Jay-Z fully kicked open the door for hip hop at Glastonbury in 2008 and with reviewers, revellers and the Eavis' all thoroughly convinced, the organisers followed suit and invited Q-Tip to perform at last year's event.
The talisman this year comes in the form of the musician-cum-actor, Mos Def, but will the New York political rapper be enough to entice festival-goers away from a U2 headline performance? Alex Fahey went to his Shepherds Bush Empire gig to find out…
Mos Def is a man en vogue. 2009 for him brought a critically acclaimed album in the form of 'The Ecstatic'; a sold-out UK tour, a collaboration with blues duo The Black Keys and the invitation to work with Damon Albarn on the new Gorillaz's album. This relentless schedule has only served to cement his reputation as one of the hottest rappers around.
Tonight brings down the curtains on Mos Def's mini UK tour and the atmosphere is brimming with anticipation: clearly Dante Terrell Smith-Bey has a following that runs deeper than his success of last year.
At Worthy Farm this coming June the rapper will be backed by a live band, but tonight he’s flagged either side by two DJs. Undoubtedly his acting skills have contributed to his stage presence, he is clearly in control of the assembled audience as they shout on his command but he doesn’t provide enough visually, mainly staying in one position swaying for the majority of the set.
His accompanying DJs are a focus throughout, nodding to one another and raising their arms when Mos Def turns to face them, but bar a few scratches they rarely break a sweat. They inter-disperse the set, much to the delight of the crowd, with classic hip hop hooks including Buffalo Gals’ ‘Hey DJ’ and Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, the former more a nod to the DJs than the recently departed Malcolm McLaren.
The focus on the evening is ‘The Ecstatic’ which dictates the set list. Mos Def opens with ‘Super Magic’ which immediately engages the crowd, who have been staring stage-bound in anticipation for the at least 45 minutes. Their response is to raise arms skywards and cheer riotously, before nodding rapturously to the electric guitar hook.
Shying away from fan-favourites, Mr Def decides to gamble with tracks from his latest offering, but such is the wealth of the newer material the set-list doesn't even register as a blip.
A run of ‘Priority’, ‘Life in Marvellous Times’ – which already thrills like it belongs among the Greatest Hits canon – and ‘Revelations’ is a daring move but one that elates the crowd. After each song the fans respond with a huge cheer but an even louder cheer is reserved for ‘Auditorium’.
The Madlib produced track, with its subtle middle-Eastern influences, is the stand out track on the album but tonight, omitting the talented Slick Rick, the track falls a little flat. Slick Rick's verse, a conversation with an Iraqi kid, remains on the backing track but as it plays Mos Def crosses his arms and nods in agreement, where as more energetic artists would have used to stage to make it into more of a performance.
Dressed in a flat cap, white shirt with an undone bow tie, Mos Def looks like an English gentleman and as he interacts with the audience between songs he plays the part.
“Thank you for coming out tonight, you could have been anywhere in the world,” he raps, as Jay-Z does on ‘Izzo,’ allowing the crowd to finish it for him: “but you’re here with me. I appreciate that.” It’s these subtle interplays which keep the audience wholly engaged throughout the performance.
Along with the quotes and his DJs dropping classic hooks it is the familiarity that propels the show forward. Tonight when Mos Def does re-visit his earlier work he chooses to avoid bigger hits such as ‘Ms Fat Booty’ and ‘Rock n Roll’ instead enlisting ‘Travellin’ Man’, on which he guested for DJ Honda and ‘Umi Says’, not that this is to the dislike of the crowd.
On tonight’s performance and with an eye towards his Glastonbury spot, Mos Def could be an impeccable entertainer. He’s engaging and charismatic and the songs, new and old, stand out for themselves. With the backing of a band on the West Holt stage expect more entertainment than U2 on the Pyramid Stage, a more energetic Mos Def and a more hit laden set list – not that the crowd care this evening.