I am warmly welcomed as soon as I enter this invite-only Hip- Hop event. The first person I see is Selvasse (pronounced: Selassie), the boyfriend of one of my good friends. We shake hands excitedly, both of us surprised to see each other. But then I realise that I shouldn’t be surprised, I might have even expected him. Selvasse is known in the underground Hip-Hop scene for his unquestionably gentle and abstract style. In the past he’s opened for Anderson Paak on a Boiler Room set. After my surprise subsides, I am greeted by others who ask me what I do.
‘Do you produce? Rap? Write’. This is a hard question to answer since I dabble in a few of those things.
‘I’m reviewing the event,’ I say, ‘But I also produce,’ to which their eyes light up. Then I say, ‘But mostly house music’, and the excitement goes out of their faces as fast as it arrived. The preacher in me struggles to remain silent. I want to give my age-old talk about how house and Hip-hop came from the same place. But this isn’t the right time, this is a Hip-Hop event and I have to respect the art.
Shem, one half of the ‘Black Male Beats’ Duo tells me more about the underground Hip-Hop scene in the UK at the moment. The scene is in a transitional phase in its development, finding new listeners in those that have overlooked our home-grown talent. People are starting to realise that we have more than Grime, UK trap or the older Hip-Hop of Jehst or Roots Manuva. There is a wave of producers that have been pushing a smoother contemporary style. The only hurdle seems to be in delivering this music to the wider audience and not getting lost in the waves of producers on soundcloud. But Shem is certain that this particular scene is growing. I am inclined to agree. There is a consciousness brewing in the UK with more people coming together in unity. This music might be the musical force that it is needed.
‘Lek’s on the Beat’, a young producer starts off the night. His beats sound very current, the cool UK trap sound that is popular at the moment. It is the sort of thing that we are used hearing from ’67’. In fact, one of his beats is used by ‘Harlem Spartans’ in their track ‘Money and Violence’ which has nearly one million views on Youtube. This is a massive achievement for someone who has only been producing beats for two years.
We are returned to the boom-bap style by two producers from the 90’s crew, ‘57th Dynasty’. They begin their set by playing rugged riddims which would be fitting on a late Wu-Tang album. The 57th Dynasty were major figures in the UK Hip-Hop scene in the 90’s and early 2000’s. While listening, I imagine how influential the group must have been on an emerging 90’s youth culture which was diverting from the Soul and Reggae of the generation before them. One of the members brought his son along to the event. I thought he was only there for moral support before he hits the decks and plays some of his own instrumentals and remixes. A remix of Mary Jane Girls, ‘All Night Long’ is a particular stand out.
‘Shai Sevin’ and ‘Lo-Fi’ are an interesting combination. Shai, like his music, is loud and more dramatic, getting the crowd hyped to his hard-core riddims. Lo-Fi, on the other hand, is more calm and soft-spoken. His beats are dreamy and reflective. It makes me think of looking out of a window on a winter London afternoon. So soothing are his instrumentals that an MC might ruin their mood.
‘Emmavie’ is a stand-out of the night. She brings some powerful, much-needed feminine energy into the building. The sister sound of Neo-Soul suddenly flows through the room and changes the mood. Feelings of hope, forgiveness, transcendence and love breathe through her tracks. Her vocals sound perfect on the instrumentals and one wants to exclaim, ‘but she’s already made it!’.
The same can be said about Selvasse. There is a maturity to his music that can’t be denied. Maybe it has to do with how he spent his life between Ghana and London. It’s difficult to categorise his music. It’s more dramatic than hip-hop, more orchestrated. So many different sounds are used and as soon as you get used to one sound, another one enters that’s even fresher than the last.
‘Black Male Beats’ finally step to the decks and the audience applauds. It is easy to see that they are loved not only for their music but for their relationship to the community. They thank the Black Cultural Archives for setting up the event and soon they are back to doing what they are good at. The jazz, funk and soul elements are central to their particular brand of Hip-Hop. They overlay 90’s RnB or Jamaican vocal samples over xylophones and other jazz instruments. The horns are also important, consoling the listener at just the right time.
I step out into the smoking area for a moment to receive an international call. When I’m finished, I stand there for a minute, taking in the energy. Party-goers pass by on the street beyond the gate. They are eager to see what the night will bring. I look back to the doors of the event. People are huddled by the entrance, exchanging contact details and encouraging each other in their craft. The light from indoors looks cosy and warm. I can see Shem’s afro as he pushes out the tracks. It reminds me of a soulful-house DJ set.
It’s at this moment that I’m filled with happiness by all these artists who are doing what they love. All underground or independent artists can be prone to self-doubt due to a lack of recognition or because their craft is yet to bring in a good income. But a night like this is a positive reminder that the most important thing is the enjoyment and comfort that the craft brings. The audience is so supportive and I’m sure that everyone ends up leaving the building feeling even more empowered and confident than when they entered.
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