Hip-hop hasn’t always been about bitches and bling, you know. It actually used to be a powerful and united movement of young African-Americans concerned with social justice and equity over gold chains and limousines. When a rapper friend of mine tells me that “hip-hop is the biggest thing on the planet today. Hip-hop has finally made it” I tend to think: Made what? Today, hip-hop is meaningless – it’s nothing more than a brand. Hip-hip-fucking-hooray.
But that’s only the stuff you catch on MTV. Hip-hop has never lost its critical edge completely and a fine example of this is the record label Anticon, founded in San Francisco 1997. Two founding members of the label, Sole and Pedestrian, played in downtown Reykjavík a couple of weeks ago along with Anticon-signed Telephone Jim Jesus and local rappers Bent & 7berg.
When I arrived at the show at Grand Rokk, I came across two types of audiences: the local indie/hipster crowd and the hip-hop heads. But neither group was fully there and the atmosphere felt kind of strange as a consequence. Bent & 7Berg (Bent formerly being of XXX Rottweiler) soon came on stage. They put out an album in 2002 which was pretty unremarkable, the high points being opener “Má ég sparka” where a number of country-ball bands were namedropped sarcastically, and “Tveir eins?” which was notable for it’s use of a barbershop-quartet sample. The latter half of the album was much heavier and artier, covering ground which hadn’t been covered before musically in Icelandic hip-hop.
For that sake Bent & 7Berg seemed to be the right act to open for the Anticon crew. And I can’t think of any act that had fit better. Their instrumentals were more liquid than what you’d expect in hip-hop, not narrowly focusing on the boom-bap boom-boom-bap beat, but rather on creating an atmosphere. They even managed to stray away from 4/4 time once in a while. Their lyrics were also much more poetic and interesting than you’d normally expect from an Icelandic rap group. Various areas of social decay were discussed concluding in an impressive chant of “líkaminn er musteri, tilbiddu æskuna” (“the body is a temple, praise the youth”). Fortunately, Bent & 7Berg’s delivery was also convincing. But these promising ingredients somehow failed to impress.
First, since the instrumentals lacked a driving beat, the performance lacked power. This soundscape approach to hip-hop demands a wall of sound delivered at a high volume, but in Bent & 7Berg’s case the wall wasn’t thick enough and the music not loud enough. The divided and small crowd didn’t help either, creating a large empty space in front of the stage.
Telephone Jim Jesus came on stage next. He has dreadlocks and was wearing a suit so I thought I was in for a real treat. However, it didn’t take the audience long to realize that he was doing an instrumental set. And this instrumental set went on for 45 minutes, being of very little interest most of the time. At times it sounded like somebody had forgotten to telephone Telephone Jim Jesus and tell him synth-strings went out of fashion with the demise of jungle in the mid-90’s. At his best he sounded like Four Tet; at his worst like music from a Domino’s ad. The crowd seemed to agree, gradually moving closer to the bar and starting to chat. Still, respect to Jimmy for doing more than hiding behind a laptop screen and actually playing some of the stuff live for the crowd to see.
Telephone Jim Jesus didn’t leave the stage when Pedestrian came on and together they managed to put on one exhilarating show. “It wasn’t hip-hop” a friend of mine said after the gig and I’d actually asked myself whether it was. What it was was a white guy in his mid-twenties (complete with braces) so full of rage and anger that it was hard not to be touched. Hardcore rock and other heavy rock genres have traditionally been considered curriers for these kinds of feelings while stripped down pop music or folk seem to be the way to go if sincerity is your trade. Pedestrian managed to prove that hip-hop can outdo both genres drastically. Half-shouting, half-reciting his lyrics at intense speeds through two microphones, each with a different amount of delay applied, Pedestrian created a truly unique sound. He didn’t exactly make you feel comfortable, more like being locked inside the principle’s office – and this particular headmaster is very, very violent.
Pedestrian performed a few songs a cappella, without the assistance of Telephone Jim Jesus who otherwise created an excellent backdrop for Pedestrian’s rambling; noisy, loud and varied. The lyrical content had a lot to do with George Bush, the USA’s foreign policy etc. and Pedestrian wasn’t pleased at all. With a man so convinced and enraged on your hands it was hard not to shout out that you agreed, or at least nod.
However, this review would be far from complete if I wouldn’t mention an interesting aspect of Pedestrian’s show. Circa halfway through Jim Jesus lighted a joint of marijuana on stage, a practice far from common in Reykjavík’s musical landscape. At least for the performers. At least when performing. Jim passed his joint on to Pedestrian who was more than happy to have a toke. This had no effect on the performance, I guess Pedestrian was already pretty stoned anyway.
Last on stage was Sole, the hippy looking founder of Anticon, and the best known of the bunch. Besides the obligatory playback he had a guitarist and a drummer. These instrumentalists created a sound leaning heavily towards indie-rock, Sole being the sole connection to a hip-hop sound palette. It’s safe to say they played a more comfortable – less scary – set than Pedestrian, but in turn it wasn’t as impressive. Although the lyrics were on the same topics as Pedestrian’s, they weren’t as poetic and the delivery wasn’t as powerful. Not to say that he wasn’t more powerful than practically any MC I’d ever seen up until that evening.
From a strictly musical standpoint, Sole’s set was most interesting. His drummer was a really good player, managing to rock out and stay funky at the same time. The guitarist did play a lot of noisy stuff, employing feedback and delay to quite an extent. The crowd, which had grown substantially during the course of the concert, seemed to be very impressed with Sole’s skills. In my opinion the main problem of the set was its length. I was growing pretty tired and left before his performance was over– 45 minutes more than did the trick for me.
Pedestrian came on stage for a couple of tracks and contributed a few lines. When he stepped off stage and carried his beer into the crowd, Sole said “thank you very much, Brandon.” That’s when I realized that these guys have the same problem as Icelandic rappers: they’re only middle-class white kids. They have no sense of being underpaid, underprivileged and underrated. Rapper Pedestrian is just Brandon, like Brandon from Beverly Hills 90210. But then again, does it matter? These guys aren’t in it for the money – they’re in it for art’s sake first and foremost, and they’re fighting for a cause. They may not be black or poor, but they have a vision that’s much closer to hip-hop than P. Diddy will ever be. The sole goal of Anticon recordings is to oppose mainstream rap music – to oppose the commercial forces which turned revolting subcultures such as punk and hip-hop into simple trends, ready for commercial exploitation. In my opinion that’s a fight worth fighting.
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