In its first two years the Smokin' Grooves package tour was top-heavy with hip-hop, but it did make an attempt to reach out, tossing in Ziggy Marley and Spearhead in 1996 and George Clinton and Erykah Badu in '97. This year organizers haven't bothered with even the pretense of inclusiveness, but the lineup is so formidable it probably doesn't matter. Headliners Public Enemy, who are making a comeback in support of the uninspired sound track to He Got Game (c'mon, Stephen Stills?), and Cypress Hill, who are on the tour for the third consecutive year in support of their last album (a new one is due in September), are both in the creative-twilight zone, but they still know how to put on a show. In addition Wyclef Jean of the Fugees appears with next big thing Canibus, a wicked freestyle rapper who's been catapulted into the limelight thanks to an ongoing war of words with LL Cool J, and loudmouthed jokester Busta Rhymes is back. But the most exciting acts are the first two on the bill: Gang Starr and Black Eyed Peas. Moment of Truth (Noo Trybe/Virgin), Gang Starr's fifth album, is on a par with the Brooklyn duo's excellent previous material, with DJ Premier looping killer beats, scratching, and layering obscure samples with the finesse of a pointillist and rapper Guru delivering lines like "Squeeze the juice out of all the suckers with power / And pour some back out so as to water the flowers" (from "Robbin Hood Theory") in his singularly authoritative and throaty voice. Unfortunately Guru is casually misogynistic and ridiculously paranoid, expressing the fear that every friend, associate, and lover is liable to rob him blind, which tends to dilute his power. The LA trio Black Eyed Peas has no such problems, stirring up a mix of positivity and braggadocio on their debut Behind the Front (Interscope) that's neither too solemn nor too arrogant. Their sound incorporates soul, funk, reggae, and electro into a scrappy sonic patchwork straight out of the hip-hop handbook; their hooks recall alt-hip-hoppers Digable Planets and the goofy game-show skits are swiped from De La Soul's first album. But like the Roots and Goodie Mob they're sample-free, and here they'll be backed by a live band. Friday, 6 PM, International Amphitheatre, 4220 S. Halsted; 773-254-6900 or 312-559-1212. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gang Starr photo by Daniel Hastings-Lab; Black Eyed Peas photo by Storm Hale.