"Y'all are making Brighton seem like where the party's at", yells DJ Big Whiz from behind the decks. The roar of protest from the crowd, packed tightly underneath Cargo's Victorian arches so movement is reduced to peristalsis-like shuffles, is the desired response: Londoners don't take well to comparisons with our southern cousin.
As his DJ riles the crowd, Definitive Jux rapper Aesop Rock lounges across the stage with a Cheshire-cat grin. On the second of a five-date UK tour, native New Yorker Aes has rolled into town with labelmate Rob Sonic,to promote his 2007 album None Shall Pass, and a hyped-up Wednesday night crowd is ready to hang on his every word.
Judging by the posters, Sonic has equal headline billing, but most of the crowd are here for Aes. The man better known to his postman as Ian Bavitz has crafted a career around dense, verbose, complex yet rewarding leftfield hip hop, spinning detailed Thomas Pynchon-like tales in a distinctively low, edgy delivery. The sort of rap that sounds great through headphones but can come unstuck live, where the vagaries of venue PAs can often swamp words in muddy bass-driven reverb. That doesn't happen tonight. Despite complaining of exhaustion, Aes is in inspired form, launching into a trio of songs from his new disc - including the stomping discofied slither of the title track - wrapping his monotone flow around every word and syllable, enunciating each carefully chosen phrase as if his goal was some desperate propaganda operation to affix the meaning of his lyrics in the every available ear. "Eye for an eye but a bug's life swamps and vines to get a rise out of frogs and flies", he intones. What does it mean? Not a clue. But it sounds vital.
Visually, the show also delivers. Big Whiz's scratching is hooked up to a video screen that plays excerpts from Aesop's Terry Gilliam-inspired music videos, spliced in with archive footage, graphics, and the occasional Mandelbrot set, all syncopated with the music. It's a nice effect, although the coordinated nature of the video tracks suggest that this is a set list the trio are well familiar with.
Midway through the set, energy levels sag a little. Rob Sonic, hitherto resigned to hype-man status, gets a few minutes to showcase tracks from his own new disc. A bear of a man, Sonic doesn't have the chops to match his girth, and he manages to deflate proceedings a little. Still, Aesop is soon back on the mic with an a capella freestyle, which he then follows with a beat-switching "No Regrets" (from reputation-sealing 2001 album Labor Days) and an enthusiastic call-response on the refrain "Kill Television". Crowd, consider yourself enraptured.
Barely an hour in, and with a final double whammy of "Coffee" (complete with ace video introduction) and crowd request "Daylight" - thrown off kilter by the pasty-faced chortler who jumped on stage in the second verse - the trio were gone, an encore only half-heartedly called for by fans who were either satiated or perhaps slightly over-Juxcited by proceedings. While the show won few converts to Aesop's cause, for the long time fan (and judging by the numerous sungalong refrains, there were plenty in attendance) it was a great night.
Photograph © Elayne Barre.