Immortal Technique is an angry man. When he hits the stage, he already looks a bit upset. But this is something you expect from Immortal Technique, the rapper known for conscious lyrics and an uncompromising, often aggressive approach to hip hop. He hadn't played in England since 2010 and he seemed set to make up for the two year gap at the Brixton Electric. Tonight he was joined by Poison Pen, Mazzi, Swave Sevah, DJ Snuff, DJ Static and Lowkey.
The queue stretched around the corner, people had waited in the cold for hours. Despite the harsh wind everyone stayed in good spirits and as we waited local hip hop artists walked up and down the trail of Technique supporters selling mix tapes and talking hip hop. Evidently the queue was long enough that it brought Immortal Technique out himself, recording from a mobile phone he walked by in military fatigues down the length of the queue.
Through the high security (metal detectors and loving searches) and into the venue, DJ Snuff was already setting the vibe. Hip Hop classics like Cyrpus Hill's Insane in the Membrane and KRS One's The Sound of Da Police had cheers and chants from the crowd before the first emcee had set foot on stage. Mazzi, Poison Pen and Swave Sevah with guests (including British rapper Logic) opened the show, the reaction to which rarely surpassed lukewarm. As their set stretched there was a growing sense of impatience for the local favourite, Lowkey.
Immortal Technique and Lowkey complement each other in the extremes. They're almost matched to the point of cliche. The premier conscious rappers from the US and the UK respectively, both with enough underground credentials to keep at bay the most cynical of critics. Lowkey's performance was especially poignant. It was his first appearance since his announced departure from the music business earlier this year and tonight's performance is billed as a one off. During his too brief set he lived up to his name, giving no clues as to whether there might be future releases from him.
When Lowkey took the stage he received an ovation befitting of a missed hero and he wasted no time demonstrating why he was topping the bill with Immortal Technique, launching straight into the title track of his latest album, Soundtrack To The Struggle. From here it's a lightening tour through some of Lowkey's best tracks, leaning heavily toward the socially conscious music he's known for.
Not content with demonstrating a keen eye for observation and a talent for rhetoric that would bruise David Cameron's ego he went on to showcase his delivery and rhythmic skills, performing his Fire In The Booth and the masterpiece of alliteration that is Alphabet Assassin. The latter performed a'cappella at high, syncopated speeds, the syllables never getting lost in his flow, his timing never slipping. After going through letters A, B and C he called on the crowd to shout letters at random, starting again at R he worked his way to Z finishing with the line, "Zionists get zero".
Lowkey wasn't all serious though, before he played his Fire In The Booth he apologised, "This is a Soldier Boi beat. We usually don't go with that kind of hip hop". The comment was met by a grinning crowd. He went on to criticise Tim Westwood, mentioning that while you might have heard Soldier Boi on his radio show, you definitely wouldn't have heard Lowkey or Immortal Technique. "We've never been played on that show", he proclaimed – to applause.
While Lowkey squeezed some of his best material into his thirty minute slot, it still felt like less than he deserved. He bounded across the stage, dropped to ground level to high five fans, certainly he had more than enough energy for another few tracks. Still, it wasn't to be and while his set was short he finished it with a song that became a standout of the entire evening; Voices Of The Voiceless. Immortal Technique guests on this track and Lowkey introduced it saying, "I know you're here to see Immortal Technique. Let's see if, when I play this song, we can get him out". As it came to the second verse Immortal Technique ran onto the stage to a suitably boisterous response. The back of the stage filled up with curious performers looking on at Lowkey and Immortal Technique and as the delicate piano riffs bounced through the venue the grandeur of Hip Hop was captured for the first time that night.
Immortal Technique had warned people on twitter to come early because the venue would be rammed. By the end of Lowkey's set this certainly was the case. Every so often the smell of weed drifted across the crowd, mingling with the smell of hot, sweaty hip hop fans and alcohol. The stage dress stayed the same throughout. Minimalistic in the way you'd expect a Technique show to be. With Immortal Technique you were guaranteed no gimmicks, no big light shows, just an emcee, a hype man and some turntables anchoring everything together.
Technique's first song was The Martyr, the second track off of last year's free release and maybe a bit of a mission statement. "I told you mothafuckers I'd be back!", he yelled and without much in the way of chit chat he worked into his verse from Angels & Demons. He interspersed the set with single verses from tracks that would usually feature numerous guests, like Black Vikings and Peruvian Cocaine.
Immortal Technique has the presence of a preacher, talking in between songs about culture, history, about hip hop music and its roots. This didn't start with the emcee, he said. This started way before that with the graff writers, with the B Boys. The emcee was a late addition. He told everyone to pay their respects to the graff writers and the B Boys, the people keeping hip hop culture alive where it might otherwise be strangled by an ever more opportunistic industry.
