The real trajectory of a city can often be mapped by the music you find in its venues. If you had walked into a bar in London in the 80s, for instance, you may have found the sweet falsetto and synth of Bronski Beat gliding beneath a sheet of purple strobe lights and coked-up dancers. If it had been the 90s, you may have found Pulp, strutting their way through "Common People" in a cloud of sweat and cigarette smoke. And if it had been the 00s, perhaps you'd have stumbled across any number of leather-clad indie bands and tiny-fringed DJs taking pre-Instagram selfies for MySpace.
On Wednesday night, though, if you'd walked into Kamio in east London, you would have observed a sea of black puffa jackets, Nike caps and Vans; the white glow of iPhones peppering the dance floor like fireflies; bass blasting from the mammoth speakers. The crowd were there to see a show from New Gen, the 22-artist movement shaping the future (and reflecting the present) of urban music in the UK. Not all the acts were there – that would have been absurd, the gig would have lasted days – but WSTRN, AJ Tracey, Stefflon Don, Avelino, Abra Cadabra, 67 and Yxng Bane, among others, were set to perform one or two tracks each. It marked one show in a series of gigs around London in the run-up to the BRIT Awards, in an effort to raise money for War Child, a charity that aims to support children whose lives have been torn apart by war.
This show was significant, and not just because all the profits went to an important cause. The New Gen collective, and their compilation which XL released last month, marked the first of its kind, offering a genuine a snapshot into the real sound of London; a sound that's been thriving underground, largely away from mainstream press and award shows, based on the music that people are actually listening to. While the global conversation around music in the UK in recent years has focused solely on grime – primarily that of the Skepta and Stormzy variety – rap, R&B and drill in the country has also quietly blossomed. To see this scene come into fruition onstage felt like witnessing a real moment, not just for urban music in the country, but for music in general.
In many ways, though, if the show held significance to outsiders, the acts themselves didn't seem to notice. They were just there to turn up, and being in the crowd felt as if you'd wandered into a house party where someone's mates had decided to pass a mic around, with each of them egging each other on between swilling drinks and Snapchatting the whole thing from the stage. From TE dness opening with "Rather Get Money" and "Saucy", to Avelino and Tigs Da Author bounding on stage to chant the lyrics of "Ring The Alarm", to WSTRN offering up their rendition of "Loose" and AJ Tracey spitting "Pasta" to a crowd that knew every bar, each act bled into the next, never giving you a single moment to get bored or dip out for a toilet break. By the time Abra Cadabra swerved onstage like a car without any breaks, screaming "Robbery" to a backdrop of roars and gun fingers, it felt like that peak moment at a party, right before the atmosphere begins to dip.
If there was one artist that really shifted the energy in the room, though, it was Stefflon Don, who seemed to exist in a calibre of her own. Up until she strutted across the stage in ripped shorts, a leather jacket and heels, the gig had felt like a boy's club, crammed with groups of men in hoods trying to out-macho each other on the mic. But Steff's power was tangible; and watching her twerk at a group of screaming girls, effortlessly flitting between a London accent and patois, and propping one leg up on the speaker as she rapped "black rings, black range, she a killa" from "Real Ting" felt as if you'd just stumbled across Nicki Minaj or Lil Kim at the precipice of their success. At one point, she passed the mic to a girl in the front row, who rapped every single word. Out of everybody there, Steff was the one you'd put money on taking over the world by the end of the year; it sounds corny, but she commands the stage like a star in the making.
After 67 closed the show with a rabid, high-octane performance of "Lurk", the crowd filed out the venue quicker than you could say "Uber", leaving the empty dancefloor littered with plastic cups and sticky with spilt beer. Unlike other London gigs, which are sometimes more about getting wasted and catching up with friends than the performances, last night's New Gen show felt like a pure celebration of the music itself, with everything else coming in second. It goes without saying that the UK underground has always produced some of the most exciting and innovative musical talent in the world – that is what we're known for – but it's something else entirely to witness that through the lens of real time; rather than getting misty-eyed about the past, this was all about getting misty-eyed about right now.
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