Anticipation over Just Jam had been building for weeks. The event, curated by East London photographers Tim And Barry and due to be held at the Barbican on Saturday, had one of the best lineups of the year so far – but just days before the show it was announced that it had been cancelled following pressure from the City of London Police.
When I tried to speak to Tim And Barry on the day of the cancellation the sense of stress was palpable. They had a prepared press release but weren’t able to answer questions – and it turns out this was because they were making arrangements for the entire, extraordinary Barbican lineup, including Omar Souleyman, JME, Mount Kimbie, and RP Boo, to appear on a livestream, broadcast from one of the smallest rooms in a Brick Lane club.
I met Barry at the door of 93 Feet East, a venue that has had its own share of police problems having been shut down after a heavy-handed raid under the Met’s controversial Operation Condor. The raid, which saw dozens of police in riot gear rushing into the venue, yielded just a handful of arrests for minor offences, and yet the venue was still forced to close for several months. Barry leads me up two flights of stairs of the sort you might expect to find in a mid-century tenement block, into a tiny room on the top floor. “Perfect timing,” he says. “We’ve just started.”
Needless to say, the room is nothing like the Barbican Hall. That venue is cavernous but this tiny upstairs corner bar has a capacity of maybe 70, and there are perhaps a dozen people in it. The room is bisected by a false wall, out of which has been cut a small arch and two smaller windows. The back wall is covered in paper to make a blue screen, as has the table in front of it. At the back of the room a couple of people are huddled around an iMac, a Macbook, and a monitor in a flight case, directing the livestream. The monitor display is split into a series of separate shots, some showing different angles from the five cameramen positioned in front of the makeshift stage, and two others showing the livestream itself, on which the action is backed by the hallmark woozy-psychy visuals that have become the signature of Tim And Barry’s Don’t Watch That web TV show.
Tension levels amongst the crew seem to undulate over the course of the evening. It’s a big production: nearly half a dozen camera operators, sound guys, runners, presenter Crack Stevens, and Tim And Barry themselves at times all move at a speed that suggests intense agitation. Everyone is wearing earpieces through which they’re obviously supposed to be able to communicate, but in fact these seem to be completely useless, to the point at which Barry can frequently be heard bellowing instructions at crew members from across the room, trying to make himself heard over a lineup that begins with Swamp 81’s Loefah and Chunky and gets progressively rowdier.
The atmosphere is somewhere between TV studio, mid-00s grime rave, and remarkably relaxed house party. There are never more than about 30 people in the room. Artists come and go, wandering between the bar and the green room, and the vibe changes as they do – but the one constant is RP Boo. Never before has a man been more content at a show. The artist now widely credited as the originator of footwork spends the evening in what looks like raptures, dancing to everything alongside a progressively more inebriated J-Cush, shaking everybody’s hand, and taking endless videos on his phone. Kurupt FM has him in stitches – unlike his dancer Lightbulb, who doesn’t seem to appreciate the joke at all.
Speaking of jokes, midway through the evening SOPHIE’s haircut comes to deconstruct some commercial hip-hop, as is the vogue. The producer’s appearance had been billed all night as a "special set", and it turns out that the "special" element is a woman in a PVC catsuit sitting in the corner of the room pretending to make smoothies. During the course of the 20 minute set she mimes blending various objects in her smoothie maker and uses an aubergine as a telephone while reading a GCSE flute handbook and trying to play a Hoover extension.
The evening really begins to get special, though, with the appearance of JME, Big Narstie, and Preditah. Big Narstie later tweets that their show “felt like an old skool grime set in 04” and that is exactly the vibe, the MCs sounding brutal and playful in equal measure. JME is gripping at close quarters, somehow managing to appear both louche and frantic at the same time, while Big Narstie looms in the corner becoming ever gruffer.
Immediately afterwards comes one of the most highly anticipated sets of the evening. As RP Boo sets up his laptop, Lightbulb begins pacing to the side of the stage, eyes wide, mouth slightly agog. It’s like a square dance, his legs becoming slightly looser with each step until they end up resembling a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. The music begins simply enough, high tempo but relatively austere, but soon new percussion parts are added bar by bar, and eventually, before you quite realise what’s happened, you’re being crushed beneath the weight of triplet patterns and meticulously sliced vocal samples – while Lightbulb appears to be plugged into the soundsystem, each of his extremities convulsing, snapping, rotating in joint-wrenching manners, until it appears that the top and bottom halves of his body exist on different longitudes. As RP Boo leaves the stage he shrieks in delight, and goes right back to the spot where he was dancing before.
It is the final set, though, that really marks Just Jam out as a truly unique evening. Omar Souleyman is nearly a household name now; a Syrian wedding singer turned international touring artist, whose cracked voice and overdriven synths have bridged the gap between dabke and Western clubs. He is also something of a mythic figure - a man who travels nowhere without his sunglasses, and who maintains a gripping stage presence by doing nothing but standing stock still and occasionally clapping.
When he appears at the door, the 20 or so people in the room break into spontaneous applause. He is tiny, maybe a little over five foot, and he is led into the room by hand by a smiling woman from Don’t Watch That. They stand at the front of the stage while the keyboards are set up, still hand in hand, until eventually he wanders into the corner and stands, completely motionless, until the music begins.
And from then, all bets are off. From the first pre-programmed kick drum the crowd seems to lift six inches of the floor, the distorted keyboards and plasticky drum sounds producing the most danceable music imaginable. The synth lead lines immediately bring to mind the overdriven chaabi music of Islam Chipsy, but where the Egyptian artists is about virtuosity, here the emphasis is on pounding, thudding music-for-moving. Midway through the set, as Souleyman begins a reworking of recent single ‘Wenu Wenu’, a dance circle appears in the middle of the room, and virtually the entire crowd gets pushed in at some point, everyone seemingly trying to replicate Lightbulb’s moves from earlier in the evening. Soon, though, the crowd is pushed onto the stage itself, and Souleyman sings in front of them, looking dead into the cameras, while two dozen people lose their shit and two security guards look on with confused grins.
As I leave, Barry tells me that at its peak some 35,000 were tuned into the livestream. It’s easy to wonder whether the show would have had that many viewers had the Barbican event not been cancelled. All evening everyone had been keen to shout out the Barbican, making clear that the their staff had offered nothing but support. The police might have succeeded in driving the lineup out of that prestigious venue, but Tim And Barry’s extraordinary efforts, and the good humour of the artists, meant that they were never going to manage to kill the event. Just Jam was one of the most special evenings of music I’ve seen in years, and the perfect riposte to a police force intolerant of some of the world’s most exciting music.
We'll have a full stream and gallery from Just Jam on Noisey tomorrow
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