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Black Milk, Guilty Simpson at Scala Review

RANDOM AXE LIVE

A Thursday night almost seems too low key for Random Axe’s first ever UK show, but it couldn’t be better placed. For starters everyone in the room seems to knows exactly where they are, and why they are here. This is because on Thursdays, music generally comes before getting pissed on booze - although neither is mutually exclusive as I went on to prove somewhat zealously. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the Scala is quite intimate. Stadium-size venues do little to improve on truly great talents, who don’t need to hide behind heavy-handed production to make an impact. If you stand almost anywhere in the stage pit at the Scala you can practically pick out individual drops of perspiration on a performer’s brow, which makes a nice change from trying to summon the essence of a live show in, say, Atlanta, from some smug, faraway bastard’s cameraphone footage.

Headliners Random Axe are a hip hop supergroup which consists of Sean “MegaSean” Price, Black Milk and Guilty Simpson. Supergroups invite expectations and hype by definition, so regardless of whether they blossom or burn it tends to be on a satisfactorily epic scale. Random Axe announced the merger in 2008 and signed to NYC’s Duck Down Records by 2009 amid worldwide speculation as to what might grow from the different elements each artist brings to the table. There’s a good dose of menace and authentic 90’s Brooklyn swag from Sean Price, the “true terror beneath a New Era”. Just to give an indication of how very colossal in the game he is, the man has been immortalised as a video game character- yes, you heard- in NBA 2K11, which also features one of his solo tracks on the score. Young, prolific Detroit rapper/producer Black Milk, the oft-dubbed heir to the crown of J Dilla, produces all of Random’s beats, and multi-tasks efficiently enough to throw down scintillating verses as well. Guilty Simpson (of Stone’s Throw fame) makes up the triad, bringing gutter bars and his own gritty, drawling Detroit flavour to the melee.

Jehst, as one of the finest representations of the UK's homegrown sound, is as well-placed as they come to support this trinity of greats. His long-awaited third full length album, 'Dragon of an Ordinary Family' dropped this June, coincidentally the same month as Random’s self-titled debut. He’s on fantastic form tonight, prowling the length and breadth of the stage like a caged animal. When the beat drops for Dragon's fifth track England, he spins round to the DJ. “Fuck the beat.” England was recorded in 05, and however relevant the depictions of a vagabond’s betrayal by a nation were then- “the news is confusing, it’s all manufactured… political actors”- it seems all the more relevant now. He spits the whole thing acapella to a spellbound and silent room. Silent, but when he rages “police have got too much power”, roars of assent erupt from all corners. Someone to my left murmurs, half to himself, “Go on, man.” Jehst doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a musician, but tonight the show is so charged and so fearless that he moves far more than nodding heads. Yessirree, he's back with a bang.  

Random Axe’s debut was allegedly semi-complete in 08, but apart from taster track Monster Babies it didn’t hit mainstream listenership until three years later. But you can’t hold this against them: the show is just too goddam heavy. It may be a Thursday, but a few tunes from the headliners and everybody’s wiling out. Everybody, Nobody, Somebody is a shit hot track and excellent opener, exhibiting group fusion using a classic template, where each member gets a word from the title and a verse to play with it. Price raps Everybody from centre stage. Milk, hands glued to his equipment, leans to his left to spit his verse on Nobody. Guilty Simpson emerges from the wings as his verse Somebody drops, effortlessly completing the onstage triangle..

Price, who has famously settled down to a married life of comparative sobriety and three kids, hasn’t lost any love for performing and crams the room with his rugged charisma. “When I say Sean you say P” punctuates proceedings regularly. Touring the UK as Helter Skelter was a fair while back now, and after the first track or two he takes a moment to address the 2011 crowd, dripping sweat. “Last time I was in these parts the promoter was all like ‘give it up for Hocus Pocus!” he laughs, enjoying himself.

Thanks to the Scala’s impeccable sound, album track Chewbacca steals the show, fortifying Milk’s whimsical synth melody with enough bass that the drum patterns leave you practically winded. By the time the intro to Random Call hits the room, the crowd is giving as good as they get. When the beat cuts back for the manifesto lyric “Me Guilty and Black is aggressive content, no love letter rhymes and raps about chicks, just a whole lot of druggin and thuggin, that’s it” the chorus from the audience threatens to overwhelm Price’s considerably amplified vocals.

About two thirds of the way through, out of goodwill, solidarity or whatever, Random invite some UK MCs who’ve been concealed in the wings to come on with them and spit some verses mid-show. Naturally they look nervous as fuck, but who wouldn’t be? But when one of them ventures a very British “what up my nigga” to Price, who doesn’t seem to hear and turns to say something to Milk, the room contracts in a deeply felt cringe. It is a painful performance, mostly because everyone is so amped for Random to continue. But I can’t help feeling that a bit more crowd support for local talent wouldn’t have gone amiss. Particularly, shame ye who booed. No need for that, none at all.

After the interlude, Random roll through the rest of the set with renewed vigour. Guilty, who at times seems slightly dwarfed by Price’s right-up-in-your-eyeballs stage persona, gets a chance to come into his own near the end in a lengthy acapella dedicated to J Dilla’s life, work, their friendship, and his final days. It’s an utterly heartfelt performance. Granted, it’s not a heartbreak tune, but it’s a conscious and emotional saga which at this point is a welcome deviation from the show’s predominantly “aggressive content”.

They round off with their first release, the rambunctious “Monster Babies” for one last ruckus. Milk eschews the confines of the DJ podium and joins his hombres at the front. And then that’s it. No encores, no crowd-play. A clean show, hard-hitting and deadly. As one journalist put it, “do you know what it feels like to be hit with a Random Axe?” Now you do.

///

Words - Rosie McLean

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