Originally published on inthemix.
Descending into Oxford Art Factory I was greeted with the festive tones of a trumpet over a heavy, held back beat. It was Sydney-based supports True Vibenation in the midst of a brief but engaging set which celebrated unpretentious, authentic hip hop, peppered with live instrumentation and reggae flavoured vocals. In keeping with their inclusive spirit on stage, the trio immediately came out and mingled with the crowd after their set, their positive vibe making up for some dubious outfits...
A late addition to the bill, I had no idea what to expect from L.A based rapper Chino XL. He was introduced by Hans Zimmer’s melodramatic theme from Inception, which was all a bit naff when taken out of context and blasted through OAF’s speakers to a slightly bewildered crowd. But it was only a false start. From the moment Chino’s guttural voice was heard from the back of the room the energy was electric – and stayed that way as he rapped his way through a maze of limbs and camera phones up onto the stage. Wicked entrance.
In his brief time on stage Chino dethroned at least half of the Hollywood a-list, whilst constantly trumpeting his own proverbial horn. The crowd was completely in his thrall, any arrogance forgiven in the face of good rhythm and wit. Often going a cappella, Chino delivered a passionate personal soliloquy that was story telling at its best, plus a barrage of classic one-liners slamming the ultimate triad of global authority: the Queen, commercial radio and Oprah. “You best adjust to my manner. Every punch line hits like the fist of Chris Brown in the face of Rihanna.” Ooh, snap!
There’s a fine line between suspense and frustration, and we all crossed it that night. 20 minutes after Dead Prez were due to start the crowd erupted into cheers at the appearance of roadies placing water bottles on stage. 40 minutes after Dead Prez were due to start the crowd grumbled and even booed when Ology announced that Dead Prez were “in the building” and would be playing “after just a few more tracks.”
Long overdue, Dead Prez opened with a heart-vibrating bass - the kind that rattles you from your toes to your eyeballs - then swung into a banger from RBG called Radio Freq. The duo worked through a pretty even cross-section of their discography, peaking at Hell Yeah and Runaway Slave, but flat lining during Be Healthy. Dead Prez’s healthy living philosophy got a good deal of plugging throughout the night - to a predictably lukewarm response. It’s a refreshing idea, but if you want to get gen Y on side about something as pedestrian as ‘a healthy diet’ – you’ve got to be clever about it. “You are what you eat – so I strive to eat healthy” just isn’t a winning line. Nonetheless, Stic Man and M-1 served out their hits with energy and precision – bouncing off each other with an ease indicative of their long partnership.
And then came that song. You know the one. With the first growl of that iconic bass line the room was absolutely heaving, as we bounced and roared in unison – “it’s bigger than HIP… HOP…” Surprising no one but mobilising everyone, it was the moment of the night.
In the dwindling minutes of their set, things got super soulful (and a wee bit mushy) as audience and artists alike swayed to Al Green’s Lets Stay Together, the stage lights swooping across a sweaty but satisfied throng. Musically, the night had been everything it should have, but the energy between songs varied so wildly that I can’t say this gig was a total success. From fantastically cheeky moments like Stic man’s mid-gig realisation, “Hold up. We ain’t even rode on the Police yet!” to the sad and unsettling minute of silence after M-1 was given the news that the nephew of one of his entourage had committed suicide – after which point it must have been incredibly difficult for the pair to focus on the show.
It was a treat to see these underground hip hop legends at work and those lucky enough to score tickets to this sold-out event had little to complain about… but I don’t think we had Dead Prez at their best.