When you place two hip hop acts on different stages at the same time, then you are asking heads to choose. Factor in the thought that one of those acts is notorious for being tardy for the party and let her prove you right and most heads would opt to give Pharoahe Monch a chance to wow them. And wow us he did.
Having started out with the likes of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Monch was clad in a military jacket with gold studs and his band, The Renegades, were in all black. With no frills or extras or people levitating in the pit, Monch performed songs from Internal Affairs, Desire and his latest album, W.A.R. People were positively giddy when he performed the uncensored version of Got You and in between that, scratches by his DJ Boogie Blind sealed the deal.
By the time Monch told us: “One thing I f****** notice, it’s a beautiful thing to be home. Rakim said it ain’t where you’re from it’s where you’re at. Tonight I’m blessed to be at the jazz fest rocking with ya’ll,” there was only a small crowd of the “ya’ll” he spoke of gathered at the Bassline stage. In a matter of moments, those who were disappointed by the “sound glitches” that Lauryn Hill was experiencing were flooding the Bassline.
Never mind that the outdoor venue made the sound bounce back so that if you were at the back, you’d hear echoes of Monch and crew. The sound smoothed out when the field filled up. During his set, Monch began rapping over claps courtesy of the crowd and that transitioned into the classic, My Life Is All I Have. Smooth.
His back-up singer, Mela Machinko, as the Americans say, took us to church with her soaring vocals on that song. His next song, Push, felt stripped down and intimate and was only topped by his performance of So Good (where he delicately put his hands around the mic and kept his eyes closed) on the sensual scale.
Following a good but not great performance of Still Standing – which originally features the absent Jill Scott – Monch honoured Nate Dogg with the famous “smoke weed every day” part of The Next Episode which seguewayed into Oh No, on which he collaborated with Nate Dogg and Mos Def. The show was catapulted into an 11 out-of-10 performance when he performed the crowd favourite, Simon Says, where he brought everyone including Jean Grae (whom he performed Assassins with) out to create a mosh-pit like vibe on set.
Before Grae shared the stage with him, Monch introduced her as “Cape Town’s own Miss Jean Grae” and “the baddest motherf****** lyricist in the game right now”. In my humble opinion, he’s not wrong. Had it not been for her set being cut short, Grae’s would have been the highlight of my weekend. She kicked things off with Uh-Oh, which is already a great bass heavy song but sounds even better when a band plays it live.
On Friday night, the daughter of SA jazz legends, Sathima Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim, Grae delivered the sentimental Black Girl Pain (which is a verse shouting out black girls everywhere) with a smile on her face. A voice-over that claims that “if women have a relationship with money, it’s a dysfunctional one” was the intro to one of several new songs she played.
On the next song, one she referred to as a blues joint, she hadn’t even got into the rap part of the song when the Cape Town wind blew the huge screen behind her almost off its hinges. The drummer, in classic “the show must go on” mode, kept playing even though he was engulfed in black cloth that was being pushed by the screen.
“That is a powerful song,” laughed Grae.
What Grae’s and Monch’s bands had over the other hip hop bands that performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival was that they were tight live bands. While Gugulethu’s own Ill Skillz also had a band, it wasn’t one that was in sync.
There was a point where Uno July, one of two rappers, was directing their male vocalist on how to sing Coolest In The City. And the time when DJ ID (also a part of Ill Skillz) played Ill Skillionaire that didn’t utilise the band and the guitarist could be found yawning on stage.
Ill Skillz looked nervous, no doubt, but it was when the band was quiet that Jimmy Flexx (the other rapper) spat verses a cappella that their usual robust confidence returned to the stage. A cool moment was actually when Flexx stripped down a song they’d just performed and sweetly articulated the chorus in a nonchalant way. The rap group also brought Cape Town’s 5th Floor and Reason, in different songs, on to the stage.
A certified scene-stealer, Flexx had another golden moment when July told the crowd that they were from Gugulethu. Flexx actually says they’re “refugees from Transkei”. What was even more special was when the drummer followed that statement, right on cue, with a remix of Sting’s Englishman In New York when Flexx sang, “Oh, oh, I’m a refugee, I’m a legal refugee from Transkei.” It may be called the Jazz Festival, but this year, the hip hop acts really brought it.
Even Lauryn Hill who performed most of her songs as though she were a speed demon because she allegedly is not legally allowed to perform any material from the record-breaking debut album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, in their original forms. Because I couldn’t tear myself away from Monch’s rousing performance, I caught the tail end of Hill’s show and if there’s anything to be said, it’s that her skin looks flawless.