Live Report: Stormzy - KOKO, London.
This article originally appeared on CLASH.
I had two tickets. One for myself and the other for Phillip; a German economics student come graphic-designer who I share a desk with at work. Tonight was to be his first grime show and as we barrelled down the Northern Line towards Camden I prepped him with a Grime 101. The crowd, the reloads and if we were lucky; who to expect as special guests.
“What’s the energy like?” he asked.
“Ohh, yeah. Plenty of that.”
Ten minutes later; around seven in the evening, we’re tapping through the barriers at Mornington Crescent and staring up at the brightly-lit KOKO sign that brands itself on the evening sky like the Bat signal in deepest darkest Gotham. The stench of weed immediately smacks my nose. A line already snakes around the block. Excited murmurs and cunning queue-cutters talking down the phone. “Where abouts are you mate?” “Bruv, I’m gonna meet you by the smoking area.”
Ten past, we’re inside. Phillip heads to the toilet and I grab a beer, Desperados -London prices. He comes back and opts for a pint of Foster’s. Then we stand on the edge of the crowd. Two hours before Stormzy’s slated set time and its already half-filled.
The warm up DJ is playing rap, grime and everything in between. I finish off my beer, Phillip sips at his and we observe in silence. A final moment of peace before the soldiers are sent over the trenches, soon to be mowed down by a flurry of flailing arms that scatter like machine guns and violent mosh pits knocking you off balance as if we were under heavy mortar shelling. Phillip finishes his beer and asks where to put the plastic cup. Toss it to the floor I tell him “like a true British gig goer.”
Amongst silent frustrated glares and a litter of ‘excuse me mate’s and ‘mind out’s we push as close as possible to the front. Just in time for the first opening act. We’re to the right of the stage, under the balconies and penned in with a flock of loud girls.
My first mistake was refusing to dump my jacket in the cloakroom. The second was a lightly-coloured t-shirt. Two songs in and I’m a sweaty mess. Phillip smiles at me crassly, he looks cool, dry. The heat is suffocating, everyone else is suffering. Hundreds of us sweltering, heads glistening, t-shirts soaked through, slipping and skidding on beer varnished floor.
Mostack is the second opener. Big black shades and a blue Adidas jacket; half-singing half-rapping about disloyal friends and family ties.’ “I’ll shoot my dad for my mumma!” Crude but enjoyable. The girls in front of us scream. Gun fingers go up. The crowd heaves and moves instinctively, in sync like a shoal of cod roaming the depths of the North Seas. Left…Right…Back… Forward. I'm shoved precariously close to the far wall. I slip through some bodies to avoid getting crushed. Where was Phillip? Panic! Thinking about the guilt that would riddle me if he succumbed to a stampede during his first Grime show.
I turn to my left. He’s there. Can’t decipher the lyrics but swaying with the shoal nonetheless. More heat. More sweat. My shirt can’t be salvaged. Timid blue to a thick-dark mat, as if I’d jumped into a pool fully clothed.
Venue staff are worried now. Some appear on stage. Two burly guys in all black observing the muddled mess of sweat-ridden bodies. They whisper to the DJ to relay a message through his mic. “Guys” he starts, “the energy is great but you need to calm it down a bit.” Swiftly ignored. I’m enjoying myself now. My induction is over. I’m part of the family, the pit is mine. Mostack continues, I join in. “One shot for my enemies.” BOOM! *loud crackling shot gun shell* cackles and rumbles through the room. “Two for my frenemies!” BOOM. “Pour all your Hennessey!” BOOM BOOM!
Mostack finishes. The DJ appeals for more calm. Ignored yet again. Ninety minutes have passed. More taxing than Sunday league football though. A white screen descends and blocks half the stage from view. Bonkaz plays in the background. We wait expectantly like pie-eating season ticket holders in windy terraces before kick off. It’s suffocating and dark. I glare enviously at the guy in front of me, stretched well over six feet. The shadows of moving figures can be seen through the white screen.
