Who’d have thought back in 1999 when seminal Blackalicious EP ‘A2G’ was released, that over 15 years later they’d sell out the Queens Social Club, probably on the back of Harry Potter’s endorsement. Of course, I’m talking of viral video of Daniel Radcliffe flawlessly rapping ‘Alphabet Aerobics’ on Jimmy Fallon’s show in the US recently. This perhaps does a disservice to Blackalicious; Gift of Gab’s art of tongue-twisting and lyrically-deep emceeing paired with Chief Xcel’s infectious backing tracks has gained Blackalicious quite the cult following. The set spans their short-lived but remarkable catalogue of output; created at a time when hip-hop was going through an experimental phase and struggling to find an identity, Gab and Xcel just made the music they wanted to make; it was fun, it was fresh, and it paid homage to their peers without ever sounding derived. They display these ethics in abundance tonight, with the help of fellow West-Coasters Lifesavas, who fulfil the two-pronged role of hype men. And it works – the capacity crowd lap up every rhyme spat and every rumbling beat spun. Gab is dressed very much his age in a flat cap and glasses, and undoubtedly it takes him and the others a short time to warm up; aforementioned Alphabet Aerobics is dogged by sound problems, and Gab struggles to find time to breathe throughout the track (let’s be honest, who wouldn’t at that pace?) choosing instead to unintelligibly yell the end of lines. No one seems to care as Chief Xcel’s modest performance glues the set into a cohesive whole, and perhaps because Gab can still rap better than the majority of rap artists populating the charts, we can give him the benefit of the doubt. Sing-along ‘Deception’ showcases Blackalicious at their best; Lifesavas handle the wordless hooks and do more than enough to get the crowd involved, allowing Gab to concentrate entirely on the clever witticisms within the story of a rag-to-riches rapper who becomes the very thing he hates. The group aren’t entirely resting on their laurels either; they frequently advertise their new album, sometimes previewing chunks of new songs. There’s a danger of the set becoming disjointed and losing momentum, but it’s not long before Blackalicious plough through a string of hits – whether it’s the laidback opulence of First in Flight, the facetious wisecracks of Blazing Arrow, or the rapid spitfire of Chemical Calisthenics – they always have the crowd in the palm of their hand with relatively little effort at all.
Earlier tonight, Sheffielders Clubs & Spades proved to be the go-to support act for classic hip-hop (they supported MOP in Sheffield at the end of 2014) blasting through a set of blended of indie-rock and rap. There’s a constant high intensity with the group throughout their brief set of songs. Producers Bear Trainer and Manakin (who handle the guitar and drums live) genre-hop from indie to rock to hip-hop to funk to pop, laying the bedrock for front emcees Matic Mouth and Shinobi to find their grove in each track. And my do they do that with assurance; just as Blackalicious brought the Californian sunshine, Clubs and Spades bring the South Yorkshire grit. Best track of the evening is the catchy ‘Let me live a little’; Matic Mouth swaggers across stage oozing confidence with his Eminem-style versatile delivery, while Shinobi’s more reserved and introspective rhymes act as the perfect counterpart. The cherry on top comes in the guise of an insanely catchy hook which sees all four members at full throttle, proving that Clubs and Spades are certainly ones to watch.