Some might think that Wednesday nights are pretty boring in Ottawa, with not much really going on around town. Sometimes that may be the case, but not last week. RockSteady Bookings presented a hip hop night called Bars & Breakbeats at Babylon that featured a bill stacked with local artists Lost Kids, Spitten Image, CrooKid Bass, Alex Silas & The Subterraneans, as well as a special guest act from Chicago called Sidewalk Chalk.
With The Subterraneans’ J2xF manning the decks, there was plenty of action right off the bat. The MC for the night, Shaun “Sully” Sullivan, got people all riled up from the get-go. Sully is involved with the thriving slam poetry and hip hop scene here in Ottawa, and dropped a bunch of verses for us to begin the night. I’ve gained a huge appreciation for slam poetry and the impact it can have, and this was exemplified by Sully as he rhymed about a whole range of things – from everyday life issues to speaking about the state of our society. He spoke eloquently and his rhythm was solid, going from a calm disposition to a more emotive, and at times aggressive, style. This is the beauty of spoken word, the ability to convey thoughts and ideas directly into people’s psyche without any gimmicks – just him and his mic.
Alex Silas joined Sully on the floor and rhymed with him back and forth, as they wove in and out through the crowd as we all listened intently. Together, they performed a track off Silas’ 2014 record Roots which confronts substance abuse called “Alpine”. This opening part was deep and emotionally-charged, and the audience clearly connected with both Sully and Silas. Silas slipped up a little bit as I’m sure he was just getting warmed up, but I was impressed at how quickly he laughed it off and jumped right back into it without a problem. If you are not familiar with Alex Silas, he’s a talented rapper who spits so quickly I’m sure that he needs many facial muscle warm-ups to perform.
A drunken mind speaks a sober heart,
and if life imitates art,
then the mistakes I’ve made
are inspiration for bars.
Reflections of myself in the mirrors at bars,
understand what I really am
but try not to take it so hard.
The first official act Lost Kids got up on stage next. I hadn’t heard of these guys before and was interested to see what they had to offer. Right away this duo got the crowd to come up closer and get into it, and it was obvious that they were really comfortable and enjoying themselves on stage. Their samples were good, I was bobbing to it after 10 seconds. The chemistry between Dima and Nick was apparent, and their styles complimented each other well. Their set was dynamic, going from smooth and sultry to aggressive and in-your-face throughout. Their transitions were pretty much flawless, except for one point in the set where they stopped and seemed confused. J2xF kept the beats going while Dima and Nick communicated briefly. Then, out of nowhere, they both launched into a verse and relit the fire. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but the effect it had was pretty great. They even had a track that included the creepy whistling from Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which was a nice little addition. I was really impressed with what Lost Kids brought to the table, and how good they were at working the crowd in their favour.
After a little break another Ottawa rapper, Clayton “CB” Hawkins, better known as Spitten Image, took to the stage. At this point more and more people were making their way in and Babylon was filling up nicely, which isn’t bad for a mid-week show. Spitten Image gave a shout out to Ottawa ex-pats MC Tragic and Jonny Rockwell of Philly Moves, with whom he has toured and recently collaborated with on a new album coming out soon. He was also a late addition to open on the Action Bronson bill a while back, which I’m sure was an insane show.
It was disappointing to see people move away from the stage as he started his set. He had a good sense of humour and even said a little joke to get people’s attention, but for some reason everyone hung out by the bar. Spitten Image wasn’t the fastest or most technically sound rapper on the bill, and maybe that’s why the crowd didn’t immediately get hyped up. However, his lyrical content was intelligent and for those of us who were paying attention closely, it was a treat to hear him live. His beats were really solid and his transitions were at times a bit drawn out, but his character and personality between songs made up for the break in flow.
I was also impressed that he took the time to promote college radio, which he explained was one of the only ways to hear real hip hop on the airwaves late at night. He finished his set with an “emotional” track, which he jokingly admitted was dedicated to the ladies because it’s obligatory for rappers to do that once in a while. Be sure to look out for his new album in the coming months, I’m sure it will be filled with a lot of great tracks based on the new ones I heard during his performance.
Next on the bill was CrooKid Bass, a project consisting of Ottawa MCs KING and Yu$$o. Right away they got my attention by teleporting me back to my adolescence with the opening chord progression of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (mind you, with some added bass that I don’t think Krist Novoselic had any part in recording). The song is called “Kurt Kobain” and features a collaboration with local hip hop group BASTARDS who joined them on stage. The track has a lot of references to Nirvana and Kurt, including a bunch of song and album titles, Frances Bean, Courtney Love, heroin, and of course, a shotgun to the head. It was something different and unexpected.
KING and Yu$$o were a real highlight of the night for me, and seeing two powerhouses of hip hop in Ottawa come together like that was exciting. They were coordinated, focused, and technically on-point. But they were also having fun and got the crowd back up to the front and into the music. Their beats were significantly heavier than any of the bands on the bill that night, but it never detracted from the fact that the lyrics and flow remained the centrepiece of their performance. My favourite track by them was “Royal Squadron,” which they busted out on Wednesday and for me was a high point of the night.
For me the last set of the night was the “hip hop hippie” Alex Silas and the Subterraneans, a full-band hip hop/rock group with Silas up front as the MC. There was a pretty long break between acts at this point, and the band had to set up all their stuff. I did find that it disrupted the momentum of the night a bit, and it looked like the band was all set to play for a while before they started. There might have been a sound issue to resolve, which could have been resolved by setting up and sound checking earlier in the night. But that’s not always a possibility with a full band, so I’m sure there was a good reason for it.
Once the band started playing, Silas did a great job at reinvigorating the audience and regaining a lot of momentum. He even came out into the crowd and made the audience a part of the show, which got everyone up front right in on the action. The band sounded really great too, lead by the ferocious beats of drummer Matt Robillard a.k.a Pyjama Matty. While I really enjoyed their 2014 album Roots, seeing the band play live was a whole new experience. One really experiences the full force of blending an solid MC with talented instrumentalists. The music was raw and in your face, booming and penetrating. They even threw little toy bears out into the crowd during their song “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” which he explained he got while on a recent trip to China backpacking. A few tech issues on stage didn’t stop them from commanding the stage. Silas even lost is mic cord at one point and kept rapping unplugged until he reconnected the cable and jumped right back in. Bad ass.
Unfortunately I missed the final act of the night Sidewalk Chalk from Chicago due to other commitments, but I heard from a few people that they had a great show. All of the acts are definitely worth checking out – there is something for everyone. There was a real sense of community there, and I could tell that all the artists, fans, and everyone else involved support each other a lot. It’s exciting to not only see such talented acts perform under one roof, but to see them all take responsibility for strengthening their own community and music scene.
Don’t miss the next edition of Bars and Breakbeats happening on March 20 at Mavericks featuring The Dead Centuries, Bull Domino, Mr. Sauga, Prett Melberts, and Amanda Lowe.