Ice-T with SMG/ Dalek, Cardiff University; <br></br>Sleater-Kinney/ Electrelane/ Klang, Mean Fiddler, London

'Yo Wales, what time is it?' Late, Mr T...
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The Independent Culture

First does not always equal best. Ice-T can legitimately lay claim - and, if anyone is within earshot, invariably does - to being the originator of Gangsta Rap. When most other hip-hop tunes were still all about rocking the block party, the man christened Tracy Marrow was rapping about ghetto reality. And, in a fist-in-your-face way, his rhymes had a poetic potency, and his boombox-busting beats were similarly, onomatopoeically brutal.

But a real hustler never stays still. When NWA exploded onto the scene, initially using the hardcore style for which Ice-T had blazed a trail, it wasn't long before their members moved on and pioneered a sound as slick and seductive as Los Angeles itself. Ice-T, however, never ceded any ground to the deadly sweetness of G-funk and its speak-softly-and-carry-an-AK47 charms.

For much of the Nineties, he was - musically, at least - an anachronism. For a while it looked as though the Body Count project, timed to coincide with the rise of rap-rock, would save his artistic life, but although there was nothing cynical per se about hitching up to a heavy rock band (Ice had always been a fan of hardcore punk), BC never managed to compete with the ready-made, purpose-built likes of Rage Against The Machine.

Not that they ever had a chance. BC's notorious "Cop Killer" ensured that Ice spent many years fighting legal and moral battles against Time Warner, Charlton Heston, Bush-Quayle and the LAPD. All of whom are, of course, more worthy adversaries than, say, his rival rappers (whom he rarely mentions by name, although he admonishes those who have gone "pop"). But the fight for freedom of speech, valiant though it was, fatally stalled Ice's career as a recording artist: the struggle became his life.

All of which is a damn shame. Not that Ice needs to worry. I've been round his house - one of those stilt-supported dwellings high up on Beverly Hills - and I can report that the shag pile is as high as an elephant's eye, and his TV would be called "Screen 4" at your local Odeon. But this man has stories to tell, and he can tell them better than anyone.

An orphan by the age of 12, a racial misfit (too white to be black, too black to be white), saddled with a girl's name and transplanted from his native New Jersey to unfamiliar LA, he was a classic fish-out-of-water. Having made new friends at Crenshaw High, he left to join the army for four years - rap fans will have spotted that I'm cribbing most of this from his 1994 track, "That's How I'm Living" - before returning, an outsider yet again, and making a life as a jewellery store robber and street drug dealer.

None of which would be worth a thing, in artistic terms, were Ice not such an eloquent, charismatic and witty raconteur. If you ever have the pleasure of seeing this man talk or reading an interview with him, take it.

What you're probably less tempted to do, in 2003, is listen to one of his records or attend one of his concerts. But the 200-or-so affectionate, loyal souls who rattle like peas in a tin around Cardiff University (well, it is out of term time) are kept waiting for the pleasure of Ice's presence. Despite an official stage time of 9pm, he doesn't show up until three hours later. Where on earth has be been? There's bugger all to do in Cardiff on a Tuesday night! I know, I was born here.

In the main, the three hours before Ice's eventual arrival are filled by some tediously inept local MCs dropping other people's rhymes ("Yo shorty, it's ya birthday") over other people's records ("Can I Kick It?"). But it's worth giving a mention to Dalek, a bizarre three-man crew from Newark NJ, featuring an angry sumo-sized Samoan on the mic and a wild-haired Asian American on the decks who plays the stylus like Hendrix played the frets, creating berserk acid-rock soundstorms at which his vocalist can sometimes only stand and stare in shock, and perhaps disgust.

He's nothing, though, compared to the man who takes the turntables before the main event. Evil E, Ice-T's DJ for some 20 years, scratches behind his back, under his leg, and - I swear - with his nose, and even mixes by holding the desk in the air and physically shaking it, so that the crossfader rocks back and forth.

