Saturday, 25 August 2007

Live review – KRS One and (not) Marley Marl @ Oxford Coven II

KRS One: rapper, teacher, activist, mime artist

Say what you like about the guy, his commitment is ridiculous. KRS One has lost his other half, DJ Marley Marl, who is recuperating from a heart-attack. He’s just suffered a tragic personal bereavement. Rappers have a reputation for cancelling gigs if there’s a movie on Sky Movies that they could be watching instead. But here he is, after more than twenty years’ working with (and influencing) the biggest names in hip-hop, playing a tiny club in the middle of England, at half-past one on a Thursday night. And giving it his all for ninety minutes. That alone makes this one of the most exciting gigs I’ve seen in a while, and something I’d recommend to all fans and (like my accomplices tonight) folks who pretend to like hip-hop. Incidentally, your reviewer displays the same level of commitment: GMS has been flooded, is in the process of moving house, and could do without staying out ‘til 3am on a weeknight. On top of that, this being a British gig, UK hip-hop has to “represent” and “do its thing” for several hours first.

After just missing an act described by the host as “Abingdon’s finest” (y’all rewind this), we get a full set from Lowkey and his friend Logic. They keep shouting “New World Order”, so either they are the New World Order, or they dislike the New World Order intensely (or they dig Hollywood Hogan). Either way, there’s lots of political fury and syllables, and they bring a global perspective that's often lacking in American 'conscious' rap. They’re quite nifty when rhyming a-capella, but there’s not always much connection with the beats.

New World Order - 'Home Is Where The Heart Is'

Next up is Yungun, who gives a much more assured performance, sitting back on the beat with ease, authority and charisma, coming across like a younger, lippier Guru (who, incidentally, features on a track on Yungun's myspace). However, there’s a lack of content to enliven Yungun’s slow-flow approach: “hands up if you hate paying council tax”, he suggests at one point. Motherfucking taxman and shit. He’s backed by Scratch Perverts member Mr. Thing on the decks, which is nice to know.

In real life, Yungun is a trainee solicitor. Fact!

KRS One runs to the stage through the crowd, flanked by heavies who make sure they give everybody within five metres of the MC a careful shove (5m being about the width of the venue). Perhaps they were members of the Zulu Nation. Perhaps I will add the tag “Galactic Mystery Solvers: possibly shoved a bit by the Zulu Nation” to my kick-ass blog. He’s absurdly energetic, marching around the tiny stage while his henchmen huddle in a corner to stay out of the way. This energy sometimes comes across as hyperactivity: I’m not asking for a hallowed, Don’t Look Back-style recreation of Criminal Minded, but packing that whole album into a five-minute megamix is a little frustrating, as there’s nothing in his catalogue (except maybe ‘Sound Of The Police’) that gets the crowd reaction of ‘9mm’ or ‘South Bronx’.

Boogie Down Productions: kids!

Of course, KRS is a born contrarian: he has a history of contradicting himself, and of doing and saying absurd, provocative, offensive or just plain dorky things in order to spark debate. When acting as a self-appointed spokesman for hip-hop in the media, this is a canny strategy: he stays in the spotlight because he always makes good copy; he uses his status as an agent provocateur to draw cynics, sceptics and opponents into debate, before revealing how articulate, knowledgeable and passionate he really is. Onstage, KRS is just as compelling, but his perplexing and frustrating side also comes to the fore.

Just as I’d expected more Criminal Minded, I also anticipated more from Hip Hop Lives. The album is hectoring and self-serving in its conception and lyrical content, but KRS also sounds re-energised making stentorian pronouncements and playing the cultural juggernaut over crisp, crackling golden-age New York beats. It’s a combination that should work perfectly live, but aside from the title track and ‘Kill A Rapper’, the material is overlooked.

I’d also anticipated more onstage chat from a guy who styles himself ‘the teacha’ and borrows riffs from motivational speakers (check this half-inspirational, half-icky video, taken a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn). But KRS’ banter is limited to tedious repetition of the assertion that this is, and we are, real hip-hop. Nice to know: perhaps I will add the tag “Galactic Mystery Solvers: real hip-hop, because KRS said so” to my kick-ass blog. Equally oddly, when KRS signals the intention to go “off the dome”, he proceeds to deliver about the worst freestyle I’ve ever heard, rhyming “I’m an MC” with “this is the DJ standing behind me”, or something similar. Almost as clunky is his attempt in the encore to marry ‘You Must Learn’ to a piece of classical music (a “treat”, apparently).

It’s as if he’s determined to throw off all expectations, all context, all pretensions, and boil the live experience down to its essentials – rhyming over beats. Once the shock of his baffling set choices passes, this strategy pays off: he fills the set with stunning, unstinting displays of technical prowess, going back and forth with the DJ over a constantly shifting backdrop of rhythms and samples, combining incredible energy with complete control. It’s this mastery, rather than the cultural baggage tiresomely stated on songs like ‘I Was There’, that ensures KRS One remains one of the most thrilling, intriguing spectacles in rap.

More fun:’s interviews are second to none. Here they are talking to KRS.

Boogie Down Productions member D-Nice has an excellent photoblog, from which I yoinked the BDP photo.

Buy Hip Hop Lives

Rakim, Kanye West, Nas, KRS One & DJ Premier – ‘Classic’

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