British Rappers Pretending to Be Rappers


Roll Deep
Knitting Factory
August 12, 2005


Juelz Santana
East River Amphitheatre
August 13, 2005

Kano + Diplo
Knitting Factory
August 13, 2005

11:30 on a Friday night, and 50 people are standing still, staring at DJ Ayres playing “Back Then.” The blackboard in the front hall of the Knitting Factory says: “1:00: Roll Deep Crew” but also “9:00: Roger Alan Wade w/ Johnny Knoxville“, which does not even make sense. Downstairs, some metalcore band is screaming at 15 disinterested people. Eventually, maybe I’ll get used to all this stuff, but I just moved to this city four days ago, and it’s like I’m having a nightmare after passing out reading US Weekly with Sucker Free Countdown on in the background. So when alien British rappers Roll Deep finally step out onstage and start yelling over accordion-fart loops, nothing about it seems weird. In fact, it seems boring.

That’s probably because it is boring. Roll Deep is one of these vast sprawling collectives of like 40 dudes, but only four rappers and a DJ are representing the brand onstage tonight. Crew leader Wiley listlessly wanders offstage every ten minutes and occasionally complains about jetlag (and I think I see him pick his nose once). Lone white guy Scratchy, looking like a clown in a Samurai hair bun and Matrix sunglasses, hogs the mic until people stop giving it to him. Some kid in a Nike shirt raps well but never audibly identifies himself. Flo Dan, the only guy onstage with even a hint of charisma, doesn’t bother saving the show. The group has no frontman–Wiley is the guy with his name on the flier, but then 50 Cent doesn’t stand at the back of the stage and stare at his shoes at G-Unit shows (does he?). At a time when grime is supposed to be the next shit, when we can still count the number of grime MCs who have played American shows on both hands, these guys don’t seem to give a shit about us or each other. There’s no call-and-response, no crowd interaction, no commitment. The rappers fuck up and forget their words and yell over each other and fight over the mic like babies, and they do it for an hour and a half. For the last half hour, Scratchy throws a silent tantrum, standing off to the side of the stage and sullenly glaring at everyone else. The whole show was an ugly, embarrassing mess.

Here’s the thing: American rappers can get away with shows like this because they’ve got songs we’ve heard on the radio and faces we’ve seen on TV. They don’t have to work for our love; they just have to soak it up. If you’re a foreign rapper pimping an album that’s not commercially available in this country, you don’t have that luxury. We aren’t going to fall all over ourselves just because you’ve got weird beats and an accent. You need to put on a show or risk letting your entire country down. Dancehall and reggaeton guys get it. Roll Deep doesn’t.

Kano gets it. He’s got one of those slippery voices like Chamillionaire or Jody Breeze, quick and light and young and natural and weightless. When he’s rapping fast like the Micro Machines guy, he’s not doing it to show off or break Guinness-book records like Twista; he’s just making sure there’s a syllable for every snare hit. When he steps onstage at the Knitting Factory after an endless Diplo DJ set the next night, he works the crowd with a graceful buttery charm, like he’s confused but happy to find out that he’s such a big deal. And he knows how to put on a show: breakneck rapping through his most-downloaded jams, never slowing to catch his breath but sometimes stepping aside to play hypeman for his hypeman Demon, rapping over songs we know (“Dear Summer”!), never fucking up once. Kano had enough presence and energy and showmanship that it doesn’t matter that I can’t understand a single thing he says, and I don’t know whether he’s carrying all of London on his back that night or not, but he acts like he is, which that’s exactly what he needs to do.

Earlier that day, Kano should’ve had a chance to rock a crowd that didn’t entirely consist of hipster blogger dorks when he played the East River Amphitheatre with Juelz Santana. It’s the venue where the climactic jam from Wild Style took place, and the show should’ve been some full-circle divine-intervention shit, grime on hip-hop holy land, hood-style cultural exchange right before our eyes. Maybe Kano would get his own Dipset eagle! Maybe Cam would show up and freestyle over “Pow”! Maybe this afternoon would forever alter the course of rap history! But God had other plans. Just as Roll Deep was finishing up its unsurprising surprise-guest set looking as bored and lethargic as they had the previous night, the skies opened up, and the entire crowd scampered off to find shelter. (The host was yelling “This is New York! We stay in the rain!” Sorry, dude. I’m from Baltimore, and we find someplace dry in the rain.) After the rain stopped and a few people made their way back, Juelz surprised everyone by actually showing up.

Juelz Santana is pretty much garbage, the third- or fourth-best rapper in a crew with two good rappers (Cam and JR Writer), but the kids love him. The assembled throng of kids from the L.E.S. (literally children, hardly anyone over 16) absolutely lost their shit when he stepped out. Juelz played for about fifteen minutes, long enough to do his singles and short enough that it wasn’t boring. He spent twice as long signing autographs after his set as he did onstage, and he came off like a local politician giving a stump speech for a few of his supporters and kissing a few babies afterwards. Then he was gone, and the closest thing to culture exchange was when he said “Shout out to all the people from the UK.” He’s a Diplomat, not a diplomat. And that was it. All the kids left, I left, and Kano played to an empty park.