THE BEGINNING

Heading towards the top of the charts with his album ‘Konnichiwa’, everyone wants to celebrate with the man who’s done it all his own way.

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Old Granada Studios, Manchester, 12 May 2016

Ambition, within the context of the music industry, is often a trait associated with ruthlessness, with a cutthroat, self-serving attitude synonymous with selling out, being gripped by a manic sense of desperation and driven by an unquenchable thirst for fame. In the case of Skepta, unwavering ambition, a brimming sense of self-belief and a hurtling drive is what finds him looking at studio album number four, ‘Konnichiwa’, possibly hitting the top spot in the week one of the most critically and commercially successful bands of all time, Radiohead, release their first album in years. It is a potentially monumental moment for British music.

It’s a decade-plus journey Skepta has been on and as one of his many guests and collaborators that join him tonight says – perhaps accurately – “Skepta is the king of England right now”. This rising sense of excitement is reflected in the crowd who are a box of fireworks waiting to be lit and sent rocketing into the night. DJ Maximum starts with ‘Konnichiwa’s’ opening track and from then on the room comes alive – it swells, screams and bounces. Throbbing bass rattles around the old TV studio walls as Skepta throws his words like punches, landing every one clean, hard and fast. As he fires out the lines about his lost friend, the murdered Lukey Maxwell, the tone – even amidst the party atmosphere – has a powerful, almost elegiac edge. It sends a significant message in that moment: that despite the now mass popularity, the worldwide club bangers and the newfound fans, ranging from students to 6Music dads, that he’s coming from a world and a place that many of those people, myself included, know nothing of, a place that forces a sense of familiarity with murder.

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The following ‘That’s Not Me’ goes off on an unprecedented level. The room simply bursts open and bodies bounce, hundreds of beers launch through the air, circle pits form and several thousand jumping people obliterate their inhabitations to pieces. It’s a moment of exhilarating, shared lunacy. The pace of the evening is thus forged and the mode set to pandemonium. The evening sways understandably heavy towards the new album, which surges forward like a battering ram when funnelled through a booming live P.A and with Skepta’s masterfully timed flow it adds a further sense of ferocity and richness to the fresh material. In particular ‘Crime Riddim’ swaggers with the confidence and brilliance of an age-old genre-defining track.

Past glories from the likes of Blacklisted and Microphone Champion are scattered throughout the set, the woozy, ominous melody of ‘Track 1’ being a rousing highlight as it leads into a dense, reverberating dynamism that permeates the room like a sweeping fog. Musically, Skepta’s palate is impressive over the course of the evening. Big heavy slabs of bass drive the charge of the evening, with twitching electronics and squelchy samples creating what feels like a timeless concoction. Flashes of traditional British-Jamaican dub bubble alongside sideways blasts of jungle and bouncing bassline, all underpinned by the inescapable contemporary beat that simply is the sound of grime in 2016.

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Skepta’s brother, JME, is absent tonight but as Skepta and his group of cohorts – including the likes of Shorty and Jammer – take on his stonker ‘Man Don’t Care’ he joins via FaceTime and the crowd once more descend into explosive madness. ‘Shutdown’ is of course an incendiary and monumental acme and the hop and bounce of ‘Too Many Man’ is a welcome shift in pace and jive. The foremost connecting factor throughout all of Skepta’s output (tonight and on record) however – perhaps above the role of family, camaraderie, independence and determination – is Britain. Despite his recent successes in educating American’s on grime and what a bloodcart is, Skepta is unshakably, brilliantly, British. And Britain is currently undergoing an identity crisis of extreme and unique proportions and anything resembling the notion of pride or representation seems to be getting ever lost to the numbskulls and the bigots who think we’d all be better living in a whites-only industrial estate in Milton Keynes.

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This sort of polarisation is being captured and projected through some, although probably not enough, contemporary music elsewhere too. The opening refrain found on Babyfather’s last album of “This makes me proud to be British” repeated in an almost painful and monotonous loop is, whilst coated in the usual sincerity-wrapped-in irony-wrapped in-satire approach of Dean Blunt, speaking about British identity in a much more powerful and complex way than the laconic repetition initially indicates. It’s here that the output of Skepta is crucial too. His music is the beating, fiery pulse of multi-cultural Britain at its finest. The position that Skepta finds himself in tonight after slogging it out for over a decade and never losing faith in himself is the American Dream filtered through the British reality that there is no such fucking thing and instead you just get your head down and crack on.

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