IMG_9141

FLOW 93.5 has long been Toronto’s pre-eminent R&B/hip-hop radio station, but in recent years it has begun to tweak its format to move away from contemporary/Top 40 hits in favour of a classic hip-hop format. The FLOW 93.5 Throwback Birthday Bash—I’m still unclear as to why a station launched in March 2001 would celebrate its birthday in late September, but feel free to chime in with an answer in the comments—was certainly a reflection of that shift to “All The Best Throwbacks,” featuring a lineup of classic acts headlined by En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa.

Kicking things off on Sunday afternoon was Choclair with a brief set that closed with a medley of hooks from standout hits from the 90s (“Hip Hop Hooray,” “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”) and a short rendition of his debut single, 1999’s “Let’s Ride.” Choclair was generally well received by fans who made it out to the sand-filled venue before sundown, but it was a bit disappointing to watch him finish with an abbreviated version of what remains to this day his biggest hit—and a Canadian hip-hop landmark.

Fat Joe was much more generous with his hits—almost to a fault. Tracks like “We Thuggin’,” “Make It Rain” and “Another Round” all made appearances and still sounded fresh, as did Joe’s verses from Ja Rule’s “New York” as well as DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over” and “All I Do Is Win”—and the sight of hundreds of fans leaning back to the chorus of the Terror Squad hit was something to behold. Given only a half-hour, it came as a surprise—though a welcome one judging by the loud crowd singalong to the song’s hook—when Joe chose to end his allocated time by performing “What’s Luv” a second time.

Following Fat Joe, Maestro gave the audience a lesson in CanCon hip-hop history, peppering a setlist that included “Drop the Needle,” “Let Your Backbone Slide,” “Still Too Much” and “Stick to Your Vision” with reminders that without the success of his first album a radio station like FLOW or the current generation of global chart toppers may have never existed in Canada. New song “I Know Your Mom” was a punchline-filled highlight—and a potent reminder that Maestro’s time behind the mic is far from up.

After a long and mostly silent break that tested the crowd’s patience, En Vogue—reduced to a trio comprised of original members Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron and relative “new kid” Rhona Bennett—eased into Masterpiece Theatre‘s “No, No, No (Can’t Come Back)” and a pitch-perfect version of Funky Divas‘ “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” that expertly showcased the group’s silky harmonies. A 15-minute (!) medley of classic R&B hits from the ’60s (“Proud Mary”, “Respect”), ’70s (“Bad Girls”, “Ring My Bell”, “Lady Marmalade”) and ’80s (“In My House”) was competently performed, but it seemed like unnecessary set padding from a group with nearly twenty charting hits and at least a handful that continue to be radio staples. The first notes of “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” signalled a welcome return to En Vogue’s own catalogue and the start of the proper throwback-birthday-bash section of their set: “Hooked On Your Love,” “Free Your Mind,” “Don’t Let Go (Love),” the familiar “Who’s Lovin’ You” a cappella verse into “Hold On”—none of these songs showed so much as a single wrinkle. Eleven years after their last single—Soul Flower‘s “Ooh Boy”—the women of En Vogue have lost none of their vocal prowess, and one can only hope for a new album in a not-so-distant future.

If the 4,000-strong crowd was getting impatient before En Vogue’s set, it was positively buzzing when Salt-N-Pepa finally took the stage—after another long, silent break and no less than three false starts—and opened with a boisterous version of 1988’s “Shake Your Thang (It’s Your Thing).” Following a trio of songs that showed off Salt-N-Pepa’s still-sharp mic skills and fierce stage presence (“I’ll Take Your Man,” “R U Ready” and “My Mic Sounds Nice”), the pair stopped to note that this was no ordinary live show but “a Salt-N-Pepa experience” complete with a cheeky skit about bad relationships (“No romance without finance!”) and plenty of positive messages for an audience consisting largely of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Spinderella (“not a fella but a girl DJ”) also had her time in the spotlight, getting the crowd to dance and sing along to a short set that included “The Breaks,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (!) and “Uptown Funk.” Pepa joked that “you made it when you’re a Halloween costume,” but an even better testament to Salt-N-Pepa’s power and importance as MCs—and not just female MCs—was perhaps to watch nearly every audience member rap along to every word of “Shoop” and “Push It.” When they brought back En Vogue for a predictable and predictably awesome encore of “Whatta Man,” it was a pretty perfect way to close out a night of “all the best throwbacks.”

While Salt-N-Pepa claimed early in their set that they had no other pretension on the night than to “take you back to the 80s and 90s,” this was no simple exercise in nostalgia—the songs may date back more than two decades, but these pioneers’ music remains steeped in messages of positive female self-empowerment and female sexuality that still resonate loudly and clearly to this day.