So it’s the last day of November, and the last time that bitter and cynical people like me can shout IT’S NOT FUCKING CHRISTMAS YET TURN THAT SHIT OFF at the owners of small cafés. A good time then, to head down to the best live venue in Southampton, and one struggling to keep itself open, The Joiners hosting a rare hip-hop show of the cream of British underground, Akala supported by Mic Righteous and with local act The Next R.E.V.Olution in tow.
The Next R.E.V.Olution, were the first band on, a duo of MC Young Fro (aka Hugh Williams) and DJ/producer Jamie Simkin. Simkin took to the stage first to get the night started, before quickly being joined by Williams and a female companion (who helped sing the first few tracks’ choruses) and they proceeded to launch into their 2nd single ‘Don’t Turn Around’, a track seemingly dragged from the past where hip-hop was old soul samples with just a layer of beats. Williams impressed immediately with his confidence and stage presence which was staggering considering his age. Instantly engaging with the crowd, and moving around like he ran the place, he never missed a single line, or stumbled over his lyrics. Lyrics which it should be added, were seriously impressive. His grasp of the way rapping works was extremely tight and he delivered punchlines with ease, scoring great reaction with lines calling on Prof Hawking, Tony Blair and referencing past hip-hop legends in Afka Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash. Not that I should suggest this was a one man show, as Simkin’s beats were a constant source of enjoyment, the beat shifting from old-school to more of a trap sound for the second track before hitting a track very reminiscent of a recent favourite of mine, Flying Lotus, in its mellow and Jazz-heavy beat. It was during this track that Williams’ punchlines took to a new level and dropped the potential best line of the night with ‘We got beef like a Lady Gaga dress’. Next R.E.V.Olution then gave a nod to the acts due to follow them by dropping a more socially conscious number about race. By the next track, the punchlines were back, references to Yu-Gi-Oh and 24 delighted the crowd and the line ‘doper than Lance Armstrong’ proved a contender to the Gaga line’s throne. Williams continued to entertain the crowd while Simkin dropped into a more dubstep influenced beat, with an insanely heavy bass line that shook the gut. By this point the duo had settled into their act and lost any nerves, starting to really enjoy the flow of each song. By the time they closed their set with new single R.E.V.Olution is now they’d made it pretty clear that they were a group worth following.
While all that is pretty impressive, it’s worth picking up on a few places the group have to go. Simkin’s production was definitely at a more advanced stage than Williams’ flow which at times became a bit too brittle and staccato, and it was clear that tonights headliner, Akala, was a massive influence whose shadow Williams has yet to break from. There was also an issue that occasionally the sound got a little crowded. Partly this may have been because all the sounds were coming out together from one speaker which clustered it up, but I suspect there might be an issue with congesting the music. Don’t get me wrong, if Simkin is reading this, please send me all your instrumentals, I loved them, but it could have done with a little bit more space for the rapping to take the lead. I’m tempted to say that this happened as the step from electronica to hip-hop instrumentals necessitates savage cuts in what would be fantastic standalone tracks. However, all of these things are what will come from more experience out there playing to crowds and picking up what needs to be done live. Overall the most prominent feeling was being really fucking impressed. These guys were beyond the level of so many known players, and they are still ridiculously young. I also felt that the singles they’ve released weren’t even the best tracks of the night, so they are absolutely worth keeping tabs on. Give them a few more months playing live and developing their sound, and then when they go back into the (bedroom) studio they will be capable of tracks to bother the folks running the radio.
After a brief reflective break I allowed my notebook to return to my pocket and settle down to enjoy the show. A show which was completely stolen by the next act, Mic Righteous. It takes balls to stand on a stage completely alone, but that’s how Mic did it, clad in his jacket, as he began his personal and powerful raps. What was immediately striking was the way that Righteous struck a bond with the crowd, his standing all alone on the stage only served to help bring the audience onto it with him. A curious unity emerged between a willing audience and the words of an honest, emotive and passionate rapper. As the first track ended, the beats finished, but Righteous kept going alone, and we were all enraptured by the sheer confidence and assurance that he had. His lines, reflecting on home life, home towns and belonging were made so powerful by the way in which he performed, here was a socially and politically conscious MC who so clearly believed and felt what he was doing that he had us at his beck and call. Which all culminated beautifully as he dropped out from a positive ending to bring up a beef with Westwood, and went into a full on diss to the beat of ‘Rack City’. It was simply amazing. Equally hilarious and angry, with lines like ‘You were born in the 50s, prick’, Westwood was duly decimated and Mic Righteous stepped down, each audience member knowing that would be the last time he would play a stage that small, in support of anyone.
Finally, it was time for headliner Akala to do the honours, and actually he did need to perform to sway the audience out of their post-Righteous ease, as the support had had such a powerful effect. However Akala is a lyrical God, and as he beckoned the crowd in to push right up against the stage, he delivered line after line of genius. Seeing Akala reminded me of the importance that politically conscious underground rap plays, its distrust of the media and dedication to past legends reminds people why hip-hop exists. Constant literary references to Orwell and Shakespeare bridged gaps of centuries between classes and cultures reminding people to pay attention to the world around them, not to give up on society and think about the way that governments affect their lives. Having recently been at Immortal Technique’s Southampton show, it was refreshing to see a performace with the same passion and idealism, but with a much more welcoming, positive attitude. Akala was joined on stage only by his sometime producer Cassell The Beatmaker who supported with tracks and also with some fantastic drumming, which was a great addition to hip-hop shows where sometimes too much pre-recorded sound can hamper the live atmosphere (I’ll add that was never the case tonight). The highlight of his energetic and crowd-pleasing set was a full performace of his indomitable Fire In The Booth recording which showcases both Akala’s knowledge and conscience but also his incredible flow. It’s worth remembering that no matter how good a rapper is at being socially proactive, the main reason they will get respect is if their flow and lyrics are something special, and it’s his ability to combine the prowess with the consciousness that makes Akala one of the most vital and engaging rappers around.