The first act takes the stage after 10 p.m. Wearing Mexican wrestling masks, the Masters of Illusion -- San Francisco-based producer/DJ Kutmasta Kurt with Motion Man -- can't mask that Motion Man's flow isn't very e-motion-al. Trying to drop lyrical "slugs" over Kurt's gritty, minimalistic tracks, Motion Man doesn't exactly drop the ball, but he doesn't score many three-pointers, either.
After a quick change-over, Kurt, still masked, returns to the stage to DJ as Rasco, half of West Coast duo the Cali Agents, emerges. Where Motion Man paced the stage, looking for energy, Rasco finds it front and center. Capturing the audience's attention, Rasco loads his lyrical slugs and sprays the crowd with bassy boasts. First comes solo material, including his breakthrough '97 single "The Unassisted" and "Thin Line" from his latest, Hostile Environment. Then, as his Cali Agents partner Planet Asia takes the stage, comes tracks from How The West Was One, the duo's collaboration.
A playful younger brother to Rasco, Planet Asia and his boys continue, still backed by Kurt, as Rasco exits. Planet Asia -- recently signed to Interscope -- goes from boast to bounce, performing near-operatic odes to weed and leading the crowd in R-rated Mr. Rogers-like chants. "Can you say 'New Shit'?"
After taking some time to beatbox and give big ups to local MC talent -- and letting Kutmasta Kurt rest -- host D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik introduces the main talent. While the crowd may have come out looking to take a bizarre ride with the Pharcyde, once Oakland's Souls of Mischief emerged, everyone is on their feet, heads bobbin'. Souls bring the energy up yet another notch, representing for the Hieroglyphics (crew member Pep Love, who has a recent solo album, was absent from the Atlanta bill due to sickness).
Over a bouncy beat, the Souls quartet drop lyrics about weed and other party fare, but they also bring a message with the tour. "When you support us, you support us, people like us and people like you," one of them said. Preaching that independent hip-hop is not a spectator sport, Souls of Mischief give love to the locals and to the indie labels, before dropping a few jams from their new record, Trilogy: Conflict, Climax, Resolution.
It's after 1 a.m. when L.A.'s the Pharcyde bring the evening's climax to a crowd that's still going strong. Once a quartet that brought some early-'90s hits, now it's only Imani and the elastic Booty Brown who tour. Unlike last time, when the ping-ponging duo came to the Masquerade with a DJ and congas player, they've now added a keyboardist and guitarist. While it's a nice approach to a traditionally static MCs/DJ set-up, the mix seemed a little off.
Maybe it's just that, at 2 a.m., the latest doesn't always feel like the greatest. Still, the crowd throw their hands in the air and wave 'em like they really do care. Hopefully, they care not only about shaking their booty, but also about heeding Souls of Mischief -- about supporting independent hip-hop in the future.