Skepta Brought the UK Underground to Toronto
The ambassador of grime returned to the 6 along with friends and mosh pits.
All photos by Eric Zaworski
On the night of the release of his highly anticipated—and repeatedly delayed—fourth studio album Konnichiwa, English grime MC Skepta came to Toronto to play a sold-out show at Danforth Music Hall. Skepta, who’s assumed the role of grime’s international ambassador, has picked up a big influx of fans in the last year. Adding big-time collaborators like Drake and Pharrell Williams (who provides an assist on Konnichiwa’s “Numbers”) to his rolodex, the artist is set to further expand the reach and pull of his brand of English underground, vying to make 2016 a banner year for grime. Last night’s performance was, for many in the crowd, an introduction of what makes grime what it is—a, well, grimy, sweaty, energetic performance that pairs nicely with alcohol.
Opening acts Keita Juma and Sha Hustle kept a mostly minimal look and performance on stage, a stark contrast to Skepta’s rollout alongside swaths of crewmates from Boy Better Know, who joined him straight from a 14-hour flight from Tokyo, where he fittingly premiered Konnichiwa on Boiler Room earlier this week.
Dressed in a hand-painted, custom trenchcoat and OVO owl cap, a nod to alleged BBK labelmate Drake, Skepta quickly set the tone as a proclamation of grime as a genre with staying power, even in the notoriously insular North American music climate.
This is Skepta, mind you—an MC with over a decade of activity in the London music scene. Noting this, between cuts off the new album, he addressed fans who knew him as “mixtape Skepta,” which drew more than a few cheers, including some English accents that managed to briefly cut through the haze of the crowd to shout “Brixton!” and other cues to the homeland.
Grime shows typically play out in venues with low ceilings, basements and no separation between crowd and performer. Despite the setup at Danforth—a historic theatre in Toronto’s Greektown, with a sloping dancefloor and a low barricade between stage and crowd—Skepta brought refreshing participation to his set, egging on audacious crowd surfers and ladies alike. Aggressive show outs like “It Ain’t Safe” and “Man (Gang)” played out particularly well, due in part to no backing vocal track, which only amplified Skepta’s forceful stage presence as a true top ranking performer.
On-stage, support from fellow BBK members Jammer and Chip helped increase the participatory nature of grime—this is music that you shout, your arm firmly affixed around the shoulder of a mate, bruv—and the crowd made quick work of every floor-shaking, barebones, glitchy two-step production. Finishing the show, naturally, with a highlight performance of “Shutdown,” a sample of the ever-omniscient 6 God, whose marked absence did little to slow down the night, the walk-off from Skepta and crew evoked that this tour represents the proving grounds. While BBK might have faces that are unfamiliar on this side of Atlantic, there’s musical heritage here, and a refined, well-oiled machine is turning behind an act many might assume are “new.” Only five minutes in and it was obvious Skepta’s been doing this.
This show was simultaneously a celebratory homecoming and a revelation of 2016 as the year of grime, a genre with more one-offs than sustainable, tangible albums that represent a body of work.
Eric Zaworski is a writer and photographer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.