"Yo Wales! What time is it?" Well, it's gone midnight since you ask, Mr T, and you're lucky there isn't a queue for refunds. Not that he is strictly the sole trader here. Ice's 2003 incarnation is, once again, in band form. SMG (it stands for Sex, Money and Guns, he explains, because "what makes the world go round?"). Although nobody can take their eyes off Ice, he himself frequently takes side-stage, gazing with almost paternal pride at his crew, who include a certain Smoothe Da Hustla (a fairly big name in his own right, for people who know about that sort of thing).

Some of Ice's raps in SMG are as sharp as ever - "my heart pumps frozen blood" is one exquisite, Eldridge Cleaver-esque phrase - and he's willing to spin back the clock by dropping "Original Gangsta", with the help of Matthew, a speccy fan plucked from the crowd who, if nothing else, sadly corroborates the notion that white people have no rhythm.

Ten years down the line, Riot Grrl is a movement which also seems to have become defined by the struggle itself, rather than the reasons for the fight. Back in the early Nineties, bands like Huggy Bear - I see their former guitarist John Slade in the crowd tonight - were an inchoate bulletin which demanded your attention even if you couldn't understand what it was trying to say to you.

If anything, the best Riot Grrl records were - like their male, mainstream counterparts Manic Street Preachers - trying to say too much, cramming an excess of ideas into a small space. Now, the problem has been reversed. The stylistic signifiers and codes of behaviour and modes of dress have all been established, but there is no real feeling of direction. In some ways, this is irrelevant. With initiatives such as the many international Ladyfests (women-centric mini-festivals providing workshops, networks and advice), the continuing existence of this scene - 10 years after many mocking male critics predicted its swift demise - is its own justification.

On the other hand, cliches solidify and constrict. I can't help wondering how many people spend their time fretting over whether it would be counter-revolutionary to shave their legs or wear a heel higher than a centimetre, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

The smaller picture is that one of the most iconic bands of the movement, Sleater Kinney, are making a rare UK visit, and have assembled an all-female support bill. First up are Klang, the krautrock-inspired outfit formed by Donna Matthews (the one in Elastica that everyone fancied). They make a formidable noise, bookending their sometimes-melodic set with gargantuan drone-rock monsters, lest we get the impression from the melodic numbers in the middle that they're just another girl pop band.

A similarly sternum-cracking, earwax-loosening bass rumble heralds the arrival of Brighton's Electrelane, but after "I Want To Be The President" has scared away all but the strongest stomachs, the technical fault is repaired, and normal service is resumed. "I believe in Electrelane", sang Sarah Cracknell on Saint Etienne's "Finisterre", and tonight I can see why.

Electrelane specialise in linear, elegiac pop, often entirely instrumental, pitched somewhere between Stereolab and The Waitresses, and in Mia Clarke they have a guitar heroine on the quiet, who is able to suddenly switch the mood from straightahead assault to - no kidding - mellow blues à la Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross". Their cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" makes far more sense than it strictly ought, and one of the Boss's lines inadvertently sums up Electrelane's sound: "an express train running through the middle of my head".

Sleater-Kinney themselves are something of a let-down. Named after a road intersection where they used to rehearse in - where else? - Olympia, their nomenclature does sound like something you'd see written on the side of a crane. Unfortunately, this lack of imagination is symptomatic of the rest of their endeavours. Firstly, if there is a message here, then either it isn't very transparent, or I am very stupid.

Secondly, while there is nothing bad about sounding exactly like Throwing Muses - and Corin Tucker's Hersh-a-like warble ensures that this is, deliberately or otherwise, the case - it does tend to make one yearn for the real thing. And when a band are revered as standard-bearers in the way that SK are on this scene, "not bad" just won't cut it.

A lesser writer than myself might make something out of the fact that, when Carrie Brownstein's guitar pedal fails, a technician has to come on and fix it for her. A male technician.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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