I turn around and look up at the balcony. Rafters packed; even in the bleachers. Little Simz, Loyle Carner, and Sian Anderson all in attendance. The entire scene has come out. The screen begins to raise. Howls and yelps. Phones are scooped from pockets. Snapchat and Instagram loaded up. Crap! My phone! Panicked pat down. It’s teetering on the edge of my left pocket.
I shove it back into place and remove my watch and bracelets and place them in the opposite pocket. The screen is raised. Stormzy, sat on a gold-lined throne like he were the King of Westeros. He’s rapping. Not sure what, it’s impossible to tell. Screams are overbearing. He’s casually dressed. Skin fade, big full smile. Grey tracksuit –Adidas of course.
He stands and rolls into his set. ‘Nigo Duppy’ then ‘On My Own’. Cuts for the most devoted fans. He talks some more. Inaudible again. “London….my hometown…..special for me.”‘Trapping Ain’t Dead’ hums through the speakers. Section Boyz trundle onto stage. The pit caves in on itself. “015 here everyting ah get lock arf!!” Bedlam. Chaos in a burning pit of ecstasy.
Phillip and I are separated. I scan the cauldron. Mid-sized guy with blonde hair and a white t shirt. Could be anywhere. Stormzy asks if he can talk to the ladies for a moment. Baritone groans rumble from the throats of all those with an Adams apple. Swiftly drowned out by the hysterical shrieks of the female contingent. I welcome the down time. Catch my breath, mop my brow with my coat. Check my possessions are safe and then my arms for any blood.
Time out is over. ‘Not That Deep,’ erupts. The track that got the ball rolling, set him on the course from freestyles in the park to tours in Australia and then back again. We await that line like an EDM drop. Sparks of eagerness….“Never had a whip, never had Ps for a cab, couple man paid me short”….Empty circles form in the middle of the pit like craters. Brewing for another riot…. “Then I hit a lick, gave man food on the tick, couple man paid me short.”…I’m on the edge of two circles…Pick one. Left…no right! Away from the wall….“Caught him in West, he was tryna buy some creps…beat him up in JD SPORTS!!”
The familiar scent of anarchy and rage floods back. Head rush. The circle collapses and the floor disappears, lost to the hooves of the possessed. A moist arm smacks me in the face and slides down my cheek. Then a girl stumbles, overwhelmed by the surge.
Things continue down this thorny path for the next ninety minutes, every twist and turn edging us further away from KOKO norms. Lethal B arrives, followed by Chip, ‘Run Out Riddim,’ more bars for Bugzy, then Krept and Konan ‘Don’t Waste My Time,’ a Thornton Heath reunion. ‘Shut Up’ into The Wickedskengman series. Classic grime riddims. ‘Rhythm n Gash’. ‘Pied Piper’. We’re past strangers now. We’ve seen too much, been intimately meshed for too long. JME arrives. ‘Man Don’t Care’, followed by Giggs. Delirium prolonged.
The big finale is here. ‘Where Do You Know Me From’ reloaded four times. I look back at the crowd, Phillip is lost somewhere in the mess rattling with foreigners who have become family. One final reload. “I do not know this don….WHERE DO YOU KNOW ME FROM WHERE DO YOU KNOW ME FROM.” A final rebellion. Then it’s finished. Relief –we survived. Despair –it’s over. The best time of your life.
Friday morning. Phillip plumps himself at his desk and exhales a deep long breath. His hair is unusually shagged and his eyes slightly red. He looks flushed and groggily rubs his face with one hand. He clings to a cup of coffee with the other. He had mutinied during the finale, looking to find refuge in the bleachers, only to discover more of the same when he arrived.
“One of the best shows I’ve been to,” he croaks. “I would like to go to more grime events.”
Sadly, I explain to him, I don’t think there will be another like it.