It’s a warm summer’s evening on the Southbank and the river is looking beautiful. Earlier, Belly Squad and Moelogo played outside on the terrace to a young crowd - a prelude to the main event inside the Royal Festival Hall, which is also taking place as part of M.I.A.’s Meltdown Festival. As the curator for 2017, she has done great work in opening up these ‘high’ cultural spaces to artists who wouldn’t usually be given the chance to play here. Tonight’s headline act is French rap phenomenon MHD, but first up are two of London’s finest street successes.
Every time I see Abra Cadabra touch mic he absolutely wrecks the place, but this concert hall setting might have been a challenge for a man who is used to starting instant moshpits. As it is, I needn’t have worried. A relaxed, playful performance of ‘Dun Talkin’ has half the room streaming from their seats up to the stage. Up next is ‘Robbery’ - proper scorched earth territory as ever. Abz asks for all the lights to be turned off so that the audience can create a flashing sea of phones. When the beat drops, people are going batshit crazy in the aisles. This is one of those rare tracks which, in the moment, makes it seem like nothing else could ever possibly measure up. As if that wasn’t enough, Abz brings Kojo Funds out for a second performance of ‘Dun Talkin’ - cue screams from the front row.
Three tapes in and possessed of some serious work ethic, Brixton Hill crew 67 are definitely jockeying for the position of best group in the UK right now. I’m sure in many people’s minds they’re already there. Tonight’s performance is great, and the chemistry between the MCs is infectious. While they’re more than capable of going in hard, the best tracks are those that reach outside the boilerplate drill palette - in particular the slo-mo elegia of ‘Jackets’ and the pitched-up vocal and seasick bass of ‘#WAPS’. With a new EP on the horizon, I get the sense that there’s a lot more to come from these guys.
MHD absolutely knocks it out of the park. Straight outta the 19th arrondissement, the Parisian rapper commands a significant following on the continent - his latest single ‘Afro Trap Part 8 (Never)’ reached #6 in the French charts - but has yet to fully cross over this side of the Channel, despite some of his YouTube uploads reaching views in the hundreds of millions. For context, Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ has 30m views. Tonight is only MHD’s second show in London, yet a significant section of the crowd are treating this like the event of the year. Which, yeah, it kind of is.
MHD describes his sound as ‘Afro Trap’ - a mix of West African sounds and hard-edged trap. He’s capable of pushing to both ends of the scale - one thing that impresses is his ability to move between moods. It’s hardly rare now for an artist to be adept at both greezy street rap and afrobeats pop smashes, but MHD knits everything together with practiced assurance.
The other thing that stands out is his stagecraft - that often elusive understanding of what just works in a live setting, but he totally gets it. Flanked by two other MCs, the trio are busting out co-ordinated dance moves like it’s nothing. They even get a bunch of audience members up onstage for a dance contest, during which the crowd are encouraged to rate each performance as ‘bien’, ‘nul’ or ‘moyen’. If I’m nitpicking, this part of the show goes on for far too long and kills the momentum somewhat, but the performance of ‘Afro Trap Part 4 (Fais le mouv)’ that follows quickly gets things back on track. Other highlights include the instantly catchy ‘Afro Trap Part 3 (Champions League)’ and a storming version of ‘Afro Trap Part 7 (La Puissance)’, so good he plays it three times! Despite the language barrier, I leave the show feeling as though the current musical climate in the UK could soon see MHD reaching the same profile here as he enjoys elsewhere.
Images: Mike Massaro