“Who let the savages out of the zoo?” says Sean Leon. It’s quarter to 2 in the morning and the NXNE Hub at Spadina and Queen has turned into a madhouse for the Toronto rapper’s set. Photographers are hanging from the ceiling as beer drips. Someone keeps banging loudly on the air duct between songs. Popped balloons sound like gunshots with alarming frequency. At the end of it all, Leon lies on his back, seemingly spent after 45 minutes of concentrated chaos.
Five hours earlier, I’m waiting in front of Berkeley Church on the other side of downtown to get into the Pitchfork-presented House of Vans show. The staff is polite but firm on my inability to enter the venue at 8. I stake it out and talk to a few other journalists in similar situations. Everyone’s hoping his or her tenacity will pay off.
I eventually get in during Magical Cloudz‘ set. They’re an act fit for the church’s reverb-y sonics as Devon Welsh’s unadorned voice echoes into the halls. He frequently bursts into primal whoops as a sort of tribute to the victims of the Charleston attack.
I finally see a full Tink set and it reconfirms my faith. The front of the crowd doesn’t stop moving for her entire performance and the rising Chicago multi-talent is engaging throughout. “Is this your song?” Tink asks a particularly excitable girl up front before she performs the Future Brown collab “Wanna Party”, “Alright, then let me see you dance.” She gladly obliges.
Vince Staples is also interested in seeing the audience get into his performance, but the LA rapper’s version of interaction is much heavier to match his music. He urges everyone to put both of their hands up, not in celebration but in solidarity against the police brutality he’s faced growing up and that continues to this day all across the States. Staples successfully makes a case for classic gangsta rap’s (threats of violence intermingled with somber reflection) relevance in this decade with minimal, pummeling beats (“Blue Suede” wrecks the place) and insidiously catchy hooks like the one in “65 Hunnid”.
Even though I can’t think of a more metal venue than a church, Brooklyn post-metal band Sannhet suffers from a washy live mix and the fact that damn near everyone in the venue has either left or moved all the way to the back. Their self-programmed light show looks cool, though.
Late night comes and I hitch a ride to where Sean Leon is performing. Vancouver future producer/DJ Ekali opens with turnt-up rap and R&B edits, including the most monstrous “Know Yourself” sing-along I’ve been a part of.
Sean Leon is one of the most definitive proprietors of the “Toronto sound” in rap: slow tempos, ominously filtered vocals, and an overall nocturnal atmosphere. It’s the more menacing counterpart to Drake’s moodiness. Leon has created a rock star persona around himself, namedropping Pink Floyd as a primary influence, performing with a live guitarist, and calling his upcoming release Black Sheep Nirvana after the band, adopting a modified version of their smiley-face logo as his own. He opens his set by teasing unreleased material from BSN and from there it’s an assault of dark, ignorant art-rap. The crowd moshes for most of it.
Leon shouts out his infant daughter Xylo during his newest track “This Ain’t 2012” and stresses, “We have no label backing us, no industry people…Just us.” If the rapper known to his fans as Maui Slim and “Daddyvelli” can whip a strong, self-made local following into a delirious frenzy then the come-up truly is coming.