Friday evening in Manchester, The Ritz is packed out on Yasiin Bey’s promise of a classic Mos Def show. DJs hunched over two sets of turntables warm up the crowd with a crescendo of Hip-Hop history, hell-bent on covering as much ground as possible in their slot; they clatter through cut after cut, ticking boxes from the likes of Urban Thermo Dynamics, Busta Rhymes, Junior Mafia and J Dilla.
Special guests turn out to be Manchester’s own Mouse Outfit, first accompanied by long-term associate emcee Sparkz, and later Ellis Meade, the group flex their North Western approach to hip-hop on much-loved home turf. A manifestation of years of work as a collective, they succeed in supporting the weight of the headliner, reaffirming just how good Manchester voices can sound on hip-hop.
The stage is lit-up by a low crimson warmth and a single strand of Arabic as Bey appears to the Ghanaian Blues of Vis-A-Vis, hooded and cloaked, he blesses the space with rose petals from a wicker basket. Gracing the track with rhymes from Fear Not Of A Man and potent calls of ‘all over the world!’, his measure of the spoken word is perfect, as he syncopates and elides to work meters into something utterly enchanting. The Arabic remains a constant of the show, back dropped by negatives from historical African-American film, culture, ice caps and accelerated meltwater.
Bey fills the gaps in between his setlist with skits that pay homage to samples, leaping and beaming about the stage, these intervals repeatedly explode into song, such as Madlib’s Auditorium which has the whole building echoing the hook. The set proceeds to cover most of Black On Both Sides and The Ecstatic, and as the show goes on, it becomes clear that Bey is more than happy to revisit his Mos Def roots, as out of nowhere he shrieks ‘I don’t give a damn ‘bout no bad reputation!’ and drops Mathematics. As the tracklist continues to build in intensity, Bey demonstrates again his captivating quality as an artist and performer, finding a place for soul-focused tracks such as The Panties at the precipice of the set.
Bey hymns himself out with all-time classics Ms Fat Booty and Travellin’ Man, and as proceedings come to a close, a rare positivity surges throughout the building. During an evening where things were written but not told, sensation clashed with sense, and politics were present but not pushed down throats, one thing remained clear: music courses through Yasiin Bey’s veins. In this Manchester audience's eyes, all plans of his retirement can continue to be put on ice.
Words: Charlie Fyfe