It feels as though the room goes silent for just a millisecond after the commanding sound of a gong chimes through the orchestra of speakers lining the walls of The Danforth Music Hall. It’s a sold-out Canadian Music Week show in Toronto and the crowd of grime devotees instantly recognizes the sound as the opening of London emcee Skepta’s fourth studio album, Konnichiwa, first made available for streaming the morning before.
The mob takes the cue and the moment is flooded by a cacophony of hollers and frivolous hand waving. Skepta materializes on stage, delivering a string of gritty lyrics still fresh to the ears of his fans, but with an energy that overwhelms the need for a sing-a-long. It’s the Tottenham-bred rapper’s second time performing Konnichiwa; the first, when he fittingly performed, just hours earlier in Tokyo, Japan, for the album launch party, alongside Japanese artists KOHH, Dutch Montana, Loota and DJ Riki.
From Tokyo to Toronto in little more than a day — it’s a small testament to Skepta’s position in the world of grime music, which, until recently, was mainly confined for over a decade to the walls of basement raves throughout the UK. As the most recognizable figure in grime right now, Skepta’s claim to fame is a doubled-edged sword. In track three “Corn On The Curb” the emcee opens up about the pressures of being caught between two worlds to friend and London rapper, Chip.
“I’m too ambitious to be with the mandem on the road, but I can’t be up there with them people, either — I’m too Black. I feel like I’m in limbo,” Skepta despondently reveals.
As Drake would put it, Skepta is “a rookie and a vet”. The Boy Better Know label co-founder has a résumé dating back to the early 2000s and with the continued success of standout projects such as his 2007 debut Greatest Hits and the 2012 mixtape, Blacklisted, Skepta’s prominence in the UK music scene was locked. Now, as international eyes shift in his direction, Skepta takes on a whole new role as the global ambassador of grime, a title he seems to unstintingly embrace on Konnichiwa despite his reservations.
The album includes several previously-released tracks such as “It Ain’t Safe”, “That’s Not Me”, “Shutdown” and “Man”, which make for an intense cardio sesh at the Skepta show. “Text Me Back”, the last joint on the project, catches the top boy in a vulnerable position, as he sways between trying to maintain the relationships in his life while working to move forward in his career. The first verse is seemingly spoken to a lover, while the second to his mom, but in both cases he has resolved to reach a certain trajectory with his music in order to provide for those closest to him. “Sometimes I never text you back, but I never mean to disrespect you / I’m on the road trying to do this thing I know you see where mans are trying to get to,” he relays in the chorus. The song reassures his audience that he doesn’t plan on succumbing to any fleeting trends in order to solidify his stance on the global music scale.
From his humble beginnings as a pirate radio DJ, Skepta has always upheld an authentic devotion for the grime lifestyle. On the first track “Konnichiwa” the emcee spits “Boy better know mans went to the BRITS on a train / Think it’s a game? Man shutdown Wireless, then I walked home in the rain.” The line is just one of many juxtaposed bars that seamlessly assert his rise in status, while he strives to remain true to his roots. From day one Skepta made relentless efforts to make it on his own terms with no corporate endorsements or label affiliation, instead starting his own movement with Boy Better Know (BBK).
It’s the start of a new embarking for grime into commercial exposure, a chance for the story of the UK streets to be told globally with Skepta spearheading the wave.
BBK is a label that Drake has continually praised, and announced earlier this year, he’s currently signed to. Although this seems to have obvious complications with Drake also being signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment, the Canadian rapper further demonstrated his loyalty by getting “BBK” tatted on his shoulder. However the duo plans to make it work, the pairing seems appropriate considering both Drake and Skepta came from cities that had something to offer, but were never really given a fighting chance until recently.
As Canadian fans chant “B-B-K” at the top of their lungs and Skepta and his crew stomp their feet on stage, revved with adrenaline, it becomes clear that this is bigger than a concert, even bigger than Skepta himself. It’s the start of a new embarking for grime into commercial exposure, a chance for the story of the UK streets to be told globally with Skepta spearheading the wave. Konnichiwa is the grime emcee’s way of saying hello to the world and proves that mans are ready to shutdown.
Photos © Sadé Powell & Urbanology Magazine