CMW 2014: Friday

Flatbush Zombies perfuming at CMW.

By James Li

We’re not supposed to like Brooklyn. During the Raptors’ run in the playoffs, “Fuck Brooklyn” was as much a Toronto rally cry as “We the North.” Sports rivalries aside, Brooklyn, and New York in general, has declined in status as hip hop’s centre of gravity. While Brooklyn spawned some of the greatest acts in hip hop, such as Jay Z, Nas, and Mos Def, the city has been assailed by challengers from all sides: Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, the Bay Area, and Toronto. Since then, New York has become an easy target. On Big Sean’s track “Control,” L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar crowned himself the “King of New York.” Atlanta rapper Trinidad James claimed that the South ran New York musically during a concert in NYC.

A coalition of Brooklyn rap groups — Pro Era, The Underachievers, and Flatbush Zombies — formed the “Beast Coast,” a movement aimed at restoring the East Coast to its former glory. Pro Era’s boom-bap throwback and The Underachievers’ psychedelic raps deserve merit, but Flatbush Zombies stand out as Beast Coast’s most unique act. The trio, consisting of rappers Zombie Juice and Meechy Darko and producer Erick Arc Elliott, recently released Better Off Dead, one of 2013’s best hip hop mixtapes, which convinced me to catch their show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre.

Clad in a bucket hat and a sweatshirt bearing Rob Ford’s face was the first opening act, rapper Kaydee, a Toronto rapper originally from Chicago. He opened asking audience members if any Raptors fans were in attendance, and who their favourite players were. Despite his allegiance to Toronto, I felt like Kaydee wouldn’t seem out of place in the Beast Coast movement. He and Joey Bada$$ share a lot of common ground — both young rappers who have a deep appreciation for the sounds of classic East Coast hip hop. He rounded off his set with a heartfelt tribute to his coach Phil, a childhood mentor of his who passed away.

The next opener was Bodega Bamz. While A$AP Rocky and the A$AP Mob are likely Harlem’s best known hip hop act, Bodega Bamz represents another side of Harlem – Spanish Harlem. Bodega Bamz shouted out his uptown compatriots in the A$AP Mob, but his own style is quite different from Rocky’s chopped and screwed haze. Hard-hitting trap hi-hats permeate Bodega Bamz’s beats, but it is Bamz’s rapping and persona that made this performance compelling. Bamz’s Latino heritage touched every aspect of his performance. He calls his crew his Tanboys, his Tanboys call him “papi,” and the flags of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were waving onstage (Bamz is half-Puerto Rican and half-Dominican). During his performance of “P.A.P.I.” he flexed his ability to rap in Spanglish (“All my Tanboys, vámonos / Chandon and plátanos).

When Flatbush Zombies came onstage, they showed as much love for Toronto as the crowd showed them — Erick Arc Elliott was wearing a Jays jacket, and Meechy Darko a Leafs sweater. (What, no Raptors?) Juice and Meech have some of the most unique deliveries in rap music — Juice’s frenetic high-pitched attack and Meech’s throaty baritone growl are as different as night and day, and just as confrontational live. Their distinctively aggressive deliveries and predilection for bloodthirsty lyrics lead me to think that there might a career for them in death metal if rap doesn’t pan out for them. Erick Arc Elliott’s rapping is more understated in comparison, but he is far from a third wheel. Elliott is an unsung hero of production, easily moving from the dramatic buildups like “Amerikkkan Pie” and “Bliss” to something like “Palm Trees,” a breezy number built around a hauntingly delicate vocal sample which holds up beautifully live, and my favourite part of their set. They ended their set with their own take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Bodega Bamz joined them for their posse cut “My Team, Supreme.” It seems oddly fitting that a crew called Flatbush Zombies would breathe new life into New York’s hip hop scene. After the Zombies’ killer performance at the Phoenix, it’s clear that Brooklyn keeps on taking it.

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