29th March | SWX

More than any other genre, hip-hop is regularly referred to as a community. If anyone (the uninitiated) should cast doubts over that claim, then invite them to the next High Focus birthday party, because Thursday night’s gathering at SWX was a crystal-clear window into UK hip-hop’s collective consciousness. In eight short years, they have collected and fostered one of the most impressive rosters of any independent label in the country.

Luckily for us Bristolians, they decided to showcase some of the cream of this crop, both old and new, in our humble city. First on the bill, and the soundtrack to our perusal of the encyclopaedic High Focus merch stall was Smellington Piff, whose juvenile name belies the technicality of his word play, and whose exuberant set was the perfect starter pistol for the evening.

Taking the stage next, with all the aplomb of blokes who know that they’re playing to their home crowd, were Datkid and Res One (+ Bil Next & Upfront) of the luminary Bristol hip-hop crew Split Prophets. Whilst Res provided the usual premier crowd play and razor-sharp bars, it was Datkid, fresh from a superb solo LP release, whose famously-venomous lyricism rained down onto the audience to the loudest response. It was quite encouraging to hear plenty of people shouting along to the hook from his single, ‘Honey I’m Home’, which I’ll do well to avoid repeating in this publication.

The start of Ed Scissor’s set was signalled by appropriately ethereal noises, whispering to us from the PA, and his entrance to the stage bore with it an almost messianic weight, which was heightened under illumination from white spotlights. Playing tracks from his new album with Jam Baxter, Laminated Cakes, he seemed to get lost in the webs of his own penetrating poetry, weaving around the stage as if he were merely a vessel for some higher lexical power. Imploring the crowd to “go deeper,” his set conjured up a level of introspection that is a rarity at these sort of events.

Following Scissor was Coops, who is currently enjoying a purple patch with the release of his new album, No Brainer. He glided on stage like a cool spring breeze and proceeded to deliver cyphers accordingly. With producer/DJ Talos providing the most buttery-smooth beats of the evening, it was clear that this next year is going to be a big turning point for Coops, whose hold over the crowd was seemingly exercised without the breaking of a single bead of sweat. Next up was Ramson Badbonez, whose bars came down like lightning bolts in the wake of Coops’ breeziness and incited the most fervent gun fingers of the evening.

Before we knew it, it was time for the top billers, The Four Owls, to give us a dose of their brand of strigiform-themed chaos. Individually, Verb-T, BVA, Fliptrix and Leaf Dog are four blokes who sit at the top of their game but collectively, they are seasoned masters. Trading off of each other like a lyrical football team, they smashed through their set, which included ‘Not Like Before,’ ‘Life in the Balance’ and ‘Think Twice’; the latter of which sent the crowd into fever pitch. It was clear to see the respect these four gatekeepers of UK hip-hop have commanded in their careers.

When a label can put on a birthday party for itself and guarantee a line-up as stellar as Thursday night’s, you know it must be doing something right. A small but telling indication of the impact High Focus have had on this culture was the large number of punters to be seen wearing the label’s merch at the show. Not many of their competitors can boast that dedication.

Note: Due to unforeseen emergency circumstances, I had to leave early and sadly missed Dirty Dike’s set, but I have no doubt he delivered his verbal jesting with all the tongue-in-cheekness we have come to expect. Next time…