Music: Rockers Revenge The Blue Note, London
Friday 05 June 1998
The reasons for this are, of course, manifold, but one strong influence has certainly been the rise of the 'independent 'record label. Instead of waiting around to be picked up by a major label, young British rappers seem to have developed a new entrepreneurial spirit. By either setting up their own labels, or by signing to others who have already done so, they are ensuring that their talents are at least getting heard. One such independent label is Big Dada records. It's growth and success has been significant; in it's one year history it has boasted a number of single releases (mainly, but not all, from the UK) as well as a compilation due out this month. Although the official ethos is to put out "quality hip- hop...wherever it's from", there does exist a slightly British bias due to it's London base. Rockers Revenge was hence a twofold event. Both a live forum for London rappers and a promotion for the imminent release of the compilation, Black Whole Styles.
The night began slowly, with two DJs (DJ Tony Vegas and DJ Western) utilising four turntables to blend and mix a mainly American hip-hop set. Occasionally, the two would indulge in a curious phenomenon known by the umbrella term 'Turntablism'. This term describes the aim of hip-hop DJs to transform their task into a more creative 'artform'. By manipulating both record and turntable, old rhythms are deconstructed, and new beats and sounds created. Vegas cut the music and introduced a continuous scratching sound. Western, working with the other set of turntables, moved two inches of record back and forth, alternating between the bass drum and the snare drum. With just these three noises, an entire two minute 'record' was created. The accuracy and deftness involved revealed the dedication and showmanship which permeates hip- hop culture.
By the time the MCs were set to begin, the venue was full to bursting point. As they filled up the small space behind the DJs, the audience surged forward. Saul Williams, American 'urban poet' and latest Big Dada signing, started proceedings. His free-floating street sonnets were captivating. Western looped two records to create a continuous beat while Williams looked intensely at the crowd and whispered into the microphone conspiratorially. As voice gained volume and verse gained rhythm, Williams effortlessly bridged the thin divide between poetry and rap by chanting: "Where are the other MCs in the house?". As the next rapper took the mic, the show was on the road.
This improvised form of rapping is known as 'freestyle'. MCs gather together and invent rhymes and lyrics in a friendly but competitive environment. The effect is innovative and immediate. When a rapper performs a good freestyle the crowd responds with raucous applause and the standard is set for the next performer. The show after Williams was a London one. As each rapper came forward to utter impressive rhymes, the rest jigged around nervously, awaiting their turn. A slight self-consciousness pervaded throughout, but this is an unavoidable condition of the English psyche, which, of course, the Americans don't tend to suffer from. Despite this, each orator possessed clarity, ability and a distinguishable style.Roots Manuva, the avuncular figure of the show, was unfortunately pre-occupied during this first part, explaining to enthusiasts in the sidelines that this wasn't an "open mic" event, (i.e. the stage was not open to anyone willing to try). But Juice Aleem, Toastie Taylor, Mad Flow and Intenze all performed with enough gusto to satisfy the audience.
After a brief interlude from the DJs, the best part of the night began. A more relaxed atmosphere prevailed and whole songs were performed. This is obviously less intimidating for the performers, and personalities began to shine through. Roots Manuva, released from stage-manager duty, started to 'battle' with Juice Aleem. Being the two heavyweights of the event, this provided the icing on the cake.
By the close of the night, an open mic situation did actually occur, and it seemed that most members of the audience were clandestine MCs as they clamoured for the microphone. At one point, there were more participants than space on stage but amazingly, there wasn't a bad voice among them. It may not have been the best organised event but this is usual with hip- hop shows. The creative spirit was strong, the talent was undeniable and the whole atmosphere was friendly. It was certainly the best that UK hip- hop has sounded for a long time.
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