The bus takes me as far as the corner of Saint Georges’ Terrace and William Street, so I stride down the footpath, past what sounds like a live soul band oozing from an astro-turfed rooftop bar, past the new Jamie Oliver place, over the horseshoe. I take a left turn and keep pacing. Shop lights spill onto the street; up above, cinema-light ebbs and flickers on an open-air screen atop a carpark. Some glamorous delinquents sip booze and giggle on a playground in a shadowy park. It’s nice to take in, even the forgettable bits I’ve not mentioned. Soon though I reach the fortress of red sea container, and feel its pull, like sirens on the rocks.
AS I enter I find myself awash in the golden tones of Kit Pop. I wish I could tell you exactly what he was playing. All I know is that it was just what I needed to hear: ricocheting, layered beats, velvety synths leap-frogging over neatly folded beat patterns and lithe bass lines. I drink a few glasses of water. Then appears MATHAS.
He’s got his usual ritual happening – turntable, lamp, carafe, tumbler, stretches. Seems he’s ditched the waistcoat and tie, however. In any case, this is a classic Mathas set, traversing lyrical themes as diverse as drug binges, Australian tourism, disrespect for indigenous heritage, alien visitations, the “human condition” and self-reflection, using his dry wit, sweeping lexicon and general commitment to considered complexity to avoid ever seeming didactic, dogmatic or pseudo-intellectual. I’ve kissed Mathas’ arse in reviews before but I’m going to keep on doing it until he ceases to deserve it, and new tracks performed tonight (including the cracker “King Pots,” I think it was called) suggest that’s not anytime soon. Mathas belongs to that special and all-too-rare breed of artist (musical or otherwise) who not only has a whole lot to say, but also the capacity to articulate it flawlessly, artfully, unpretentiously. It makes for thought-provoking and affecting listening. As a sometimes socially anxious, self-doubting kind of guy, listening to “Bubble Boy” (Mathas’ unflinching, amusing ode to his own personal shortcomings) feels like something of a revelation. It’s the would-be zenith of his incredible set of songs, yet “Bubble Boy” sees the rapper reeling off regrets, allergies, personality flaws, mundane failures and amusing frustrations. It’s the antithesis to the self-aggrandizing rap mode, sitting more on the “Larry David” than the “Rick Ross” end of the spectrum. There’s a new Mathas album on the way and I’m certain it will be phenomenal. I just hope a zillion people get to hear it.
No sooner is Mathas stepping down from the stage than local emcee SOMA has begun thrashing about on it. The English expatriate raps with the heavy accent of his homeland and an aggressive delivery, which at first aural glance makes the whole thing sound kind of violent and chav-y. His shaved head, baggy Nautica t-shirt and lumbering form help solidify this (admittedly unfair) conclusion. But soon you realize that SOMA is delivering some legitimately thoughtful, quirky, intricate lines. A lot of it serves to big-up-oneself, certainly, particularly focusing on SOMA’s purported DIY ethic and his many years of honing skills and “paying dues.” But it doesn’t come across as overly arrogant in the scheme of his very open, honest rhymes: songs about how music saved him from a life on the wrong track; about how he finds way to remain passionate about making hip-hop after ten years. These well-worn topics can easily become cringey in the wrong hands, but SOMA finds the right mix of bizarre humour, intelligent earnestness and solid execution to get away with it. Throw in some hearty beats and deft scratching from SOMA’s over-qualified DJ, and you have an impressive combo at hand; sadly, the songs aren’t inspired enough to make this act truly memorable, but SOMA is bound to remain on my radar nonetheless.
We hear from UPnUP, a conservatorium-flavoured live hip hop ensemble featuring horns and guitar, whose groove is tight and sentiments admirable but who don’t seem to have much new to say; and soon from SPEEKEASY, who on paper are kinda in the same vein, but who in practice take it into a different ballpark. Speekeasy carry an unpretentious charisma, remarkable but rarely-flaunted chops, smooth arrangements and particularly memorable emcees: Rae and Hyclass, lacing the grooves with impeccable old-school verses. Highlights come within the dimly lit, post-MJ “Communication Breakdown” and the silly but ultimately excellent “Eat A Burger.” Everyone pulls their weight, with the resident drummer even hopping of the kit to deliver an impressive verse; but for me it’s the ebuillient Hyclass that makes this set, and who’ll convince me to return to their tunes somewhere down the line.
The esteemed producer EXILE, originally billed to join collaborator BLU at this show, is absent. The dude has had to have rapid surgery for reasons I’m not aware of, and though he seems healthy enough, he’s not been allowed to fly. So in his stead comes DJ and producer HOUSE SHOES – a name that means nothing to me, not yet.
It’s not a name that sounds particularly promising, either. But when House Shoes ascends the stage and begins to fling beats into the air, my brains are blown. Yes, this is a DJ set, yes some of the time he’s simply digging out well-known songs that he likes, without tinkering with them much (see: Madvillain’s “Accordion”). Yet in amongst these, the Detroit-hailing head introduces some of the most unlikely beat tapestries and mash-ups you’re ever likely to hear. Old rickety soundtrack pieces, 70s soft-rock nuggets and exotic morsels all get an unedited airing while you think “this is cool, but what the heck could he possibly do with it?” Seconds later, House Shoes has brilliantly woven the sample into a crisp-as-hell beat that damn near evaporates your face. Endorphins rush through your blood. Some of these are among the most emotionally satisfying beats I’ve ever heard. He ends his solo set by airing some tunes totally self-composed, from his 2012 album “Let it Go.” It comes as no surprise, ultimately, when I discover that this guy was a close friend of J Dilla’s, one of the late producer’s hometown confidants and beat-buddies. And while I’m not the ultimate underground-hip-hop buff, it does surprise me that I haven’t come across House Shoes when he’s this damn good. A new album and new collabs with Danny Brown; these things are excellent prospects. My ears will now be peeled for House Shoes.
BLU soon sidles up, cooly composed, cap aslant, mic floating in a relaxed hand, chinos around his mid-thighs. He’s as nonchalant as a person can get without becoming lethargic or rudely dismissive of his privileged environs (a crowd of adoring fans). Certainly, he stays well away from those latter trappings. For the most part, the LA rapper is straight into the tunes in a no-nonsense way, delivering each with suave slackjawed aplomb, gliding from one song to the next with minimum ado. House Shoes holds it down, but his role has changed from exploding-with-inspiration DJ to humble track-starter, mostly queuing up beats by Exile. Meanwhile he adopts the extra role of hype-man: “Give it up for Blu one time!” The crowd is mysteriously sedate – I don’t really understand it – maybe Blu’s reputation as a thoughtful hip-hop street poet, rather than a party-starter, has put people in the zone to listen reservedly rather than cheer and freak out. In any case, most of the room stands still or sways gently as Blu beelines through vibe-heavy tracks like “So(ul) Amazing” and “Blu Collar Worker” (the latter does inspire some crowd interaction, with beat drop-outs and singalongs). Despite the businesslike approach, it’s not totally a case of going through the motions; we hear smatterings of reworkings and oddities (including samples of jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby: “Who here knows Dorothy Ashby?” – silence). It’s not an explosive, earth-shattering performance, but it’s not a disappointing one either, ultimately showcasing Blu’s established smooth flow without necessarily pointing to future innovations. For me, the standout is the unexpected wildness of House Shoes’ approach; while I look forward to future work between Blu and the absent Exile, House Shoes and Blu could do a lot worse than to spend some more time hanging out, making sounds together, and with their shared passion for shaking expectations, ultimately blow some minds.