We get the impression of a legendary duo capitalising on bygone glories rather than offering something new to look forward to.
The pre-gig murmurings that have been echoing around The Fleece come to a bemused halt when Dizraeli and Downlow take to the stage – the former wearing a multicoloured sparkly carnival mask, the latter draped in a fetching blue boxing gown – and launch into a pre-prepared skit, Dizraeli’s body convulsing in time with DJ Downlow’s scratching. The young MC, who is best known for his comedic, imaginative and socially aware live hip hop with The Small Gods, here adopts the more traditional format of two turntables and microphone, and from the moment he appears, he bounces around the stage with the momentum of a hyperactive schoolboy who has forgotten to take his Ritalin.
Downlow’s beats are laden with samples ranging from the Harlem croonings of Cab Calloway to Ethiopian jazz and French accordion music, while Dizraeli delivers impressive double-time flows alongside more restrained snippets of spoken word. His set is dotted with surreal leaps: from dissing Simon Cowell to impersonating Bulgarian choirs, and the superlative line of the evening involve the words ‘I occasionally wank in the toilet of the train’, which the audience sings along to merrily. Despite being hampered by the lacklustre sound quality from the PA, the sheer manic intensity of his performance threatens to supersede the following act, which the audience has been patiently waiting for.
After the replenishing of collective alcohol levels during the set changeover, a brief wave of confusion passes through the crowd, who notice that the crew that has appeared on stage is not Blackalicious but the Portland-based Lifesavas, featuring the MCs Versatyl and Jumbo. When Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab do eventually appear, they are met with the reverential applause befitting hip hop elder statesmen. Leaving the crowd in no doubt where they are, the first track to roll out is ‘Alphabet Aerobics’, perhaps their best-known tune and a perfect showcase for Gift of Gab’s vocal talents. It’s an unabashed crowd-pleaser, followed up by further classics including ‘Blazing Arrow’, ‘Deception’ and ‘Paragraph President’.
These all go down well, but there is a rigidity to their delivery. Overall, the performance relies on tried-and-tested formulas, and the possibly jet-lagged Versatyl sounds as though he is about to lose his voice at any moment. Nonetheless, performers and crowd alike seem to loosen up midway through the set, about the same time as ‘First in Flight’, also from the Blazing Arrow LP, is played. At this point it’s impossible not to admire Gift of Gab, for both his laid-back stage presence and spitfire vocal delivery: it is as though the man is constantly on the brink of overflowing with lyrics, but remains resolutely calm while he does so.
It’s an enjoyable evening. Yet I come away with the sense that the night was largely a nostalgia trip: a chance for the largely thirty-something audience to re-live some of the tunes that defined their younger selves. The set ends with ‘Chemical Calisthenics’, a reminder of the epoch-defining high-quality hip hop that Blackalicious are known for. But despite the tour heralding the arrival of a new LP, little in the way of new material is performed, giving the impression of a legendary duo capitalising on bygone glories rather than offering something new to look forward to.
Check out a live video of ‘Alphabet Aerobics’ right here: