By Chris Schonberger
Updated July 16, 2007 at 11:19 PM EDT
Credit: Michael Schreiber/Retna

“We built this scene, you dudes are just quitters / Youprobably shop at Urban Outfitters.”

Okay, so I’m not a battle rapper, and no one has ever usedthis line. But it’s something you might expect to hear at Scribble Jam, theannual underground hip-hop festival best known for its emcee battles featuringunderground stalwarts like Sage Francis, Brother Ali, and other guys you’remore likely to find in raggedy jeans and work boots than an “EveryoneLoves a Jewish Boy” T-shirt.

And so it was with a slight sense of befuddlement that Iheaded to Urban’s massive Sixth Avenue location for a free in-store performance by pioneering emcee/producer El-P (pictured), whoburst onto scene with a brazen “independent as f—” mantra in theearly ’90s and has made a few Scribble Jam appearances in his day. But if theirony of performing a few feet from a stack of T-shirts declaring”Hip-Hop Is Dead” was apparent to the Brooklyn native, he didn’t let itstop him from treating the intimate crowd to an energetic and honest 30-minuteset.

Ushered onstage by the eerie strains of Gary Jules'”Mad World,” El-P joined his “band” — a bassist, hype man,and keyboard player alongside the legendary DJ Mr. Dibbs (who, incidentally,co-founded Scribble Jam) — and launched into a set that ran the gamut from2002’s Fantastic Damage to the recentsingle “Smithereens.” With El-P’s futuristic beats and dense,metaphor-laden lyrics blasting out of the speakers, it would have been nearlyimpossible for newcomers to the music to decipher what was being said. But theemcee controlled the stage more like a rock star, head banging his way throughthe music and encouraging the crowd to forget about the strictures of thewell-lit retail space and “jump as high as you f—ing can.”

No one started ripping Adidas track jackets off the walls ordancing on top of immaculately organized display tables, but El-P certainlygrabbed the attention of his audience, which ranged from zealous fans chantingthe words of every song to delegates of the New York City Brotherhood of PeopleWho Will Do Anything For Free (even when they have no idea what it is). Hisonly acknowledgment of the atypical crowd was to ask, “How many people are attheir first ever hip-hop performance?”, which was greeted by one middle-agedman jumping up and down awkwardly and yelling, “I love hip-hop! I lovehip-hop… We’re all white, let’s just be friends.” Okay…

The unlikely show was organized as part of the Free YR Radiocampaign developed by Urban Outfitters and Toyota to support independent music and non-commercial radio stations. UrbanOutfitters is hosting free performances by indie artists at locations aroundthe country, and stations like New Haven’s WNHU (who co-sponsored the El-P event) will receive proceeds through acompilation CD released through Urban Outfitters this fall.

So why are Urban Outfitters and Toyota interested in indie radio? Who knows, but El-P was clearly more interested inproviding a free show in his native New York than anything else. Though he told everyone that they “checked their rightto boo at the door” when they signed up for a free concert, he connectedwell with the crowd, stopping the music several times to share his thoughts onreligion, President Bush, and life on the road.

“We’ve been across the whole f—in’ world in the pastfour months,” he said. “And it really…it pretty much sucks. I like tothink that I’m expanding my horizons and becoming a better person, but I’m not.Everywhere I go just reminds me of why I’m completely inadequate and incapableof living anywhere but New York City.”

With his amiably misanthropic rants about how we’re allgoing to burn miserably in Hell (“It’s kind of awesome, actually, becausewe’re all going down together”), El-P could potentially find a secondcareer as a standup. He joked around about his insecurities, stopped a songwhen he forgot the words (not that anyone would have known), and stuck aroundto talk to fans afterwards. Yet as he spoke about the press coverage of AlQaeda and performed “Flyentology,” a clever song about the religiousuncertainty he experienced in the wake of a near-fatal plane crash, I couldn’tkeep my eyes off the walls of apparel bearing slogans like “Hot forHillary” and “Jesus Is My Homeboy.” Somehow it just didn’t addup.

Am I being to cynical, PopWatchers? Is Urban Outfittersdoing a good thing by sponsoring this campaign, or do these concerts act in thesame way as many of the T-shirts on their racks — a shorthand for cultural”hipness” that may not actually exist? Has “selling out”become more complicated than ever?