Until recent years I've felt pretty pessimistic about music. A cursory tour around your radio dials will probably demonstrate why. I'm not talking specifically about hip hop, I mean across the board. We live in a culture where genres are represented by the most economically successful acts, not the most definitive, groundbreaking or influential artists.
Or, to borrow a phrase from Lowkey, the most visible artists in our society make McDonald's Music-it might look like a decent meal, but it's fundamentally empty and the nutritional content doesn't bare thinking about. That's without even mentioning shows like X Factor, which essentially acts as a several month long advert for Simon Cowell's Christmas number one. This is the background hip hop culture-and, indeed, our entire culture-exists against today.
However, whilst that may be the case, Akala's music is part of a response to an industry that leaves many music fans disappointed and angry. Tonight's show is one of the ways Akala wishes to makes the point that bands and artists can succeed without major label or corporate support.
We saw a decent mix of old and new material from the London emcee, as well as performances of his first and third Fire in the Booth. Akala was joined by Josh Osho and Asheber, (Band leader of Afrikan Revolution) as well as the live band he's been touring with since the Thieves Banquet dropped.
Asheber added subtle and understated trumpet parts to a lot of tracks that gave songs, particularly slower pieces like Find No Enemy, a transcendent quality. With the exception of Old Soul and Lose Myself all the tracks on Akala's latest album that feature sung vocals are performed by women. However, Asheber's live take on these melodies, translated through his full baritone, sounded good enough to rival the originals.
These small changes gave the show a much more live and slightly improvisational quality that sometimes a hip hop gig can lack. As a rapper it can be very easy to fall back on instrumental backing tracks and not even use a live DJ. It is to Akala's credit that he has opted for the braver, more original and more authentic route of using a live band.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Akala's special guest. Perhaps I'm being somewhat misleading here; the truth is, Akala announced several days before the show that a 'very special guest' would perform. Before long the comments section was full of people speculating (or hoping) that the mystery guest would be Lowkey.
Akala left the stage mid-set and the first few bars of Terrorist started. The venue erupted and although it was an Akala gig, there wasn't a pair of lips that didn't join Lowkey's recital. The reaction he received is testament to the position of acclaim and respect he has achieved in the UK hip hop community. After Terrorist he went on to play Behind My Painted Smile with Akala before leaving to boisterous applause. He must have performed for around ten minutes, though it seemed to pass much faster.
After Lowkey's departure Akala played for another half hour / forty five minutes, apparently cramming the setlist as full as he could. Particular highlights include an understated performance of Peace, the epic and incredibly moving Maangamizi, along with Your's and My Children, the Thieves Banquet and his Pompous Peterson freestyle. The set, as one might expect of Akala, was weighted in favour of social commentary though we did hear renditions of older fan favourites like Black Shakespeare and Roll Wid Us.
This brings me to perhaps the essential quality of an Akala show. It is an attempt to recapture a lost era of music, when each note seemed more vital and, to quote Akala, 'If you saw them [the groundbreaking artists of the 20th century] live they sounded better than the records'.
There is a flourishing community of British musicians making decent, real music and performing for people who care. This may be lost in the mainstream but it is typified at shows like Akala's. You could hear this sentiment echoed by strained crowd voices in the half chanted, half yelled lyric, 'Keep the charts, all we want is your hearts'. While the mainstream continues chasing mass-producible art, there is a thriving underground community whose most vibrant manifestation is live music. Certainly that almost meditative connection between audience and artist was captured tonight, as was the vibrancy and aliveness of spirit that can be found in live music when it is performed by passionate artists who care about their art.
As a final note, I think it's worth saying that Asheber's Afrikan Revolution-who supported Akala on the Thieves Banquet launch night-are well worth seeing. Their music is a unique blend of African traditionalism, funk, jazz, soul and hip hop. An Afrikan Revolution gig feels more like an upbeat street party with awesome music than a regular gig. I've found it physically impossible to get through one of their sets without a broad and somewhat ridiculous smile on my face.
By: Andy Fletcher