The death, rebirth, and re-death of hip hop music is a continuing cycle that has been foretold, discussed, and beaten into the ground so often that it seems to be a career staple for any artist that will willingly embrace the label. The genre itself seems to be in a constant struggle to maintain relevance as an art form, and as a powerful method of expression, while also battling to remain incredibly popular and appealing to fans of all creeds and backgrounds. There is a constant race to be the next big MC, the next hot producer, or to do something wholly original with your performance that eschews established “rules” of hip hop in favor of something fresh, but also accessible. Adding a set of live instruments, and a thunderous stage presence during his delivery, are two key elements that South African hip hop newcomer Spoek Mathambo (pronounced “Spook Mah-tem-bo,” real name Nthato Mokgata) is using to shatter such conventional stylings, and bring startlingly bright life into the world of beats and rhymes.
The dimly-lit Brick & Mortar Music Hall played host to the Johannesburg electrorap prince on Wednesday night, along with a decently-sized ensemble of MCs and beatmakers that hailed from both sides of the U.S. to blast through the first few hours of the long evening, which lasted till well past midnight. San Francisco local Armani Cooper kicked things off with a short but marvelous set, bathed in unmoving lights but with rapid-fire rhyme delivery and powerful diction, carving out each syllable with excellent form over a mishmash of warbling beats and cleverly sprinkled samples. Despite a minimal response from the slowly-assembling crowd during his performance, Cooper was not deterred in his enthusiasm, leaping off the stage to offer his own thrashing steps to the dancefloor before the end of his set.
This seemed to get a jolt of energy pumping into the assembled onlookers, who positively exploded into a chaotic chorus of dancing and fist-pumping mayhem when the Los Angeles MC known as Duckwrth took the stage. Accompanied by a diverse collection of guest vocalists, and, eventually, their own fans dancing with them onstage, the young but wildly energetic Duckwrth hurled his rhymes at the crowd, ensnaring huge groups at a time to shout, dance, and even mosh about with him, bringing the room up to a writhing frenzy by the end of his tenure onstage. The last of the openers was New York native Pegasus Warning, who was the first act of the evening to abandon a vocal-only opening in favor of taking command of the drumkit that had been, thus far, sitting in the shadows on the side of the stage. The passionate beatmaker gave his own intriguing set, bouncing back and forth between scratchy but delicate crooning and fiercely powerful rapping, all the while taking turns on both the drumkit and a bare microphone, the latter of which he accompanied with some swaggering dance steps.
After Pegasus Warning’s extremely brief but dynamite set, it was only a small wait before the man of the evening finally took the stage, bringing the previous act back onto the drums and adding a guitarist to accent the otherworldly tunes pumped out of Spoek’s laptop. Clad in a multihued psychedelic shawl, Spoek wasted no time in putting together his fantastically dense, shimmeringly lush arrangements within the confines of his computer, and once his backing track was secure, proceded to pounce upon his collection of mics and deliver a furious verbal hurricane, thunderous in its delivery and unctuous in its tone. Each song blended a variety of ideas, concepts, and worlds of sound, some wandering on for many long minutes, and others chopped alarmingly short before hurtling into the next number. All the while, Spoek kept the energy of his crowd at a marvelous peak, hopping back and forth from his rig to the edge of the stage, encouraging the waving and fist-pumping arms of his audience to come closer and closer, to be drawn into the whirlwind performance that he unleashed before them.
The instrumentation on Spoek Mathambo’s tracks is so vivid and concentrated that it feels like an entirely different type of music. The MC’s delivery, reminiscent of classic rapid-fire acts with military-grade precision and a playful sense of mischief, is in no way buried under the dense soundscapes, but complements them in an excellent manner. Spoek’s interactions with his band, and the audience around him, embody all of the qualities of a full-blown rockstar, even on the tiny stage that held him on this late Wednesday night. In addition to tracks that loop effortlessly and give him room to breathe and dance, Spoek constructs the foundations of many of his beats while onstage, often trading looks and nods with the other musicians onstage as one would do as the frontman of a live band, rather than solely grasping onto the spotlight and letting the automated world come to life behind him. A projector was also set up to provide a dizzying array of visuals, all of them festive and strongly glowing with an 8-bit-graphic retro feel, which served to compliment the potpourri of colors that was Spoek’s various layers of clothing, and the alienlike atmosphere of electronic sounds that pulsed against the walls of the Brick & Mortar Music Hall.
Having heard about Spoek Mathambo through many regaling tales from SXSW, I was excited to see the MC in full form with his live band, and was incredibly happy to see him live more than up to the expectations I had crafted from extensive listening of his new record, Father Creeper. His onstage charisma and delivery are mesmerizing, and he is in no way crippled with the stigma of frontman-egotism; his joy to share the stage with his band, his openers, and even some of his more excited fans is as palpable as the white-hot energy he uses to spit rhymes and paint sonic landscapes of staggering beauty. The two songs I clearly recognized in his set, a cover of “Control” by Joy Division and his own original tune “Let Them Talk”, were fantastic, both for the quench of my musical thirsts and for the brilliant originality that Spoek and his band used to truly make the live versions unique while still delightfully recognizable. With a performance like this leading to a densely-packed Bricks & Mortar Music Hall, with nearly all of the audience emotionally and energetically drained by the end of his set, Spoek Mathambo is poised to take the world of hip hop by storm — and you’re advised to get caught up in it.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.