fri 07/05/2021

High Focus Records showcase, Brighton Festival review - smart hip hop, dodgy sound | reviews, news & interviews

High Focus Records showcase, Brighton Festival review - smart hip hop, dodgy sound

High Focus Records showcase, Brighton Festival review - smart hip hop, dodgy sound

Exuberant Brighton label showcase featuring Ocean Wisdom, The Four Owls and Jam Baxter

The two main commands coming from the stage at this evening's Brighton Festival event are “Everybody jump, jump” and “Put your hands in the air and go side-to-side”. The crowd are mostly under 30 and emanate dancing energy from the moment the doors open, as DJ Molotov warms up. The set-up is basic, a DJ and some mics, but that’s as it should be for, on one level, this evening takes hip hop back to its Bronx block party origins, away from all the bling nonsense that’s taken it over. On another level, it’s a very British affair.

High Focus, a Brighton record label founded in 2010, are probably best known for backing the early career of 2017 breakout artist Rag’n’Bone man, and releasing his “Bluestown EP” debut. However, among many connoisseurs of UK hip hop, they’ve established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, moving the genre away from the Autotune cheese of lame US stars such as Drake and Fetty Wap, and focusing on the genre’s core values of lyricism and back-to-basics beats.

Jam Baxter is on first, a rapper who’s been with High Focus since they began. Clad in hip hop's regulation baggy jeans and top – which comes off to reveal a white T-shirt - he's jokey between songs, advising any “youngers” in the audience “not to take pharmaceuticals and go to Mansion 38”. He then lets loose with cuts from his own recent album of that name. His enthusiasm is contagious. He’s followed by The Four Owls, a collaboration between MCs Fliptrix, Verb T, BVA and Leaf Dog, each rated in their own right before hooking up to put together their 2011 debut album, Nature’s Greatest Mystery, which was an early breakthrough for the label. Initially wearing masks (pictured above), their verbal interaction is honed and slick, as they bounce around bursting with vitality. They hype up the crowd but the tunes, including songs from last year’s Natural Order album, are partly lost amid murky sound.

Tonight’s big problem is the sound system, which is, sadly, not really up to the task at hand. It appears that it's being over-driven, the bass is distorted and the words which, of course, are everything in real hip hop become an imprecise stew. The effect is to render the skilled flows of these MCs a dense attack of indiscernible barking. Because you can’t hear what they’re saying, after a while their MCing just becomes a jarring metronomic hammering. The crowd don’t seem to mind. Many of them already know the words anyway, and all have come to party.

Headliner Ocean Wisdom suffers least from these problems. Either the system has been tweaked, or he’s able to enunciate beyond whatever the issue is. He’s one of the fastest MCs in the world, officially head-to-head with Eminem. Clad in a black top, with combat trousers, a beanie hat and a neck-chain, and accompanied by his own hype man, he rips into his debut album of early last year, Chaos ’93, its diary-like tales, sometimes based in Brighton where he lives, machine-gunning from his mouth, a staccato attack that’s nothing short of thrilling.

Unfortunately, following Ocean Wisdom's every move closely is a guy with a camera on a steadicam. He's an extremely annoying visual distraction. He’s clearly getting rubbish footage, usually from behind the action, but he shadows the performers ceaselessly, bouncing around, and enjoying the excitement of being onstage. Whoever let him on made a drastic error of judgement. His presence takes away from the show's impact and just looks crap. I was not alone in observing this.

Nonetheless, Ocean Wisdom is a next-level talent who will likely be bursting out of the UK hip hop micro-verse to higher profile success soon. Despite the iffy sound and the over-enthusiastic camera dude, he topped off a likeable night boosted by a crowd buzzing with youthful zest and energy.

Overleaf: Watch the video for "Walkin'" by Ocean Wisdom

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