Thoughts on Hip Hop?

Recently, a friend asked me what I thought about Hip Hop. Big question. I paused and shrugged it off. I probably mentioned a couple of artists. I usually don’t like broad questions, but this one stuck. The question may be superficial, but what do I know and think of hundreds of individual artists? That’s worth exploring.

I don’t have much to say about Hip Hop as a subculture. Being a Brit born in the late eighties the closest I got was reruns of The Fresh Prince. Or through Toejam and Earl (enough to get me excited about making a sequel). But music is something I have an interest in. Some Hip Hop has been unavoidable, and some I have sought out.

My musical coming of age happened in the time of Nu-Metal. By the time I was paying attention to the genre, drop-tuned guitars had become blasé and artists were looking wider for new sounds to pull into the melange. As well as singing and shouting, a lot of the bands were rapping over rock beats and using DJs or other electronics.

In this mix Linkin Park took the world by storm with their debut Hybrid Theory. This was a polished and fully integrated mix of sounds and styles. In The End got the most play and the Hip Hop influence is clear with the sound of the beat and the rapping during the verses. They even followed this up with a Jay-Z collaboration. It works, but it’s more of a mash up than the DUN-DMC/Aerosmith or Anthrax/Public Enemy reworkings that had come before it, which put me off at the time.

Since then my exploration has been tangental and at the fringes. Often only going one leap from an artist I know already. I discovered Saul Williams through his collaborations with Trent Reznor. I’ve gotten into B-Dolan and Sage Francis through their work with Scroobius Pip. (I’ll probably check out the rest of the Strange Famous artists at some point too.)

But I’ve also picked up stuff just by being interested in music. Some exposure was unavoidable, even mostly staying in the rock-centric world of MTV2. Everyone knew how many problems Jay-Z had and the singles off The Marshall Mathers LP were played to death. Even if bits seemed more censored than uncensored. When Scroobius Pip says guns, bitches and bling aren’t part of The Four Elements I get the reference. When Blondie says “Flash is fast, Flash is cool” I get the reference.

But the stuff I’m interested in (or at least seek out) tends to be complex and intelligent. Or really personal. The first time I really listened to Me ‘Em Purr (a hip hop song about unemployment and depression) it almost brought me to tears. More like this, please.

But I do love a good beat, and I do have an appreciation of flow. And not completely agreeing with the material doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it for what it is. The first Kanye West album I’ve given a proper listen to is Yeezus. The talk of it’s harder, more industrial sound pricked my ears up. I quite liked the album (but I’m still not sure about Bound2 or it’s video) and thinking back I’ve enjoyed what I can remember of his previous singles, even if they haven’t made me check out the rest of the album. There are probably many artists that I’ve written off more than I should due to only being exposed to their club hits. Beyonce also come to mind for some reason, but I’m sure the list is way longer.

In a world where pop steals from every genre (and a genre might be defined by how you make your kick and snare sounds) they are becoming ever diluted and irrelevant. There’s rap as a technique and Hip hop is a school, or approach, to making music. Everything is influenced by everything else and I’d like to go deeper.

During my research Spotify helpfully gave me a playlist of songs to explore, YouTube too, but there’s much I’ve missed. What are the seminal classics and why are they important? Who’s pushing the boundaries past and present? Who’s just to damn good to ignore?

Much exploring ahead.

Kap Bambino and Vitalic live 28th Match 2013

At Koko

Kap Bambino are a French electro band. I first saw them supporting Atari Teenage Riot a couple of years ago. That was a really good gig. I even started following FOE who were the opening act. Kap Bambino didn’t quite click for me, but one of my friends got really into them. When he asked if I was up for seeing them again, knowing what to expect this time, I thought I’d give them another go.

You know it’s a weird running order when the band you want to see is after the headliner act. But when your night runs to four in the morning (and it’s not a rave where your audience is expected to be nocturnal) it’s not too surprising. Vitalic was the headliner, surrounded by some DJs who were fairly forgettable. There was a second room (read: the bar) which was more dubstep oriented, but we mostly went for generic house over generic dubstep.

