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A word or two about UK hip-hop: awful. I realise that in writing this, I’m likely to attract the ire of some readers, who’ll cite the unpolished rough diamonds thrown out year on year by the burgeoning grime scene, but on the evidence shown tonight, it seems we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I mean, this is a big support gig to pull, and the best we can offer is some guy from Cardiff bragging about how his track got censored because it was too ‘real’?
As such, I’m slightly glad that Dante Terrell Smith (apparently spotted in London at 6.30 that afternoon, wandering down Bond Street) is running late enough to miss the majority of what passes for support. I mean, it barely seems fair to subject Mos Def to our pitiful attempts to ape his style. And what style it is: his 40-minute delay can definitely be classed as fashionable, as the man takes to the stage, smiling knowingly beneath a golfer’s hat and rocking a rather natty combination of braces, bowling jacket and a well fitted polo shirt. And over the next hour and a bit, as he struts, croons and even suavely passes out roses to the ladies at the front, it’s all eyes on Mos.
Perhaps it’s recognition of his courage: here’s a hip hop artist, treading the boards without a hype man to fall back on, with just two DJs and a few garlands of flowers adorning the stage. No fireworks, no backing dancers, no live band and no Oasis covers. That it could so easily be boring is certainly testament to last year’s smouldering return to form The Ecstatic, material from which more or less entirely dominates tonight’s set, but it also speaks volumes about how well drilled Mos is. Style, after all, can only provide so much. As he explains to a heckler at length "We’ve been doing this for quite some time. We got a good idea about how this works".
And it’s worth bearing that in mind: tonight Mos plays the crowd expertly, building from the middle eastern air raid siren of Oh No produced ‘Supermagic’ and blunted tuba of ‘Twilight Speedball’ right through to the tumultuous ending, which sees Mos extend album highlight ‘Quiet Dog Bite Hard’ into a chopped up and screwed out exhibition of his not inconsiderable talent behind the drumkit. And even if his final act seems to leave the majority of the punters slightly nonplussed (“I thought he was a rapper, man?"), he finds time to satisfy the crowd with the record store soul love/lust song of ‘Miss Fat Booty’. All sing it now: “I know, I can’t afford this stuff…”.
And whilst it’s disappointing that there’s no full band to accompany the rather impressive drum kit which lies initially unused at stage left, there’s enough personality to distract from that: Mos can rhyme with the best of them, but he’s always been a cut above the others in terms of performance, as might be expected from a man with a number of films dotting his CV. There’s even a touch of stand up comedy, admittedly heavily indebted to Richard Pryor. Yet all that is just window dressing: with beats like that of ‘Life In Marvellous Times’, all triumphant knightrider synths and eerie klaxons, Mos could probably take a night off and phone it in. That he doesn’t, constantly reminding the crowd of where they are, what they’re doing, and who they’re rocking with (his words, not mine), merely bears witness to his energy and performance.
What’s also impressive is the range of his vocals: there’s little that’s phoned in here, Mos providing all the cadences and sung refrains from his records, including the softly undulating intro to ‘Pistola’. He even finds time to indulge in a little bit of call and response karaoke with his DJ, singing back snippets of Ray Charles ‘I Got A Woman’ and other classic soul and blues numbers, punctuating each fresh cut and mix with a load and emphatic “claaaaaaaaaaassssic!”.
Yet overall, I’m lusting for something a little less scattershot from the man front and centre. As much as Mos keeping the audience guessing provides a certain thrill, whether teasing us with licks and cut up hooks, or leading off with an occasional suggestively sung vocal, the set does start to fragment after an initially powerful opening. As Mos relaxes and settles into stage banter, there’s a loss of momentum that isn’t recaptured until he takes to the kit. Yet, as he throws roses out to the ladies, he can be forgiven for the odd lapse: after all, there’s few who mix style and substance quite like Dante.
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