Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Straight Outta Compton, Straight Into Camden



Oh yes - almost forgot. The best night of the summer was, a little surprisingly, a stifling July evening in ever-unprepossessing Camden Town. Here at the Electric Ballroom, to be precise.

We began it standing at the back as usual, arms folded and heads nodding, while the DJ span old gold of the Onyx or Gang Starr ilk for an hour or two. A pretty relaxed crowd, some truly great music. Around ten o'clock, though, it was time for the main event: in person, in a London club, it was none other than Ice Cube.

He'd promised "just me, two turntables and microphone, old-style", but the precise line-up was this. One Ice Cube, of course, on the mic. A man who memorably described himself as "an actor / a rapper / a macker / got a little problem with the redneck cracker" but could now probably add to the CV, "a film director, although with substantially diminishing comedic returns ever since 'Friday'". The unfortunately-named WC - pronounced Dub-C - on second mic, meaning that two-thirds of Westside Connection were in the um, motherfucking house (only Mack-10 absent). And his DJ, Crazy Tunes (as in "when you see Crazy Tunes / throw up the W"), on those decks.

Tonight, Cube claims he hasn't played London for 13 years, although even his publicist reckons it's really more like two. But it's really strange - given that he's an established multimedia millionaire - how much he really wants to be loved by this relatively small audience, even down to exhorting purchase of his new album, as if a few hundred copies would be a dent in its sales, while WC reminds us that we can buy T-shirts at the back, as if the trio are merely an indie band trying to recoup their petrol costs. But it's as sweet as it's strange.

Cube is perhaps understandably bitter that his own role in rap taking off gets forgotten as the years roll by: at one point, WC pre-rehearsedly asks us "Who started this gangsta rap shit ?" "Ice-T!" shouts D'Alma. "Schoolly D!" says I. "Ice Cube", yells everyone else, and the man is suitably pacified. Instead, faceless multinationals bear the brunt of his ire: Viacom are singled out for their role in having prostituted true hip-hop. We're too shy to point out that there were many willing collaborators, although Ice Cube was most certainly not one of them.

There are some tunes from the album he's allegedly promoting, "Raw Footage", but frankly not that many. Which gives time for everything from "Check Yo' Self" (over "The Message"), to "We Be Clubbin'" to "You Can Do It" to "Bop Nation" to Westside Connection's "Bow Down" and longtime ilwttisott favourite "The Nigga You Love To Hate", the song that best illustrates how the Bomb Squad reignited both Ice Cube's talent and career: after leading us in several choruses of its cheery "Fuck you, Ice Cube!" refrain, Cube finishes with a sentimental, coy "Aw, fuck you too, man". There's also "Gangsta Nation", from Westside Connection's "Terrorist Threats", before which Cube and WC formally inducted all of us into tha Connection. Which was nice. And, of course, "It Was A Good Day", unsubtly adapted ("nobody I know got killed in the UK"). Indeed, Cube has a few words on a current crisis (this was in the midst of that midsummer media alarm, especially where the victims were white, over stabbings): "It ain't the music. It's the conditions".

Halfway thru, Cube wanders offstage to take a breather, while WC gives us a turn of his own. It's a little like Bruce Foxton being given three minutes to do a bass solo at a Jam gig, but still brilliant. From behind the stage, we then hear Cube mock-pleading. "I'm only coming back out if you let me do some of that old-skool hardcore gangsta shit", he says, with a faux-grumpiness that his Boyz In Da Hood character, Doughboy, would have been proud of. When we all, somewhat predictably, go gaga raging mental, he storms back on and delivers his verses from "Straight Outta Compton" and "Gangsta Gangsta" (best version since Snoop and C-Murder's). It's not far off Yo Rosehip doing "Designer Greed": it flays us, and when we do eventually tip, topple, stumble out into the Camden grey, we almost swear we can make out those lights of the Goodyear blimp, shining down official confirmation that Cube is, indeed, a pimp.

Gosh. Even now, we're stunned that such a big star played such a storming, intimate set at a club venue. And that we got in. But, even now, we are extremely grateful. And like Flav, not so long ago, Ice Cube really looks made up. "I'm gonna come back every year", he promises boldly. Let's hope so.