shake the walls of the New Victory Theater, much to the delight of hundreds of small Caucasian children and their families.
Let me repeat that: Public Enemy. At the New Victory Theater. While hordes of little white kids dance either in their seat or in the aisle. And their parents don't mind.
When I was a little white kid growing up in New York, Public Enemy was a big deal—both as a supergroup-in-the-making and a cause of concern. Their inflammatory political rhetoric (they supported the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan; skewered white cultural icons like Elvis and John Wayne) made white parents nervous. But, they also produced the hardest, most irresistible beats around. Now, almost two decades after their debut, Public Enemy's music is being heard in the city's highest profile venue dedicated to youth and family audiences, by a predominantly white audience. The kids dig it, and their parents are happy for them to hear it. The revolution may or may not have been televised, but it certainly happened. Rennie Harris' New York Legends of Hip-Hop is the clearest evidence yet, at least to me, that hip-hop culture is no longer considered dangerous. Instead, it has finally been accepted for what it has always been: uplifting, high-energy fun.
Rennie Harris doesn't have a plot, but it does tell a story. This quasi-documentary mixes video interview footage, music, and dancing to chronicle the history of hip-hop and pay tribute to those who made it what it is today. Most of the laurels are laid on the hip-hop characteristics that initially made the strongest cultural impact: scratching, beatboxing, and various breakdancing styles like freestyling, locking, popping, and b-boying. Video interviews with several of the show's performers, as well as Harris himself, preface each section of the show and put it into a larger historical context. The dancing may be hot, but, to hear the performers talk about how big an impression hip-hop first made on each of them—socially, politically, economically—is to realize that there's more to this culture's longevity than how fly it is to watch someone do the windmill.
Harris keeps the video footage flowing seamlessly from one section to the next. Add the rhythmic propulsion of the music and the high voltage energy of the cast, and the show's effect is hypnotic. Needless to say, the dancing is spectacular. The Mop Top Crew, a trio of freestylers, kick things off right with an extended sequence of combinations and routines. Face to Flave, a group of flamboyant and funny lockers, showcase their wares in high style. And, the legendary Rock Steady Crew close the show with some fierce uprocking that knocks the audience back into 1982.
Other highlights include a furious three-way DJ battle between the Rennie Harris house band, DJ GI Joe, DJ DP1, and DJ Evil Tracy. Human beatboxes Yoyo Beats, Kenny Muhammad, and D Cross join forces for incredible, spot-on versions of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" and the Afrika Bambaataa classic, "Planet Rock." Then, there's the Public Enemy moment, when hordes of kids get up out of their chairs (if they haven't done so already), and start dancing to the late-80s track, "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic." Mind-blowing.
Rennie Harris' New York Legends of Hip-Hop is a joyful, positive history lesson about how something local and indigenous (FYI: hip-hop was born in the Bronx) can mushroom rapidly into a universally accepted art form and lifestyle. Join the celebration with these talented innovators—and don't forget to bring the noise.