Photo of Theophilus London at the Green Label Sound SXSW showcase courtesy of Darkroom Demons/Green Label Sound
In an eagerly anticipated event, much heralded urban alternative underground rap leader Theophilus London headlined U Street Music Hall on billing alongside Brooklyn hip hop punks Ninjasonik and stalwart DC performers the Roll Wit Us All-Stars. The event was far more exciting in theory than in practice, a show that continued the unveiling of a large portion of the DC market as woefully square, unhip and a half measure behind the beat of the art house underground that keeps moving on. Solid performances from all three acts were met with near comic levels of restraint, polite applause or complete indifference, as the crowd appeared more interested in Theophilus London’s conceptual essence than much of anything he (or anyone else billed) had to say. In summation, this was a group of largely awestruck and aspirational hipster/blipsters, wanting to be as cool as the New York kids who give them the entirety of their stylistic impulse and lifestyle guide silently worshiping a high priest of cool. If coming to be a part of a group of willful participants in a wild concert experience, it was a case of wrong place, wrong time.
It would be completely unfair to give both opening acts a grade in full. The Roll Wit Us All Stars of Malik Starx and Mr. Clif are chronically plagued by performing in front of crowds that are not aware or hip hop savvy enough to appreciate their staccato mid-90s Midwest inspired flows over high tempo dance tracks. Their fare is definitely meant for a far more mainstream audience, one who remembers the chart topping dominance of acts like Bone Thugs N Harmony, and have an ear more attuned to the drive time R & B content and laid back trunk funk vibe of the group. In their lane, they have the ability to dominate. In front of a crowd that is tragically hip and wanting to be awed by what The Fader says is cool, the more mainstream ready timeless excellence of the duo is lost.
Ninjasonik are an incomplete grade as both a recording act and live performance ensemble until they release their sophomore album tentatively titled The Peter Pan Syndrome. Internal friction in the band that has left the group without a consistent DJ for nearly a year, mixed with a tepid reception to their brand of brolic, punk rock inspired hip hop on the mainstream has left the group attempting to find their footing as a retooled outfit. Telli Federline is an entertaining frontman who enjoys rapping, Rev. McFly is the world’s most visually intriguing hypeman, and without Teenwolf as a DJ, there lacks a cohesive energy to their presentation. The punk rock energy of the band is lost now, and replaced with a broad swath of hip hop intensity, a blend of Beastie Boys by way of New Jack Swing and the obsequious swagger of Kanye West. What was once a live show that converted hip hop punk rock atheists into believers is now a rudderless ship passing through the night. “Pregnant” and “Bars” are still their best performance numbers as they feature the largest hooks, but newer material like “Molly Ringwald” and “Super Power” are well delivered, but given the band’s presence as dirty punks, lack the connective musical tissue to link with their on stage presence.
Awkwardly handsome and impossibly hip, Theophilus London is a pop star trapped on the international underground. His live show was more a lesson in cool and affirmation of his position as the art house underground’s coolest black man of the moment than live event. Theophilus London says the perfect words and sings the perfect songs. He’s an elegant front for the words that speak to a generation, an okay rapper, an okay singer, but a terrific pitchman. To like Theophilus London is to be completely and hopelessly uncool and lustfully desirous of borrowing his swag to up your credentials.
In four mixtapes, London has thoroughly proven himself to be a student of branding. As a live performer he meets to the standard he has set with note perfect excellence. He’s the man who’s everywhere you want to be, leading the life you want to live. Shrouded in mystery, his entreaties to live crowd that he “wanted to kiss all of the girls on their cheeks” sounded awesome, but also felt like the hollow banter of Marvin Gaye’s Live at the Palladium or a Backstreet Boys live show, which happens to be the line which he straddles as a performer. His cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” is fun, but also feels like the fodder of a million cool blipster dudes in skinny jeans cooing in front of a mirror fixing their bowties and carefully affixing a snapback over their carefully coiffed high top fades. The only moments of wild excitement were for his new wave pop sounding productions, namely “Girls Girls $” from latest and from an aural perspective best EP, Lover’s Holiday which inspired dancing, but not the ribald exclamation point to the rise to prominence of the artist.
In final, this was an event that was entirely shrouded in an aura of cool that DC as a city hasn’t entirely reached yet. DC has the component parts to be a really “with it” locale. Top performance venues, residents with an abundance of disposable income, and a pronounced college population. However, DC is still a federal city filled with federal people which permeates a mindset that the day starts at nine, ends at five and that Ann Taylor Loft trumps American Apparel for professional attire. DC’s cosmopolitan community is growing. In a year, it is my belief that a bunch of Williamsburg hipsters rapping about drugs, sex and PBR, and the world’s coolest young man will be better received. All I know is that as Theophilus London’s set ended, James Blake’s latest uber cool proto-dubstep cascaded from the U Street Music Hall speakers meeting the expectation of the man who had just performed. In response, a crowd shuffled from the building in dumbstruck silence. When DC goes from wide-eyed observers to aware and righteously together contributors to the underground community will nights like these be exactly the next generation of pop affirming moments they should be.