I love Koko as a venue. It’s got gorgeous red decor, it’s tiered in such away that it’s easy to get a good view and I like anywhere that feels like a labyrinthe. But saying it has a second room isn’t saying much. I don’t know if you could even fit 100 people in there. The acts in that room weren’t expected to be very popular.

Vitalic was joined on stage by an electronic drummer and a keyboard player. They immediately felt more live and engaging than the DJ before him. The music actually had some dynamic structure to it and more substance than the hook. When you have the confidence to pause between songs at this type of event you are probably doing something right. It may be middle-of-the-road house, but it was well executed and had us on the dance floor.

Kap Bambino were on last, at 3.15am. I was surprised at how full the place still was after Vitalic had played. The DJ between Vitalic and Kap Bambino was forgettable, if occasionally interesting, but was playing the kind of music that would keep you dancing. You could tell when Kap Bambino took the stage as a cacophony descended. I usually think it’s a good thing when a band polarises a room (unless these people are already your fans) and I wasn’t surprised when the room was noticeably emptier after their second song. They were relentless with their tiny female front woman screaming over mangled dance music.

Half the crowd may have left, but the other half loved it. We were asked by two different people who that last band were. The strange running order didn’t seem to matter any more, there wasn’t anything that could follow that. And yes, I was definitely converted.

Bloc Party Live 22nd February 2013

At Earl’s Court

Bloc Party are a London based indie rock band with a very distinctive sound. They recently reformed and have released their forth album imaginatively titled Four. Four does have some of their is a bit stripped back compared to Intimacy, with no synth, but does have their signature delay used throughout. It does feel like a deliberate change in direction after taking a break.

The main support were The Joy Formidable.  They are an energetic mix of catchy indie pop and shoe-gazer soundscapes. Perfect to enjoy at three in the afternoon with a beer in a field. But it was weird seeing them when it was so cold. There was a level of intimacy lost in the size of the venue, but there was a large fan base obviously enjoying themselves at the front.

Bloc Party opened with So He Begins to Lie into Hunting For Witches. They were impressively tight and hand an energy fed the crowd. They played a solid set from start to finish. It’s almost as if they had never taken a break.

There was a good mix of new and old, but a conspicuous lack of anything off Intimacy other than the odd choice of Ares. There were some classics with songs like Banquet and Waiting for the 7:18 getting the crowd young and old singing along.

Some of the new material did stand out against the older material, but their sound is so varied it doesn’t really matter. They finished on Helicopter, very fast and strangely loose compared to the rest of their set. It was a good night and it’s been a while since I’ve been to a gig with as good a light show.

Black Light Burns live 14th February 2013

At The Underworld

Black Light Burns is creative work of on and off Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland. He was described it as his main project and free of the need to be commercial or fit someone else’s vision he has had the freedom to be far more experimental. We’re still talking industrial rock, but it definitely has a flavour of its’ own.

I like the Underworld as a venue. It’s small and dingy with that “everything painted black” look. I wasn’t sure the stage was going to be big enough, but somehow they managed to fit a drum kit in the back.

The main support was Jayce Lewis who I’ve seen before supporting Combichrist. I don’t know whether it was the smaller stage, the new material or just having played more, but I thought they were a much better band. Their industrial rock sound was cohesive. Jayce playing additional percussion didn’t feel crowbarred in and they even made a show piece of it. They have an album out later in the year.

Black Light Burns made an unpretentious entrance and played a solid set from start to finish. The fact they were on tour barely registered. It felt almost as if we were in a small bar in their home town and they were bantering with the regulars. There was a strong sense of camaraderie and we were part of it. Jayce Lewis and his band felt it too and thanked the band for their involvement with the tour.

The time passed too quickly with Black Light Burns playing to curfew. Not even pausing for the ritual of an encore.

The Tiger Lillies Hamlet 20th September 2012

At The Southbank Centre

The Tiger Lillies are an esoteric band. It’s not often you find someone who makes blasphemy a major theme. However behind the inch thick makeup up and farce are some talented musicians. Only a passing knowledge of the band is enough to know that this wasn’t going to be a typical production.

