The last we saw of Vinnie Paz and Ill Bill at The Forum last Friday was on a tattoo on the outstretched arm of a fan waiting outside the artist entrance of the venue. It was still red around the edges, and the two pistols on either side of the bicep had that freshly inked precision. The fan, Paul, was from Glasgow, and was making the 828 mile round-trip just for this show.
Underground hip hop artists inspire an intense devotion that comes from a life of marginalized acceptance of your heroes; when fans are put together it's like bringing flame to a magnesium rock. Their heroes are indeed marginal artists, those who, in their own way bring light to bear on minor-stream topics, from conspiracies, ultra-violence, cults and UFOs. In just four tracks by Vinnie Paz, we counted references to at least nine gods, ancient temples or mythical figures: Apollo, Prometheus, Adam, Mephistopheles, Nosferatu. Esoteric, niche, endemically underrated.
The show began with the DITC crew's O.C and A.G rapping classics like the eponymous ‘Diggin' in the Crates’ and O.C's classic: ‘Time's Up’. "You lack the minerals and vitamins irons and the niacin / Fuck who that I offend rappers sit back I'm about to begin". The bass on that tune pushed back on the crowd, smooth and velvety like O.C's flow. O.C was in all-black, long-sleeve, while his sparring partner A.G was in an orange bobble-beanie above cornrows and a mastiff-chewing-on-a-wasp scowl. O.C bigged up Big L, late of DITC, dissing bullshit radio output and into a water fight with A.G.
Looking stacked, slick and more Kanye than cagoule-and-Sennheisers, Pharaohe Monch belied the annoying soul-style of a section of his set with a bunch of classics. Included were ‘Agent Orange’, and references to slave-releasing American railroaders in ‘Free’ – "Railroad to underground like Harriet Tubman". He also remembered Nate Dogg with ‘Oh No’, his hit with the 213-er and Mos Def.
The Pharaohe's excellent 2011 album ‘W.A.R.’ was well showcased, before DJ Boogie Blind provided a masterful turntablism solo, killer behind-the-back scratches, this guy replaced Rob Swift in the X-Ecutioners and is a Vestax DJ World Championship winner.
Then came the Heavy Metal Kings – Ill Bill and Vinnie Paz. Things got particularly intense at this stage, with a selection of the tracks (including ‘Cheesesteaks’) from Paz's new album ‘God of the Serengeti’. Paz, wrapped up in black with his Muslim taqiyah, and Ill Bill a bulky presence, dressed dark in an LA Raiders coat.
They played a selection of Jedi Mind tracks, while the crowd risked a free lift to the Whittington or Royal Free hospitals with their metal-style mosh-pit shenanigans.
Later we got to meet Paz, over vodka and orange juice, in the HM Kings' small, draughty, third-storey dressing room. He told us he recorded the entirety of ‘Violent by Design’ in producer Stoupe's Philadelphia bedroom at his mother's house. The impact of that album has resonated beyond the underground vinyl-sleeve sifters of the US movement. Its standout classic, ‘Heavenly Divine’, was recited by Paz, violins descending – violins that were sampled by Stoupe in a bedroom that was soundproofed against children playing ten blocks away, as rappers Paz and Jus Allah whiled out on a combination of weed, LSD and cocaine. Paz's ‘God of the Serengeti’ album features collabos from Mobb Deep, Kool G. Rap, DJ Premier and Scarface (whom Paz met through their shared love of boxing).
By the time we leave, Paz is serving himself another Grey Goose and O.J., and it's getting colder in the dressing room. Ill Bill is well wrapped up in his Raiders coat, which is more than can be said for Paul, the tattooed über-fan, waiting by the side entrance for us to deliver his freshly signed album sleeve, so he can take it home on the 414 miles back to Glasgow.
Words by Miguel Cullen
Photos by Oliver Clasper