Review: LL Cool J brings hip-hop history to Charlotte. It was better than brilliant

Hip-hop as a genre, culture and art form hit its half-century mark this summer. To celebrate two of the genre’s giants, legendary rapper and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer LL Cool J and drummer, band leader and hip-hop historian Questlove put together an all-star, three-hour show covering highlights of those five decades.

On paper it sounds brilliant. In execution, it was even better.

The Roots, who along with DJ Jazzy Jeff served as a sort of house band backing up various emcees, kicked off the show Saturday at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. “Here I Come” emanated onto the concourse as concert-goers anxiously rushed to their seats.

By the time we made it to ours, De La Soul was already on stage.

The legendary alternative hip-hop group’s return is bittersweet. The death of David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur in February practically coincided with its long out-of-print catalog finally being released on streaming platforms (and reissued on vinyl and cassette) after years of stalled label negotiations. His image on bandmate Kevin “Posdnuos” Mercer’s black T-shirt served as a loving reminder as he and Vincent “Maseo” Mason spun through joyous renditions of “Stakes Is High,” “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” and the classic “Me Myself and I.”

LL Cool J, at left, performs with Black Thought, right, during a concert Saturday, Sept. 10, 2023 at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. Courtney Devores
LL Cool J, at left, performs with Black Thought, right, during a concert Saturday, Sept. 10, 2023 at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. Courtney Devores

The Roots’ emcee, Black Thought, helped fill the void. In fact, he knew the words to every track by every act and punctuated them as such all night. Questlove, wearing a bedazzled cardigan, looked practically giddy, grinning widely as De La Soul led the crowd through the “Vibe/Vibrations” call and response. The crowd’s reaction was nothing short of joyous and stayed that way throughout the show.

Sticking with the idea of showcasing a big chunk of hip-hop history — not just the headliner — De La Soul rolled straight into LL Cool J’s first set. A hulking figure with massive arms and ripped abs who dwarfed everyone else on stage, LL Cool J, 55, emerged from a cloud of smoke and whirring sirens with the opening declaration “I’m Bad.”

“Doin It” and “Big Ole Butt” highlighted his raunchier side, while tracks like “Around the Way Girl” and “Going Back to Cali” accentuated his versatility.

That thread carried into LL Cool J’s second set with the more romantic “I Need Love” and “Hey Lover” following briefer performances from David Banner, Rakim (who demonstrated why he’s revered as one of the best to ever spit a line) and Juvenile.

LL Cool J performs Saturday, Sept. 10, 2023, at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. Courtney Devores
LL Cool J performs Saturday, Sept. 10, 2023, at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. Courtney Devores

Wearing a black and white plaid shirt with a matching backpack and hat, Juvenile tempered some of the raunchiest lines of the night (“Back That Azz Up” being the pinnacle of his set) by sweetly asking his wife of 19 years to bring him his phone so he could snap a photo with the crowd.

LL Cool J’s longtime compatriot DJ Z-Trip offered a sporadic journey through early hip-hop before the headliner returned — switching from an orange pants and black sequined t-shirt to a leather camel outfit that showed off his physique.

His part of the show didn’t just focus on his catalog. Throughout the night, LL Cool J hit on covers ranging from Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” to Whodini’s “Freaks Come Out at Night.” The latter served as a sugary bit of `80s nostalgia.

The headliner’s final run of songs played out like a set-long medley — barely stopping for breath through “Jack the Ripper,” “Kanday” and “Loungin’ (Who Do Ya Luv).”

“You forgot about this one didn’t ya?” he said, dimples flanking a smile as the crowd caught on to the third of the triplet’s lyrics.

There was no need for similar delayed recognition as he and The Roots sprung into “Mama Said Knock You Out,” with its unforgettable first line “Don’t call it a comeback!” The song that’s become a calling card for the rapper capped the show with the crowd and the band bouncing in unison with their host.

He stopped to thank his “general,” Questlove, for putting together a complicated but fluid set with acts alternating from show to show. He also acknowledged Jazzy Jeff.

“We’ve been touring together since we were kids on the yellow school bus,” he said, confirming that the crew had actually used a school bus for travel.

“And your favorite emcee’s favorite emcee,” he said while introducing the show’s MVP, Black Thought, who prowled the stage in flowy parachute cargo pants and met all the other acts note for note throughout the night.

I must note that The Roots tuba player Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson kept the crowd thoroughly entertained all evening. Whether spinning and jumping with the massive instrument atop his shoulders or simply playing silent hype man, his joy was palpable.

It was Black Thought who noted what a thrill it was to wake up every morning and live a childhood dream by backing some of his heroes, but that thrill obviously extended to the rest of the band.

The night concluded with a raucous “Rock the Bells,” with few fans bolting for the doors during the encore. In fact, Questlove and the band were still tossing drumsticks and frisbeeing a drum head into the crowd as the crew was starting to disassemble the stage.

It was a fitting end considering hip-hop’s origins trace back to a back-to-school party in the Bronx, where DJ Kool Herc first publicly manipulated dual turntables to create a night of nonstop music. The homegrown vibe — despite the art form morphing and influencing generations musically and culturally — extended to the audience Saturday as those splintered drumsticks soared across the still-excited, exiting crowd.