A surprise came in the form of Golpe De Estado, a song entirely in Spanish. Despite the language barrier the strong, brass driven instrumental compelled most people to putting their best hip hop hands in the air. The line "Hip Hop classico", (the most translatable of the lyrics to Golpe De Estado) was chanted at full volume from more than a thousand different lungs. At the end of the song Technique explained that this is how hip hop breaks down barriers, we have more in common than we do apart and although few knew what Technique was spitting the spirit of the song transcended the barrier.
By the time Technique and his hypemen had reached the hour mark the mood had shifted a little. The impassioned speeches between songs dipped, the revolutionary fists to the sky were called upon less and the emphasis shifted toward fun. Technique told DJ Static to play anything, something we don't usually do and a few seconds later the first bars of Stronghold Grip started. This saw Technique at his most jovial, most raucous, rapping into the crowd, coming to their level, shaking hands and bantering with his friends between verses.
From here Technique worked himself back to a militant fervour, bringing out classics from Revolutionary Volume 2 like Harlem Streets and Industrial Revolution to a highly positive crowd response. In front of me was a sea of bouncing arms raising and lowering to the beat.
"I'm going to tell you a story", he said as the first brutal bars of Dance With The Devil – a horrific tale of gangland rape – started. By the end of the song the atmosphere had turned again, completely. The rocking arms in the sky had gone, the head bopping, gone. Instead sombre expressions and heads to the floor. By the final verse of Dance With The Devil hardly anyone moved. People just stood, for the most part not moving, as if transfixed while Technique dropped the final lines to the song. A silence fell afterwards, as if Immortal Technique was giving us each a moment to take in a deep breath and to metabolise what we had just heard. "Whenever I play that song live", Immortal Technique said, "People come up to me after the show and they're like, Tech, is that a true story? And I tell them, yeah, it's a true story. It happens in every city, in every country, every day across the world".
When Immortal Technique left the stage DJ Static asked, "Are you just gonna let him go?", and goaded the audience to chant, "Fuck you, Technique". A surreal, if quintessentially hip hop styled encore. Moments later Technique returned to the stage, threw his T Shirt, wet with sweat into the crowd and vowed that if he finds it on eBay that's the last time he gives us muthafuckers anything.
For the end of the show Technique brought the vibe back up, busting fan favourite Caught In A Hustle before the unmistakable intro to Obnoxious kicked in. However, while he was midway through the first verse he stopped the track and ran to the centre left of the stage. A fight had broken out and Technique wasn't in much of a mood to wait for security. In fact, the size of his stage posse (who all ran to the front of the stage, partly to hold back Technique and partly to see what was going on) rendered security somewhat pointless. If anyone is qualified to police their own show, it seems to be Immortal Technique who promised, "If I see another fist get thrown I'm coming down there and then someone's getting very hurt". His Harlem attitude perhaps a shock to those involved. Soon he had the entire crowd pointing at the perpetrator, "You're ruining the show", he said.
Before long the disturbance was dealt with (judging from Immortal Technique's lyrics, build and persona it is of very little surprise that those involved suddenly found some way to reconcile their differences) and Technique prepared to go back into Obnoxious. Before letting the disc spin he walked back to the centre of the stage and redirected his speech at the entire audience, "How do you expect to have a revolution? You can't even get on at a hip hop gig". And maybe not everyone in the crowd had illusions to militancy or to the romanticism of the revolutionary, but his point carried in the minds of everyone just the same. He finished on Obnoxious, during which the remaining bottles of water on stage were used to drench the front of the audience. The water flying through the air, spraying out in oranges and reds cast by the glare of the stage lights.
All in all, Immortal Technique brought the revolution to the UK and to the joy of the crowd, he promised to be back and said that maybe he should marry an English woman, a pretext for moving. "London", he yelled, again with the cadence and rhythm of a preacher, "Has the spirit of revolution!". He reminded everyone to support independent hip hop at home as well as away, perhaps a subtle reference to Lowkey and the many other British rappers of high calibre to be found in the underground. Everyone filtered back into the night air, this time the cold was welcome after the heat of the venue. In the minds of those who went to the gig that night Immortal Technique's words rung true: "If someone tells you hip hop is dead, you tell them you musta seen a motherfuckin' ghost tonight".
By: Andy Fletcher
- Soundtrack To The Struggle
- My Soul
- Fire In The booth
- Alphabet Assassin (a'cappella)
- Hand On Your Gun
- Long Live Palestine
- Voices Of The Voiceless (with Immortal Technique)
Immortal Technique set:
- The Martyr
- Angels And Demons – 1 verse
- Black Vikings – 1 verse
- Toast To The Dead
- Golpe De Estado
- Bin Laden
- The 4th Branch
- Freestyle (a'cappella)
- DJ Static solo
- Industrial Revolution
- Stronghold Grip
- Harlem Streets
- Point Of No Return
- Peruvian Cocaine – 1 verse
- Dance With The Devil
- Caught in a Hustle