"If you hear of anyone with eins ticket, please, please—let me know," pleaded a tall, bearded German man to strangers walking up the long gravel path towards Berghain. They gazed at him with pity. Poor guy didn't have a chance. Tickets to last night's (April 5) highly-anticipated show—the second stop of grime superstar Skepta's European tour—sold out almost instantly when they went on sale in February. For the past few weeks, the event's Facebook page had been inundated with people hunting for tickets, which the local promoter, Melt! Booking, warned repeatedly would not be sold at the door. Yet, desperate fans still showed up to try their luck. As I waited in line, a guy with a British accent remarked to his friend, "Wonder which of them will have to go home?"
While Berghain has become the most famous secular temple in the world for unhinged techno worship, the club also hosts concerts on select weeknights and weekends. These shows are musically eclectic, ranging from hardcore punk to krautrock, and tickets go quick.
But the thirst for Skepta at Berghain was exceptional. Thanks to the club's strict no-photography policy, many hoped Skepta would use the opportunity to preview unreleased tracks from his three-years-in-the-making album Konnichiwa, which last month he finally confirmed was complete. The hallowed venue and its ridiculously good Funktion-One soundsystem, combined with the relative scarcity of 2-step in a city that marches to 4/4, was also irresistible to Berlin's growing contingent of grime and hip-hop fans.
According to Matt, an expat from the UK who I met once I was ushered inside the club, "The grime scene here has really taken off in the last couple of years because of Skepta and how fashionable [the music] has become. More and more people are putting on grime nights or LDN-themed parties." Matt himself throws a roving London grime and new-school hip-hop party named Shutdown Berlin, named after the Skepta song. The first one, in August 2015, was in the hip Kreuzberg neighborhood, and the concept is for subsequent editions to take over a different district each time.
Nico Adomako, a hip-hop scene fixture who played at Shutdown Kreuzberg, also happened to be one of the opening DJs for Skepta. But this may have been less of a coincidence, and more of an indication of how small the tight-knit community of grime and hip-hop lovers still is. "I see him playing at all the hip-hop parties here," my friend Kenza, a former New Yorker living in Berlin, leaned in to tell me. Adomak throws his own party called Einhundert, which has brought acts like Post Malone and Stormzy to Berlin. He kicked off the night playing hit after hit, pausing the music to let the dancefloor scream the lyrics to tracks like Stormzy's "Know Me From" (a banger which Skepta later reprised). On songs with no vocals, like Benga & Coki's "Night," people just shout-sang the melody instead.
Adomako then ceded to the second DJ, another local named Teresa, who jump-started her set with a "Toxic" remix, Britney's baby-voice curling up to the room's towering ceilings: Baby can't you see, I'm calling... The buzzing crowd—already packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the dancefloor, with many climbing up by the windows to perch against the walls—gamely thrashed around in a growing mosh pit. Despite the mounting excitement in the room, we still had some waiting to do. According to a po-faced bouncer at the door (no, not Sven), Skepta's flight into Berlin—presumably from Austria, where he'd played at Snowbombing festival the night before—had been delayed by an hour.
Finally, after a rousing, karaoke-like rendition of Father's "Look at Wrist," the music abruptly cut out, and technicians scrambled on stage to set up. A few minutes later, the lights dimmed, and the carbonated synth bleeps of "That's Not Me" roused hysterical cheers. Out of nowhere, Skepta suddenly appeared on stage, radiating charisma and dressed in a white cap, black T-shirt and trackpants.
"We gonna get grimey," he announced in that unmistakably North London accent, commanding the technicians to turn the mic up. "Louder, louder! We came all the way from London for this shit!" He paused. "And some brandy, please. We need something heavy. Hennessy."
For the next hour, the grime don alternated between originals like "Top Boy," "Nasty," and "It Ain't Safe," and spitting verses over beloved hits like Stormzy's "Know Me From" and JME's "Man Don't Care." In between songs, he shouted out the two members of his crew who'd joined him on stage——while noting, "What I love about Berghain is no cameras!"
Glistening with sweat, forcefully packing in flurries of bars at double speed, and whipping the audience into a state of near-hypnosis, Skepta effortlessly proved how he's become one of grime's biggest superstars—the golden child working with mainstream pop stars like Drake, and leading the genre's latest breakthrough to international audiences.
Noticeably missing from his set, however, were newer tracks like "Ladies Hit Squad" or "Roadman" that he's released since "Shutdown." New material finally came towards the end of the night, when Skepta commanded that the club to turn off the lights, plunging the room into near-darkness. "This is my new shit off Konnichiwa—coming out very soon," he announced as a palpable excitement rippled through the crowd. Then, he launched into a colossal track called "Gang" that will almost certainly be a sure-fire hit, with a spacey, syncopated tempo over minor-chord melodies and a walloping, bassy breakdown that is rumored to be produced by Toddla T. This exclusive first-listen, without the distraction of cellphones waving in the air, was the climax of the night, although the final song of the evening, a high-voltage rendition of—what else?—"Shutdown" came close second. As quickly as he'd appeared, Skepta then disappeared offstage, leaving the audience's screams for an encore unanswered.
As we made our way towards the exit, I heard two British expats discussing the show over the clattering din of glass and plastic trash being kicked down the stairs. "It was so short—you'd expect a headliner to play for more than 45 minutes," one said. "I don't want to say it's lazy but..." the other one trailed off. The same sentiment was repeated by a German guy sitting next to me by the coat check.
But the show's relative brevity, probably caused by its late start, may have been the only flaw in an exceptional concert that solidifies the growing popularity of grime and UK bass music in Berlin. "I see the same people at every single grime show," my friend Kenza muttered to me at the beginning of the night. Chances are, this won't be the case for long.