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In hip-hop, cover songs are just about the only way to pay homage to another artist or song that isn't commonly practiced. A rapper might sample someone else's track, appear on a remix, freestyle over its beat, interpolate its hook, or bite the rhyme scheme. But straight-up covers are a rarity, possibly because by the time they finish inserting their name in place of the original artist's in the lyrics and personalizing the references, they've changed so many words that they figure they might as well take a songwriting credit. On Aug. 9, Sonar bucked that tradition by hosting a "Hip-Hop Cover Show" in its club room, featuring roughly a half-dozen local acts performing their favorite chestnuts "from the golden era," which in this instance was defined roughly as New York rap from the early to mid -90s, with an emphasis on the works of DJ Premier and the Wu Tang Clan. The event's DJ, Minus Night, kept his song selection appropriately nostalgic, while the host, local rapper Bishop, worked overtime to try to amp up the small crowd, urging them closer to the stage and guilting everyone into clapping and cheering louder whenever a performer was received with tepid applause. More than a few of the night's performers where white, which isn't rare for an underground rap show, but is potentially awkward when they're there to recite songs almost exclusively written by black artists. And while no one picked a song that presented the dilemma of a lyrical N-word, the first performer, Oso Clever, gave us one brief moment of racial weirdness with that "sticking up white boys in ball courts" line from Raekwon's verse on "C.R.E.A.M." Lyrical Leviathan, the host of Mic Life Wednesdays, looked a little more aware of the possible subtext of his song selection, or at least we doubt it was a coincidence that he picked the one song from Nas' Illmatic with the word "leviathan" in it. Surprisingly, it was the duo Wade Waters, whose 2006 album Dark Water featured retro boom-bap beats and a guest appearance from AZ, who finally strayed from the East Coast for their cover material, with a performance of Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang." And UnReal, one of the more charismatic live performers to emerge in the Baltimore hip-hop scene in recent years, gave a particularly high-energy reading of the Juice Crew's "The Symphony." While the artists and audience alike were clearly having fun, the show was a bit odd. Most performers did one or two covers, and then a song or two of their original material. Granted, many of them probably wouldn't have bothered with the event if it didn't give them at least a small opportunity to promote their own records, but it meant that the whole "Hip-Hop Cover Show" billing was only half-true. And the show's organizers could probably have learned a thing or to from the Latin Palace's recent Tuesday night run of Hip-Hop Karaoke, where artists and amateurs alike get to perform their favorite songs in a more informal and spontaneous setting. The hip-hop cover show concept could thrive, especially if given a theme more specific than "the golden era"--we suspect a Wu-Tang night would go down well--but as it stands, Thursday was just another local rap show that happened to feature a few covers.

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