The lights were on, the turntables were waiting and the stage was set. We just weren’t quite sure what for. The venue was sparsely populated as DJ Strike began warming up the audience, to little response.
The thin-spread crowd were a bizarre mix. First came the ageing hip hop aficionados, who seemed to be there automatically, as though just a taste bud from an outfit of the originating hip hop label Native Tongues would be enough to oblige them to nod their heads.
The next wave were a preppy, younger crowd, unsure of what exactly it was they had signed up for at the door. The most notable group, however, were four or five girls in high heels and short skirts, who were eighteen at a stretch; born the year Black Sheep’s most outstanding A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing came out.
It just didn’t feel like anything epic was coming.
The ‘hell yeahs’ and ‘HOoOh!’s were largely disappointing; Strike’s calls just diffused and were absorbed by the mostly empty room, and the responses that came were (and I may as well get the pun out of the way) sheepish.
The stage at Camden Town’s Jazz Café in London has a piano on the left, and on the right stands a simple metal staircase leading up to a low-lit gangway which overlooks the stage. As the crowd milled in little islands, and a few more filtered in, my eyes followed the steps to the top.
There a skinny figure sat, still, hunched, hands between his legs; waiting.
The old-school fans were apprehensive, preparing to evaluate a man even they must know little of, from a group that had released just two albums and whose career had spanned just four years. The preppies were sure of one thing; as long as he plays The Choice is Yours, it’ll be worth it. The young girls, well I had no idea what they were doing there.
To those who were watching very carefully, Dres had not entirely vanished since Black Sheep released the disappointing Non-Fiction all the way back in 1994. The split and subsequent failures to reunite with partner Mr Lawnge appears to have left a taint to the relationship of the Black Sheep duet, but Dres has since put out the underrated ’99 effort Sure Shot Redemption. Opening with the apt sample ‘pardon me as I come back’, the album seems apologetic in its delivery, despite some strong tracks. He’s since featured on songs by Handsome Boy Modelling School and Rhymefest.
Strike, still struggling alone on stage, said something forgettable as the silhouette started to shift, stood and began its descent. My heart rose to the bottom of my throat, and I got the feeling I’d wasted my time and my money on the hope that I would get a glimpse of the Dres of twenty years ago. You could wager those young girls’ parents had no idea what was coming out of Queens in the early 90s, and even if they did they would blindly frown on their little princesses listening to it.
I’d like to say that he hit the ground running, that the crowd seemed to pack out ten-fold, that the second Dres of the Black Sheep put his foot on that stage we were transported to a New York block party, that the girls grabbed the boys and the drinks were flowing like a broken hydrant.
The truth? Dres came on to that stage as hesitant as his crowd were; sizing us up just as we, for our various reasons, were sizing him up.
Still, the cheers went up and he started with a track from the new album, trying some call and response that fell a little less flat than his DJ’s attempts. Before the cynic in me had the chance to draw conclusions, Dres stopped the track to speak: ‘I know I been away a little minute…’
He spoke from the heart, as he would a several times that night, admitted he’d been smoking, always coming across as a curious balance of new artist, stepping on stage with his dreams in a record bag, and wise old wordsmith; master of his trade.
Someone shouted ‘We love you Dres!’
Dres said ‘shit I love you too nigger… Y’know, not that much, but…’
He insisted on response, he reasoned with us; he whipped up a ‘fever for the flavour’. He didn’t seem to have aged all that much; he was still the Dres the young girls just might have seen in the videos, and his flow was still immaculate.
He didn’t let up all set, cruising through tracks old and new, his unique rhythm winding up and tumbling down as it does, punctuated by speeches on rap, life and love. We heard a genuine apology and a justification for disappearing from our lives and record collections. We heard of the self-awareness of sweating under those lights alone, and we heard a promise that the best is yet to come.
I was shocked to realise that Similak Child appears to have been stripped of the iconic guitar riff from Today by The Jefferson Airplane, and disappointed not to hear Strobelight Honey in the mix of older songs selected. Of the tracks from the new album The Black Pool of Genius, new single Forever Luvlee has sentiment, production and Dres, who guarantees an effortless character, swagger and flow to his rapping.
The most memorable moments of the night were both special and unpredictable.
First, our stoned hero slowed the tempo, pulled out the stool from beneath the piano and delivered a new track about love. Of all the hip hop nights, sets and gigs I’ve been to, Dres is the first rapper I’ve ever seen take a seat. It worked; the crowd drew close, listened carefully, and even seemed to bond.
Next was the highlight of the night for our preppies (and secretly for everyone else). The split-second The Choice is Yours came in, the crowd really did seem to pack out, the club could have been a block party or a prison riot for all we cared – the scene was truly unforgettable, and as he flowed effortlessly, beautifully, toward the climactic, iconic ‘engine engine number nine’ lyric, Strike knocked the needle off the record.
The noise was horrific, and the three-second silence that ensued put my heart right back where it was watching him come down those stairs. But by this point the suspicions had subsided into a mutual adulation, or at least appreciation, and as a unit, crowd and artist simply revelled in the realisation that the only solution was a rewind.
Bambaata, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, still pull crowds of thousands to venues, the Native Tongues have plugged away for years to keep their names in the spotlight. But low and behold, there’s always a Black Sheep in the family, and Dres has stepped back out of the shadows.
As a post-scriptum, the young girls kept dancing at the end of that gig, and Strike dropped Strobelight Honey from Black Sheep’s first album to play us out. I weighed up whether I’d be waiting all night to shake Dres’ hand. The girls were dancing awkwardly in their heels, smiling and lip-syncing perfectly to every single word.
From the Black Pool of Genius is set to be launched on the 29th June.