ROCK / High spirits in a material world

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The Independent Culture
LAST SUMMER, when Arrested Development first played in Britain, they put on a dazzling show: a wily blend of Sly Stone samples, hokey ruralism, spot-on vocal harmonies, and hard-hitting lyrics. Since then a worldwide promotional blitzkrieg has made their album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . one of the best-selling rap records ever, as well as the only one to advocate abandoning Nintendo in favour of rhubarb. It can't have been easy being polemical and fun 24 hours a day for nine months.

On their second night at the Town & Country, the amplification kinks of the previous evening have been ironed out. And then some. The crowd is soon in orgiastic mood, thanks to the thigh- reducing volume of the DJ selection, especially Shaggy's 'Oh Carolina', the greatest reggae novelty hit since Pluto's 'Your Honour'. Arrested Development's 'spiritual adviser', learned grey-beard Baba Oje, sets the proper educational tone with a sprightly ranted history lesson. The rest of the band pick their way on-stage through a maze of lanterns and pitchforks and launch wholeheartedly into a compact set which already has a greatest-hits formality about it. Their lyrical message - they believe in self-improvement and respect for nature, womankind and the wisdom of the old - finds its pithiest expression in 'People Everyday', in which pacific rapper / sage Speech is so disgusted by the macho posturing of an unreconstructed homeboy that he is obliged to beat him up.

The appeal of Speech's Southern hayseed chic is not diminished by the knowledge that he was largely brought up in the industrial Midwest and is allergic to straw. But his group have lost a little of their lustre. The departure of star singer Dionne Farris has upset their equilibrium - her replacement, Toni Williams, doesn't yet have the presence to balance the bumptiousness of singer-designer Aerlee Taree and dancer Montsho Eshe. Attempts to make the show more spontaneous don't work either: Speech and DJ Headliner swap bongos and turntables, and there's even an ill- fated jam. Arrested Development should allow themselves a holiday before embarking on that difficult second album.

Those who'd predicted that the arrival of Ice Cube would set off racial warfare and an epidemic of drive-by shootings were left looking pretty foolish. The soundtrack might be a relentless catalogue of misogyny and violence, but the atmosphere at the Brixton Academy is one of high good humour. Ice Cube's audience - more black than white, unlike that at most big hip-hop shows - knows that there is a line between showbusiness and real life; and there's no doubt which side of that line their man is on.

Doubts cast on Cube's 'authenticity' based on his middle- class upbringing are entirely fallacious - Elvis was not a real poor black person, nor were the Rolling Stones, and that didn't bother anyone. This man, like them, is a master showman. Both his support acts, Kam and Da Lench Mob, have benefited from his musical and entrepreneurial gifts in the past. But tonight they mysteriously find themselves performing at volume levels which would not be distracting on someone else's Walkman. The build- up to Ice Cube's arrival accelerates with some idiotic DJ hyperbole ('Ice Cube is in the building]' - I should think so too at pounds 10 a ticket]) and a cameo appearance from Lennox Lewis. At last he comes among us, in a welter of booming beats, with a typically uncompromising statement of intent - 'Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what the fuck it's ever done for you.'

The cuss-words and gunshots with which Ice Cube's songs are peppered are the punctuation in a rhythmic grammar that is highly effective. Bouncing obscenities off his capable under-rapper WC (who appears happily oblivious of his name's special resonance on this side of the Atlantic), Ice Cube rolls words around his mouth and spits them out with regal venom. You don't have to think giving voice to racial and sexual animosity is a good thing to see that nobody does it better.

Another menace to the social order, as yet less notorious but already the subject of tabloid scare stories, manifested itself in the nation's capital last week, as the University of London played host to American 'Riot Grrrls' Bikini Kill. By all accounts this band have been causing mayhem all around the country; inspiring 16- year-old Welsh girls to pick up guitars and write magazines, upsetting macho idiots and generally behaving in an exemplary fashion. Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, Kill Rock Stars, their half of the first album on the 'totally girl-powered' Catcall label has its moments too. In person, they are a big disappointment. If you think Brenda Walsh from Beverly Hills, 90210 is a feminist icon, this is the band for you. A passing vocal resemblance to Poly Styrene does not in itself make a threat to patriarchy, and at times Bikini Kill's punk revivalism feels almost as sad as the Manic Street Preachers'. Maybe this was an off-night, but it seems an insult to the women at the cutting edge of rock'n'roll to take such a mediocre band seriously.