Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) has a history of patchy Australian performances. But his RISING show? Ecstatic – Double J

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“I look to my left… and there’s the motorcycle from motherf**king Purple Rain!”

Nobody expected to be regaled with a yarn about meeting Prince when they bought a ticket to see Yasiin Bey in Melbourne at this year’s RISING festival. But here we are.

A few songs into his charismatic performance, the US rapper/sometimes actor/full time rap preservationist is spinning a yarn about being hustled out of his hotel room at 3am, on tour back in 2009, for a fabled encounter with the Purple One. And this is all “less than 30 days after Michael Jackson died,” he adds.

Historic parameters indeed, and tonight fittingly holds a prestigious sense of occasion.

Yasiin Bey is here to mark that 15 years ago – to the day – he dropped The Ecstatic, arguably the greatest hip hop album of 2009.

It was also the last he made as Mos Def – the name the Brooklyn-bred MC built his career on in the late ’90s as one half of Black Star with Talib Kweli, then with debut solo album Black On Both Sides.

Towards the end of the 2000s, however, after a few patchy albums and a Hollywood detour into acting, The Ecstatic was seen as a much-needed comeback. It did not disappoint.

Boasting incredible, globetrotting production and a renewed sense of politically-driven lyrical purpose, Bey’s presence and bars are “magnetic, the flows are athletic”, to quote celebratory closer ‘Casa Bey‘.

The album sounds as fresh as ever booming out across the gathered masses at PICA, a giant warehouse space in Port Melbourne more accustomed to hosting electronic raves than rap luminaries.

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After arriving on stage nonchalantly, and offering an impromptu sing of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’, Bey performs The Ecstatic in full (with some deviations) under stark blue lighting and a simple video backdrop.

‘Supermagic’ immediately gets bodies unwinding with its Turkish psych rock energy, and the Neptunes-produced ‘Twilite Speedball’ keeps them moving with its swaggering, sinister horn blasts and guitar licks.

It’s a treat to hear the DJ play out the source material for the album’s eclectic sampling, spanning Middle Eastern strings, Latin and reggae grooves, Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, and Ihsan Al-Munzer, the Lebanese godfather of belly dance disco.

The highlights are many: the rumbling percussion of ‘Quiet Dog Bite Hard’, the weed-soaked boom bap of ‘Priority’, and ‘Auditorium’, a Bollywood-sampling banger produced by Madlib featuring a stunning verse from Slick Rick opposing the US occupation of Iraq from the perspective of a soldier, which Bey respectfully lets play out over the speakers.

The anti-war sentiments of that song, and later ‘Revelations’, hit particularly hard given the Israel-Palestine conflict. But Bey (who converted to Islam in his late teens) doesn’t lean too heavily into political messaging on stage.

Yasiin Bey’s bigger tracks sounded even better over PICA’s booming sound system.()

The Ecstatic‘s hallowed status has only heightened over the years due to its absence on streaming services (allegedly owing to a combination of sample clearing and record label disputes). Plus, being the last body of work before Bey retired the Mos Def name in 2011 because he feared it was “being treated as a product, not a person.”

The name-change underscored Yasiin Bey’s integrity, viewed as an artist who put hip hop culture and artistic credibility first, everything else a distant second, including his own recorded output.

His string of high-profile collaborations – everyone from Kanye West and Gorillaz to DJ Shadow and The Roots – only increased his cultural cache. The kind that ensures folks still pay attention when he says something significant, like when he made headlines in January after decrying Drake as “likeable” pop music best heard while shopping at Target.

(Strangely prophetic, given Bey’s comments came three months before Drake was savagely stripped down in a very public feud with Kendrick Lamar.)

However, Yasiin Bey’s touring reputation Down Under? Less bulletproof.

He’s helped reinforce the cliché that rappers are a risky Australian booking. A disastrous 2010 tour brought an Australian promoter to tears. And on his last visit, in 2014, was a no-show at half his scheduled dates, then later cancelled a US tour citing “immigration/legal issues”.

The fact Yasiin Bey is actually in the country right now (playing RISING, Vivid in Sydney and Brisbane) is an achievement in itself. It’s a delight to see him and hear The Ecstatic in the flesh after so long.

Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) spray paints the side of the DJ decks at his Melbourne show for Rising Festival, Sunday 9 June, 2024
Yasiin Bey, hip hop’s great eccentric.()

That he’s enjoying himself doing it? The cherry on top. 

Whether it’s the jolt of revisiting some of his greatest and most energetic tunes after so many years, or simply spinning like a top to the music, he’s having a ball.

He’s always been skilled on the mic, but Yasiin Bey is better thought of as one of hip hop’s great eccentrics.

His old school raps are often punctuated with mercurial singing, and tonight he recreates much of the album’s distinctive vamping or exhibits his off-beat persona by dropping fistfuls of flower petals for dramatic effect.

He does sometimes toe the line.

After a potent rendition of ‘The Embassy’, he begins talking shit about coming up with a hokey TV shadow concept (“detective thriller in blaxploitation style”) that morphs into an anti-commercial ramble about the current state of the world being like an episode of Looney Tunes.

“You either Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, or ACME. And you know who don’t give a f**k about Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner? ACME.” 

Then, he spells out the metaphor. “The government is ACME.” But rather than being an embarrassing, self-indulgent moment, it’s a highly entertaining detour.

Expecting the unexpected is all part of the Yasiin Bey experience and left-field diversions – like showcasing some unreleased material or taking a breather for an a capella, prayer-like moment mid-set – spice up what would’ve otherwise risked being a nostalgic, front-to-back album anniversary show.

“I might go overtime” he suggests impishly towards the end of the set. 

He doesn’t, which is a shame for anyone hoping for some extra hits tacked onto the end of the set, or even some MF DOOM covers (given Bey had performed his tribute show to the late, great metal-faced rapper the night before at Melbourne Town Hall).

Those would’ve been nice to have, but the show is satisfying as it is: a hugely enjoyable and long overdue performance from an artist confident to get weird and walk his own artistic path, even in the live setting.

As the last triumphant loops of show-stopping ‘Casa Bey’ ring out to pealing applause, the audience savours what the one-of-a-kind Yasiin Bey offers, no matter what name, what time, or however and whenever it comes our way.

Yasiin Bey plays Sydney’s Carriageworks for VIVID Live on Wednesday 12 and Thursday 13 June, then Brisbane’s Eatons Hill Hotel on Friday 14 June.

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