Working with the Republique, it was an impressive production combining music, dance, theatre and cinema with excellent set design and choreography to make an interesting dream-like experience. Whilst remaining faithful, a very minimal approach to the original text was taken. The cast was stripped down to Hamlet, his family, Ophelia and her family. Dialogue was minimal. Most progression of the story took place in the form of soliloquies and the pairing of apt choreography and music.

The use of slow-motion and stripping the story down to its core emphasized the descent into madness. Without Horatio there are no other witnesses to the dead king’s ghost leading to Hamlet coming across unhinged from scene one. Without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet rants to himself using the cast as puppets or figments of Hamlet’s imagination.

The climax of the play wouldn’t be complete with a string of deaths, and to this end the production does as expected. However, when you remove the minor characters and more than half of the remaining characters lie dead. It makes the characters personal ambition seem more futile.

Hamlet isn’t a play I know particularly well. I did have to make intuitive leaps as the play progressed due to the format being relatively abstract. However, there was a cohesive sense of atmosphere and degeneration. Leaving I did hear some mixed reactions including “once I got over it wasn’t what I expected”, which is fair. But it would be a shame if every production was typical and predictable. Prior knowledge needed is a legitimate complaint, but Hamlet is so ingrained in our culture my second hand cursory knowledge was enough to get me through. However, working with the style the did I think they did a fantastic job and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Angelspit live 15th September 2012

At Elecrotwekz/Slimelight

Angelspit are a fairly unique electro-industrial band from Australia. They have four albums to their name, have recently expanded from a two piece to a four piece and I was glad to get to see them on their Wall Street Massacre tour.

[youtube http://youtu.be/COzASzHd2VI]

Slimelight is the longest running goth/alt club in London. Like most gigs hosted there it leads into the club night after. Unlike previous times I’ve been doors were at 7pm. It was strange getting ready and heading to that venue while it was still light out.

Second on the bill were Uberbyte. They were showcasing the material for their second album. They have a straight up dance approach to their industrial music. I’d heard of the band before, but never really gave them much of a listen. They put on a good show and got the crowd going, but they’re the kind of band I wouldn’t listen to out of a club context.

Angelspit were really good. I saw them the last time they played London and it didn’t quite gel. They were ok, but this time they were excellent. Perhaps they weren’t comfortable with playing as a four piece on such a small stage, perhaps it was an attack of the foreign germs, but whatever it was I know they had good material and gave them the benefit of the doubt. I am not disappointed.

The band have a distinctive two vocal style layered with effects. Coupled with their stage dynamic Zoog and Destroyx made a strong impression. Their set got off to a rocky start with some technical issues and a drum heavy mix, but these issues eased as the set continued and the band captivated.

Playing off album launch gave the band to explore their back catalogue more. Songs like Wolf were missing the last time I saw them, but this time shone as the front-person duo traded phrases and reeled us in with a divide and conquer tactics over the audience.

[youtube http://youtu.be/vY14M3ufW10]

Cold In Berlin Live 7th September 2012

At The Garage

I discovered Cold In Berlin supporting She Wants Revenge a couple of months ago. Unfortunately I was late to the gig and only had a friends praise to go on. I looked them up and started listening to their first album incessantly. And having seeing them headline their album launch was a treat.

I’d not been the Garage in ages, and never upstairs. Its a typical dingy room, but it was loud. Too loud really. All of the support bands had their moments, but the nuance was lost in the din. I came away with the impression that Terminal Gods should only have one guitarist, but that was down to poor mixing.
They definitely had their moments and held the stage. Not just the front man; as a band. Each of them had personality. Not too sure about them in the studio. Drum machine aside, they didn’t come across nearly as retro in the flesh.
I’d had the chance to listen to And Yet a couple of times, but it hadn’t grabbed me as much as the first album.  The lyrics are powerful, intimate and scathing. The songs are good, but the production lacks feels a little flat. Live, however, they were enthralling. My, the front-woman, has a strong stage presence,  spoiled only by her seeming too pleased to be there. (But only slightly.)
What the album lacks, their performance had in spades: dynamics. They played the entire album. She Takes Control made a surprisingly good ender. They played Total Fear and God I Love You for an encore. Short and sweet. I would have liked more of the first album, but it was a really good show.