Brighton Festival 2017
High Focus Records has one aim – to resurrect the legacy of UK hip hop. Established in 2010, the label has offered a platform for a new generation of rappers and producers (including man of the moment, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man). For this special Brighton Festival show, the label presents three acts from its impressive roster.
Led by label founder Fliptrix, The Four Owls’ 2011 debut Nature’s Greatest Mystery went on to become an ambassador for UK hip hop around the world, a modern-day classic that encapsulated straight up-and-down rhythms, undiluted lyricism and conceptual brilliance. Who said UK hip hop was dead? Just look to the skies.
Camden-born, Brighton-based MC Ocean Wisdom is the new kid everyone is talking about. His debut release Walkin’ was an underground smash that marked him out as one of the scene’s most exciting prospects: no hook, no ad-libs just raw, unfiltered energy and originality. And has he really dethroned Eminem, as Unilad has suggested, as the fastest rapper in the world?
The bill is completed by Jam Baxter who has continued to prove himself as one of the most accomplished and outlandish hip hop lyricists, both as a solo artist and a member of Contact Play and Dead Players.
The crowd is very young overall, which is quite nice, especially for a Brighton Festival gig. A lot of these kids look (to this teacher’s eye) like key stage 3 (under 16). They’re trying ever so hard, bless ‘em! Drenched in perfume, aftershave and weed smoke they run everywhere in their excitement, and rarely dare to crack a smile in case they don’t look cool.
Jam Baxter comes across much better when he’s actually rapping than when he’s addressing the crowd. His rhymes are good, but his flow seems slightly forced, as if he’s not quite perfect friends with the backing track.
And the vocal is muddy. I don’t know if this is his mic work or the mix, but it’s a shame that he’s so indistinct.
“Sorry about the language on that one,” he exclaims. “but I’ve realised that if you put the f-word in the chorus, the kids like it more.” I like HIM more now.
“I’m gonna play some emotional shit now so you all know I’m deep. Everyone stare at the floor. Don’t look at me!” I like his self-deprecating humour, which is sometimes at odds with the po-faced (though well-meaning) nature of his work.
The DJ, though, is far, FAR too keen on his explosions and fog-horns for my taste.
Basically, and I mean this with love: Jam Baxter is like if the class clown turned out to have unexpected talent.
The Four Owls:
I know the Four Owls a bit. I was recommended them by some friendly year-11s (final year GCSE grandad!).
The very best thing about them is that they dress up as four owls, the better to deliver their fairly aggressive brand of hip-hop. I think this is exceptionally praise-worthy. I wish more professionals dressed as woodland creatures. I can imagine, for example, bus drivers as cheery badgers, engineers as dainty foxes, estate agents as dirty old bastards (they hang out in the woods, right?).
Anyway, The Four Owls are pretty good at this whole shouty hip-hop thing. The Four Owls do worry terribly about our hands not being in the air enough, and about us collectively not making enough f***ing noise, but I can appreciate these concerns.
They have quite abrasive, harsh, Greater-London accents which, strangely, end up sounding very Beastie-Boys.
I really like that there are four of them. They share the lyrics with genuine fluidity, and the whole thing flows impressively. The One-Or-Two Owls probably wouldn’t work as well.
And there were no explosions, no foghorns, and no sirens, which was nice.
The skill level has obviously gone up over the evening. Ocean Wisdom, despite his (apparently real) name, has undeniable talent. He spits incredibly fast and has a surprising amount of energy (once he takes his enormous coat off).
Ocean Wisdom takes us into full-on Grime, where I stop feeling comfortable, but even I can tell how good he is at it.
He makes good use of his backing vocalists, and even has a trained gimp following his every move with a stabilised camera never more than a foot from his face. Personally this would annoy me quite a lot, but then I definitely don’t like being looked at as much as Ocean Wisdom does!
Hip-hop is an exceptionally broad church. High Focus clearly have their own quite specific, and US-centric tastes, and they do well at presenting a united front here.
Personally, my preferences are for the more politically aware, UK style, and my head is still full of Kate Tempest, who I saw here last night and who, quite frankly, could p**s all over these boys.
But: if you want to know what the disaffected yoof are listening to, this is an excellent, and quite pleasantly silly, introduction.