Hip-hop in the firing line

Nas's London concert was ended by gunfire. Ian Burrell was there, and says the effects will ricochet through urban music
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The Independent Culture

The first gunshot came from over my left shoulder, just a few feet away across the packed London concert hall. In another context, it could have been a harmless enough sound, a party popper shooting coloured streamers into the air. But audiences at rap shows tend to have finely tuned antennae for such noises.

The first gunshot came from over my left shoulder, just a few feet away across the packed London concert hall. In another context, it could have been a harmless enough sound, a party popper shooting coloured streamers into the air. But audiences at rap shows tend to have finely tuned antennae for such noises.

The second and third whip-cracks provided confirmation of the awful truth: a gunman was on the loose and discharging his weapon among a crowd of more than 2,500. Panic took hold as people fled, surging in the darkness down the sloped floor of Brixton Academy amid the sound of screaming, with dozens tripping on the sticky carpet.

Fearful of being crushed in the surge, I had stood my ground only to find myself at the front of the 50ft-wide open space that had emerged beneath a cloud of acrid smoke. One teenager in a baseball cap stood, alone, dancing defiantly, even though the music had stopped and Nas - the rap star whom we had all come to see - had already called it a night, barely half an hour into his set.

After a few nervous seconds, it was clear that the gunman, who had been close to the rear doors, had fled the scene. Young rap fans around me were reacting with a mixture of bewilderment and excitement: the music had been cut short but they had a story to tell in school or college tomorrow. Some of us with a few more years under our belts and a greater sense of our mortality were worrying if anyone had been killed.

I anxiously scanned the floor for bodies. The show was over. Security staff moved into the crowd, ordering people towards the exits. The Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident team, which investigates such gun crime, was on its way.

In the event, no one died. But the incident will, nevertheless, have lasting and damaging ramifications for the live performance of urban music in Britain.

Those of us who love genres such as rap and dancehall reggae have grown accustomed to the fact that, in attending their shows, you might be placing yourself in an environment where there is a risk of life-threatening violence, even if it's not directed at you personally. I have seen it several times.

Fifteen years ago, in a Midlands venue, one man attacked a rival with a machete, in what turned out to be a pre-planned attack at the bar that had nothing to do with the performance on stage. A friend who had a more refined instinct for the potential danger of such incidents, dragged me to safety as the terrified crowd bolted towards us.

At a reggae concert in a London park in 1999, hundreds of people who had, seconds earlier, been smiling and dancing under the night sky, found themselves stampeding into the darkness after nauseous, lung-burning CS gas was discharged, apparently as part of a fight.

And, more than a decade ago, I watched in amazement as a small man of around 50 peppered the ceiling of a small Birmingham club with an ancient-looking handgun for no other reason than to show his satisfaction with the DJ's record choice. As lumps of plaster fell to the ground, another friend (who was far from lily-livered, having fought in the Amateur Boxing Association finals) demanded that our party left and went home immediately.

The gunshots at the Nas show are a big deal. With his partner - the pop and R&B sensation Kelis - Nasir Jones is part of one of New York's most high-profile celebrity couples. He is up there on the top table of hip-hop with 50 Cent, Eminem, and his great rival Jay-Z.

To many hardcore fans, Nas, the son of the jazz musician Olu Dara, is the finest of them all, with his impeccable flow and unrivalled battle rhymes. But these lyrics - which supporters admire for their lack of compromise and their "real" reflection of an upbringing in New York's Queensbridge projects - often descend into homilies to gangsterism, coming as they do from a man who styles himself the "Street's Disciple".

Shortly after coming onto stage at Brixton, Nas had launched into one of the best-known cuts from his 2002 album God's Son. "You from the 'hood, I hope you got yourself a gun, you want beef, I hope you got yourself a gun," sang Nas, and the crowd, hands aloft, chanted along: "Got yourself a gun!"

The irony of it. It's difficult for hip-hop aficionados to find a way to defend such lyrics. Years of working as a news journalist have taught me how shallow it is to romanticise a life of crime, and I, at least, have visited enough prisons and interviewed enough unpleasant career criminals not to regard a rap show as some thrilling walk on the wild side. I go because I love the music.

You could argue that Nas is talking about lyrical bullets not live ones. But the fatal shootings of Tupac and Notorious BIG - apparently the result of rap feuds - suggest the threats in the rhymes are not always idle ones. I have seen at first hand how seriously 50 Cent takes his security and, on Monday night, Nas was off the stage in, well, a shot. Some eye-witnesses later claimed the gunman had aimed at the stage.

Minutes before the shooting, Nas had warmly told the audience how the estates of south London had reminded him of Queensbridge and how faces in the crowd resembled those of folks back home. For African-American and Caribbean artists there is a symbolism to playing in Brixton, still internationally re-knowned as the spiritual home of Britain's black communities. The live music industry will have been buzzing with news of this incident: if the Academy, one of the finest venues in England, was to close its doors to rap and reggae it would be a sad day indeed.

Nas, 31, may have felt like he was in his 'hood but, down in the stalls, his audience did not seem quite as ghetto as the rapper appeared to imagine. Most of them, I would guess, had little direct experience of gangsterism. Black, white and Asian, aged between early teens and mid-40s, and including a sizeable female contingent, they reflected hip-hop's widespread appeal as well as Nas's own long and successful career since he exploded onto the scene with his brilliant 1994 debut album Illmatic.

They were a good-natured, musically-knowledgeable crowd who had paid close to £30 a ticket and were out to party. They had appeared to give no particular trouble to a large and well-organised security team. The guy in front of me was directed to frisker "number three", I was sent to "number four", and so on. It all seemed pretty thorough at the time, although I was only given a rub-down, with no searching of pockets and no metal detector.

When the gunsmoke and the venue had cleared and I was back in the car, I called the friend who had pulled me to safety from the machete incident 15 years ago. "A girl probably brought it in," was his guess. He told me that, for a while, he had stopped going to shows he deemed risky, after an experience at a south London event in 1997 where the firing of a starting pistol (probably by someone hired by a rival promoter) caused pandemonium and resulted in a friend going home shoe-less. But the music draws people back.

So what is to be done? Rap is certainly not going to go away. Over the past 25 years hip-hop has grown into a global culture, with a following that spans more than one generation and comes from all walks of life.

The demand to see platinum-selling rappers such as Nas performing live on stage will probably continue to grow. The problem is that the gangsters like to socialise just as much as the rest of us. And rap's lyrical content means that a hip-hop event is more likely to be the gunman's night out of choice than a front row seat at a Westlife gig.

The only way to stop such people ruining the fun (not to mention jeopardising the lives) of the decent rap-loving majority is to ensure that their weapons don't get into the venues that are making good money from staging these shows. Rap is a multi-million dollar industry. Fans are entitled to think they can watch a show in safety from gun terrorists. When lives are at stake, punters are entitled to the same levels of security afforded to travellers passing through Britain's airports. The time for X-ray machines and metal detectors, fully functioning and properly staffed, has surely come.