A long-time lover of rap and hip-hop, I have a soft spot for nerdy white-boy rappers (hey, I grew up on the Beastie Boys), so when I first discovered Mac Lethal, I was instantly smitten. The 32-year old has been generating buzz in his hometown scene for years, but rose to quick fame when he began posting his raps on YouTube, particularly one in which he speed-raps over Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now" while cooking pancakes in his kitchen (it now has more than 27 million views). I first saw Mac Lethal on actual TV, when he appeared last year on the pilot episode of AMC's advertising-industry reality competition show "The Pitch," when winning agency McKinney commissioned him to write a rap about Subway breakfast sandwiches.
Watching his YouTube videos and listening to his albums, one quickly realizes what sets Mac Lethal apart from many others in the genre: his subject matter. While much of today's rap and hip-hop content still revolves around gangsta images of guns, drugs, violence and degrading women, Mac Lethal focuses on more cerebral topics like stupid people arguing on the Internet, misusing "you're" vs. "your," and his latest tirade against the gay-bashing, funeral-protesting Westboro Baptist Church. He balances the heavier stuff with a good dose of intelligent humor.
Admittedly, I haven't been to many rap shows, so I really wasn't sure what to expect from the evening, which promised Mac Lethal headlining at midnight, preceded by three locally-grown MCs: Trak Masta Tom, Baytron and Farout. I pictured something like the battle scenes from "8-Mile," but in reality, the scene was more like a snapshot from some weird '90s rave. Scrawny white boys sporting glow-stick gloves, hats and necklaces writhed around the dance floor creating a schizophrenic light show as drunken young hipster girls spilled beer and hung off of their necks.
We arrived just as first act Trak Masta Tom was finishing up and in time to catch a great set from Alton, Ill. rapper Baytron (aka Matt Beatty). To put it simply, this guy is good. Backed by a variety of samples and beats from his laptop, he pumped up the crowd with his deft skills and well-composed raps. Baytron has a rich and powerful tone to his voice reminiscent of some of the great old-school rap stars like Grandmaster Flash, Ice-T and Kurtis Blow.
Next up was St. Louis-native Farout (aka Eric Farlow). Admitting that he was missing his usual backing by DJ Mahf and had to rely on his iPod, Farout seemed a bit off his game, starting then stopping a couple of songs after botching lyrics. By mid-set, he got into his groove, though and continued to get the crowd moving and ready for the main event.
At midnight, with little fanfare, Mac Lethal made his way to the stage, backed by fellow Kansas City MC Alvie Nelson and another St. Louis native, Patric Brown providing the beats. The dance floor was suddenly packed, everyone waving their hands in the air as he began spitting his raps furiously. Mac Lethal is a study in "don't judge a book by its cover." The balding, slightly paunchy Irish kid with glasses doesn't necessarily look the part of a badass MC, but when he gets going, he raps faster and with more precision than just about anyone I've heard. But don't compare him to Eminem (he's disparaged that notion in interviews and song lyrics). There's really not a lot of similarity other than both being white and rapping really fast. Mac has a style all his own and he may well be rap's next big star.
He packed his hour set with a variety of songs from his albums and YouTube videos, focusing on upbeat crowd-pleasers like "Calm Down, Baby," "Jihad!" and "War Drum," as well as tunes from his most recent album, 2011's "Irish Goodbye," including "Aviator" and "Jake + Olive," a sweet song about his grandparents' undying love. "Black Widow Spider," an ex-girlfriend revenge song with a catchy harmonica hook sample, afforded another highlight.
About mid-set, he introduced the song that rocketed him to YouTube fame, the pancake rap, saying "Everyone says I sold out when I made this song, but I disagree. I think the lyrics on this song are great." Brown beatboxed while Mac impressed the room with his lightning-speed delivery. He gave the YouTube fans another treat with the aforementioned Westboro Baptist Church bashing-rap, "Oh My God."
It's difficult for me to review a rap show – I can't wax poetic about transcendent guitar solos or keyboard riffs or vocal harmonies. So when all of that is stripped away, it's clear what it's really about: the beats and the lyrics. Rap is poetry – a verbal expression of self, set to rhythm – and Mac Lethal has the skills of a poet laureate, carefully observing and absorbing the world around him, turning it into art and spitting it back at us with a vengeance and a smile.