"Once upon a time in London, yo,
I damn near had to steal the show" - Atmosphere, "God Loves Ugly"
We know. We were there when it happened. But it wasn't last night.
In 2006, Minneapolis producer-MC combo Atmosphere dragged a whole band along with them. The storming show, at Scala, was probably the finest live hip hop show London's witnessed that didn't involve The Roots. The fruit of that tour was new album If Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold, their biggest seller to date. So it's something of a surprise to rock up at Koko on Wednesday night and find only the Holy Trinity of two turntables and a mic on stage. Perhaps they wanted a switch back to the purer style of boom-bap rap on which they made their name. If so, it's a move that doesn't quite succeed.
With producer Ant behind the decks, rapper Slug and labelmate Brother Ali bound across the stage with authority, acting as each other's hypeman, throwing out rhyme after rhyme and quickly winning the crowd over. Both are in party mood, spinning songs old and new; Slug crawls back a decade to pull out classic protest cut "Scapegoat", while on the chorus of the haunting "Woman With The Tattooed Hands" he lets his vocals drift away so that the crowd can croon the lament back to him, almost note perfect. Ali for his part may be less well known but he makes up for it by bum-rushing the crowd's indifference with a number of his aggressive battle-raps. Vocally, the pair are on top form.
The same can't be said for the sound quality: Ant was fighting a losing battle to keep his well-honed beats alive. We've already spoken about the shoddy audio at Koko; again, it was all subwoofer and vocals, with the middle frequencies muddied into insignificance. We're forking out for a ticket plus two booking fees here, so it'd be nice if Koko could get a sound engineer in to actually take a look at the problem.
Sound complaints aside, Atmosphere showed why they've developed such a rabid following over the years: their ability to connect. Slug has always been refreshingly free of the usual rap cliches, and his ability to push boundaries makes the live shows appealing. Last night was no exception, although we have to again reflect that it paled in comparison to the Scala show. No encore, too - what's up with that? - though the venue's strict 11pm cutoff may be to blame, and we'd been treated to an hour 40 minutes long performance. But next time we'd like to leave Koko without the sound of busted bass drums ringing in our ears, please.
Photo courtesy of Steve Cromwell