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March 1, 2012

No disrespect intended to the UWM Gasthaus—it’s a nice place to work on a paper or enjoy some nachos—but it seems like Jean Grae should be commanding a bigger stage at a better venue. Granted, she made her name in the underground (whatever that word means in rap nowadays), but that name still carries a lot of weight, even if fans have had to make do with mixtapes while awaiting her long-in-the-works follow up to 2008’s Jeanius, the upcoming Cake or Death. If the setting seemed a little off, however, her appearance as part of the university’s Women’s History Month “Heroines & Hellions” series is entirely appropriate, since the South African (by way of New York City) MC is undoubtedly one of the strongest female voices in the game.

In keeping with the feminine focus, the opening slot was occupied by Milwaukee’s own Element Everest, a woman with significant verbal skills. The only problem was that it was almost impossible to hear her, or her DJ, Poizon Ivy, unless you were standing right in front of the speakers. It was almost humorous to watch someone on stage imploring the crowd to make some noise, only to have it more or less lost in the general barroom din.

It wasn’t until Grae herself took the stage and complained that the sound guys got up a little nerve and pushed things toward the red, though it was still rather muddled toward the back, the only place in the venue you could enjoy a drink. If you were willing to put your thirst on hold, however, your patience was rewarded, since, in keeping with her reputation, Grae ripped into her set with gusto. She’s a charismatic performer, as funny and sharp in between songs as she is swift and tough on the mic, not that either of those talents did her much good when the night’s technical difficulties returned and the sound cut out entirely. As soon as things were sorted out, 10 minutes or so later, Grae picked up right where she left off before memorably closing out the night with the inspirational new “This Morning.”

Despite the problems and the relatively short run time (it’s not often shows, especially rap shows, lay out their schedule as clearly as “9-11 p.m.,” as the posters proclaimed), Grae salvaged a lot of quality music from the chaos. Rap may be something of a boy’s club, but, as with the standard talk surrounding gender and comedy, it often seems counterproductive to make a big fuss about a woman pulling it off, as if it should come as some sort of surprise. Unless you’re ignorant or bigoted, you’ve got to acknowledge the contribution of female MCs like Grae and her many predecessors. They deserve respect, they’ve earned it; they also deserve a sound system that actually works—though since it was a free show, at least the price was right.

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