New York's annual CMJ event is a music conference that generally catches a lot of flack from industry insiders. Venues are spread out all over Manhattan and the boroughs: Lengthy subway trips and cab rides make it impractical — if not altogether unaffordable — to dip in and out of too many locations a night. Moreover, even though badges run around $400, they don't guarantee admittance: All showcases are open to the public, and those boasting the year's buzz bands tend to sell out, as did the Cansei de Ser Sexy performance Thursday, Nov. 2 at the Bowery Ballroom. That night, scores of the skinny-jean clad and disenchanted were turned away at the door. Some filed quietly in line, hoping to gain entry as folks began to leave, while others flashed credentials and argued with bouncers. Mostly, the crowd spread out down Delancey Street, illuminated by the glow of their Blackberrys, grumbling to friends and new arrivals while plotting their next moves. It was a proper kick-off for one of the country's most established music marathons: packed to the gills with the year's hottest sounds; profoundly overcrowded with industry professionals, artists and fans; and damn democratic in its treatment of all of the above.
Much of the CSS overspill filed down the street to Lit Lounge, which boasted a lineup including Warp Record's Born Ruffians and headlined by Dim Mak's Scanners. The latter act took the modest basement stage to an uncomfortably packed audience and played a strong set of uneven material. At her best, lead singer Sarah Daly rides her high notes with jaw-clenching pitch-imperfection, as in the group's strongest single and that night's set finale, “Lowlife.”
On Friday, the night kicked off with a Peanut Butter Wolf and RJD2 bill at a Windish Booking Agency event that felt like an office party. Nonetheless, RJ worked hard to warm up the decidedly tame crowd with a set that skimmed rare soul, Golden Era hip-hop and gangsta-rap classics. Unfortunately, as soon as PB Wolf took over, he virtually cleared the room with an ill-placed Bollywood track.
Though many were looking forward to the late-night Kid Sister show as a festival highlight, sound problems at Cake Shop had the fledgling Chicago club rapper off to a bumpy start. It was enough to put the brakes on her set for a solid half hour: “Oh, no, we ain't goin' out like this,” announced her brother and hype man Josh Young, also a member of the tag-team duo Flosstradamus, which already had the crowd twerking with it clever, ass-shaking amalgam of crunk, hip-hop, electro and Chicago juke. In the absence of a competent sound guy, A-Trak — also on the night's bill — struggled to patch the problem with some success. Of her limited arsenal of tracks, “Damn Girl” (produced by A-Trak) best typified her clean-burning, spitfire flow, bursting with fly-girl bravado, punch lines and club hollers. A-Trak closed, his newfound romance with the bouncing, fast-tempo Bmore club and juke niche-genres reflecting strongly in his track selections.
Saturday was full of options. Justice played a warehouse party in Williamsburg that raged through the wee hours of the morning. Saul Williams played an Afro-punk showcase, mixing spoken-word pieces with tracks from his debut release and previewing new material, moving the crowd to join in his new refrain, “Scared money don't make none.” Perhaps the biggest payoff of the week came later that night at the Knitting Factory Clipse show. Mixing hits off the duo's debut, cuts from its celebrated two-volume mixtape series We Got It for Cheap and newer radio hits like “Mr. Me Too,” it took little urging for the audience to join in Clipse's signature chant, “R-E-U-P G-A-N-G,” with abandon. And with that, CMJ came to an end, the crowds dissipating and the flocks of industry folks beginning their migrations back home. As usual, New York City barely missed a beat.