LL Cool J, hip-hop icons deliver unforgettable rap throwback during Memphis show

Hip-hop history came to life in Memphis on Tuesday night, as The F.O.R.C.E. Live Tour stopped at Downtown’s FedExForum.

The multi-artist package, led by organizer and rap great LL Cool J, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop’s birth this month — with Aug. 11, 1973, marking the date on which pioneering DJ Kool Herc inaugurated the genre during a house party in the Bronx, New York.

For LL Cool J the show also served as a (don’t call it a) comeback, as it’s the rapper’s first full headlining arena tour in 30 years. But it was the presence of some other New York City rap legends — ones who’ve rarely graced the Bluff City — that made the evening feel like a truly historic event.

The F.O.R.C.E. Tour — which stands for Frequencies of Real Creative Energy — featured able musical backing from Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots, and turntable support from DJ Jazzy Jeff and DJ Z-Trip. The show played like a live mix tape with performances segueing in and out of one another over the course of the three-hour show.

A largely packed — and older-skewing — crowd at FedExForum loudly welcomed a veritable parade of iconic hip-hop figures: foundational duo Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, game-changing MC Rakim, former Hot Boys member Juvenile, female pioneer MC Lyte and The Lox member and solo star Jadakiss. Each artist served up mini-sets of their hits and catalog classics, before ceding the stage to the next star, with the free-flowing setup keeping the energy and excitement of the evening high throughout.

The night kicked off with a selection from Rakim, featuring iconic tracks like “My Melody” and “I Know You Got Soul.” Not a soul was left sitting in FedExForum once MC Lyte appeared on stage, pumping up the building with her performance of “Cold Rock a Party.” F.O.R.C.E. moves quickly, and soon Lyte passed the mic on to Juvenile.

Not to be outdone, the headliner soon appeared on stage in dramatic fashion, his shadow cast on the big screen through thick fog. LL Cool J emerged, performing his 1987 hit “I’m Bad” to a roaring crowd. LL Cool J flawlessly performed multiple other songs from his vast repertoire, including “Around the Way Girl” and “Rampage,” before taking a break to return as the final act.

LL Cool J performs during The F.O.R.C.E. Live at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Aug. 18. The Commercial Appeal did not photograph Tuesday's tour stop in Memphis because the tour required preapproval of photos before publication.

Jadakiss hopped on stage to fill the gap, performing 1998’s “Money, Power & Respect” from The Lox. Although the show clearly had a heavy East Coast/New York City bent, Atlanta rapper Big Boi brought some Southern flavor to the proceedings, performing several Outkast classics to a receptive regional audience. It was clear the crowd needed a break after LL Cool J’s first appearance, but Big Boi’s performance of the iconic “Ms. Jackson” brought everyone in the arena back on their feet.

As part of his set, Doug E. Fresh also acknowledged Memphis’ own rich rap legacy. “Ladies and gentlemen, I must tell you, it feels so good to be in Memphis tonight,” he said, calling the city “the music capital of the world.” Fittingly, Fresh and the crowd sang “Teach Me How” to Dougie by Cali Swag District, as Fresh performed the iconic dance named after him.

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For his part, the 55-year-old LL Cool J remains one of hip-hop’s most commanding and charismatic figures, and he proved that conclusively performing songs from across his career — from early anthems like “Rock the Bells” to signature songs like “Mama Said Knock You Out” while offering up a couple covers as well.

The rap legend capped off the show with a rendition of 1985’s “Rock the Bells” as the still-energized crowd shook the building. They may not have received an encore, but they got an unforgettable throwback to an era of rap that’s still beloved by millions today.

Jacob Wilt is a news reporter for The Commercial Appeal. You can reach him at jacob.wilt@commercialappeal.com

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