For our last gig of the year, we made the trip down to London to catch the High Focus Xmas party at the always excellent Village Underground in Shoreditch. Starting off the night we had two DJ Sets; the first from DJ Madnice playing US Hip Hop, dancing around the Golden Era sound and even interweaving it with some notable UK Hip Hop. Stand outs from his relatively short warm up set were Mos Def, Method Man & Red Man, and Klashnekoff. The second DJ set came from the always on-point DJ Sammy B-Side, who treated us to an intricate set of turntablism. He truly is a great scratch DJ, and chopped together a great array of tracks, and what was possibly a slew of original chops, samples and beats. Set highlights included dropping the ‘Think Twice’ remix from Leaf Dog, and a couple of Dirty Dike verses, which sent the crowd crazy!
Edward Scissortongue seemed to opt for a more up-beat set list than I have previously seen him perform. This was a deft move, because there was a great reaction from the crowd right from the opening track. My knowledge of Edward Scissortongue’s material isn’t as in-depth as I would like, but one of the set highlights came in the form of ‘Please Say Something’ with its clapped beats and staggered, layered piano samples offering a relatively simple backdrop for Scissortongue’s intricate, flowing word play. Scissortongue took it up a notch by bringing out long-time collaborator Jam Baxter for them to perform two or three tracks, most notably recent single ‘First Bite’, with it’s relatively sinister beat, and drawling, spat-out bars.
Dirty Dike was up next, performing a relatively short showcase of recent material. Due to him possibly indulging in the party atmosphere, I feel Dirty Dike was perhaps less on-the-ball than when we saw his fantastic Manchester set back in October. However, he is still a greatly talented MC and has knocked out one of the finest Hip Hop LP’s this year in the form of ‘Sucking On Prawns In The Moonlight’, so his set was still a confident, riotous affair. Being accompanied by Fliptrix for dark and brooding opener ‘Great Attempt’, the pair laid out some fantastic verses, and when that bridging/secondary beat change drops towards the end of the track, the crowd are in full swing. We are treated to two of his recent singles, the fantastically twisted ‘Ain’t Got A Clue’ which has the whole venue bouncing along, before the dusty, spaced-out reprieve of ‘Isleham Swamp’, with it’s blissfully smokey beat. Dirty Dike then switches up his set, treating his fans to the trademark obnoxiousness of tracks like ‘Return Of The Twat’ and the fantastically humorous story bars of ‘Catch Me If You… Nah’, elevating the party vibe to truly mischievous heights.
As The Four Owls take to the stage, they don’t let Dirty Dike go anywhere and kick off their set with the fantastic ‘Assassination’ from the years excellent album ‘Natural Order’. Thumping drum, bass and horn loops providing the backdrop for some vicious, King Kong size verses and setting the precedent for the rest of their set. Four Owls command the stage and the crowd with ferocity and it is a blistering, celebratory, party of a set. ‘Lights Off’, ‘Silent Flight’ and ‘All My Life’ are all early set highlights, thumping along with Leaf Dog’s Boom Bap inspired drum beats and loops. Jam Baxter once again emerges on stage to back the Owls up for ‘Life In The Balance’, a more chilled, sprawling instrumental that lets all the MC’s philosophize in a hazy vibe. We are also treated to some of the Owls solo material, BVA’s ‘Insomnileptic’ and Verb T’s ‘First Stone’ being the highlights here. Towards the end of the set we get an excitable Leaf Dog letting slip that 2016 brings a new Brothers Of The Stone album, which will feature the mighty M.O.P. and Inspectah Deck. No wonder he was hyped, because that is huge news. The set closes with 2015 banger ‘Think Twice’ which has an infectious beat produced by Dj Premier and features each of the Owls on top form lyrics wise. A great close to a solid set.
When Four Owls aren’t even headlining, you start to wonder how a gig can possibly continue in an upward spiral. Well, with Ocean Wisdom, that’s how. The Brighton MC has been gaining some fierce momentum this year, and has been the main new signing to the High Focus family. The atmosphere is palpable just before Wizzy starts his set, but the anticipation his seemingly more feverish from all the other artists rather than the crowd, as Dirty Dike and Fliptrix remain on stage throughout the set. Without necessarily adding to the performance, they seem to just there for the ride. Once Ocean Wisdom starts it is easy to see why. First tune ‘Ewok’ is a smack to the face, it has dirty, fierce, rumbling bass sections and Ocean Wisdom spits bars that match, escalating them up to a feverish double pace more than once throughout the track. Everything he does is relentless and immediate, and by the end of the set, most of the artists are in the wings/back of the stage watching the scene play out. It is a great performance, with only one problem - there was way too many spin-backs! However, Ocean Wisdom and his material are something to behold, blending old grime, with hip hop and even garage. Keep tabs on him, because you do not want to sleep on his debut album when it drops…
With a group that are so outwardly proud of their debauchery you kind of know what to expect from Dead Players. But the trio don’t disappoint. A sound that seemingly straddles Hip Hop and grime, in a live setting it consistently has baselines that rumble the entire venue. ‘Billa’, with it’s thunderous drums and whistles gets the energy ramped up straight away, and this half-stepping momentum is kept with older tracks like ‘Knee Deep’ and ‘Bottle’. MC’s Dabbla & Jam Baxter do manage to personify their recorded material brilliantly live; they are a team, a relentless bar duo, but they are also in competition and continuously try to out-rap each other. It makes for a crazy live show, and the obvious inebriation makes for a start-stop set at times. During one break, Dabbla spits some acapella bars, from which he launches directly into ‘Badman’, a solo effort under the Dead Players moniker that once again sees the bass wobble shake the entire building.
The stage is alight with activity, a manic and crazed Edward Scissortongue sporadically appearing to torment Dead Players, at one point hoisting Dabbla onto his shoulders while he is mid-verse, the MC managing to stay on point somehow. Set highlights include ‘Call Us Now’ which sounds absolutely huge in this setting, setting the crowd ablaze so that they act almost as crazy as the people on stage! ‘Ever’ is another highlight, with all its chopped vocal samples and escalating bar structure that reaches a crescendo at the end of every verse. I had my fingers crossed for ‘Velvet Swamp’ from the first album, which has guest verses from support acts Dirty Dike & Edward Scissortongue. We were instead treated to ‘Infinite Limousine’ from new album ‘Freshly Skeletal’ which brought to the stage guests Ocean Wisdom, Illaman and Orifice Vulgatron to smash out some extremely aggressive verses. The set finishes extremely strong, with a trio of songs each building the momentum. Tonally dark tracks ‘Cooked’ and the fantastically heavy, long drawn out bass of ‘Ringing’ set a very weird undertone to the final part of the set, before old favourite ‘Yeah’ finishes things on an upbeat note, it’s crazy gypsy inspired backline making for an Irish jig of a finalé while Dabbla & Jam Baxter sign off with some fantastically comical verses.
This was a great event, High Focus signing off for 2015 with a huge line-up. The label has had an impressive year, putting out a string of very strong releases, all the while still being ignored by the mainstream music industry. At this stage, it is becoming criminal that this amount of sheer talent is being overlooked - however at the same time it has become like a badge of pride for the label and their fanbase; this truly is a loud and proud DIY movement. To quote Leaf Dog “You don’t need an industry, you need people”. Well, Uk Hip Hop definitely has those in dedicated numbers…