Yasiin Bey at The Ritz, Manchester- A Personal Review
3rd February 2017
My friend Roxanne was always a huge Mos Def fan. It would be her go- to artist whenever people asked about her tastes. Whenever she’d play it, I’d always like it but never really took the time to invest in him or his music. About 5 years ago, spurred on by Dangermouse’s Grey Album, hip hop slowly started to become my most prevalently listened to genre of music. Guitar based bands had started to lose a piece of their magic for me. I certainly stopped being excited by new rock bands anyway. I had this friend from primary school, Andrew, who was my friend on Facebook (the type of relationship I still find bizarre to this day; I knew these people as kids, haven’t spoken to them since we were 11 years old, yet I know everything about their work and family life?) and he would always post his favourite hip hop tunes, mostly stuff I knew already. One day he posted a Mos Def tune, No Hay Nada Mas, a short Spanish language track. Chilled, flowing and beautiful. This is the point I invested a lot of time into The Ecstatic, the album with this track. So different from the other hip hop I’d been listening to. There was such a world music flavour to it, every track was so different and strange. His voice gorgeous and smooth. Obviously I then revisited his first album, Black On Both Sides, and gave his other albums a couple of listens.
Yasiin Bey, as he’s now known, under pressure from his fan base announced that he would perform his Mos Def classics for the last time. Straight away I jumped onto the tickets and rallied Roxanne and the troops. The last time to be able to watch Mos Def live? Those tickets would be snapped up immediately, no? Not really, no. It did eventually sell out but my experience of buying tickets these days is that if you don’t grab them in the first hour you’re either not going or you’d have to get robbed by a secondary ticket site. How could Yasiin Bey not sell out? Maybe it’s the name change, maybe it’s the reports he’s gone off the rails recently. A well advertised gig though. Maybe it was the fact that the showtimes were 9 – 2 rather than your usual 7 – 11. Friday night though. Anyway..
Six days before the gig, my friend Andrew passed away after a long battle with leukaemia. I knew he was dying but he’d been given 3 months to live way over a year before so there was a small part of me hoping he’d be at the concert. We’d exchanged the odd message here and there about music and I sent him a private message once telling him how much I admired his bravery to which he had given me a really nice response. He wasn’t my best friend, maybe you couldn’t even call him a friend, but the day he died I really felt like my world had lost a kindred spirit. This was heavily on my mind as I entered the Ritz, Manchester.
The Ritz has a lot of sentimental value for me and my friends. Every Monday was student night when we were teenagers. Walking around the place I recall all the girls I’d copped off with but never got anywhere more with, be it physically or emotionally. My friend Ed, who only joined us after another friend gave up his ticket, broke his leg upstairs, which I witnessed. I remember Roxy kissing a guy downstairs immediately after he’d thrown up everywhere. Something we, as good friends, will never let her live down. “Look, he’d gone to the bathroom and washed his mouth out first okay?” was always the response, not how we choose to remember it. I kissed a girl known as the vampire pig on more than one occasion at the Ritz so I have my own stories my friends won’t let me live down. I also had my first and only fist fight outside the Ritz with a guy called Anthony who I’m sorry to say also died very recently. So yeah, the Ritz has some sentimental attachment.
Ed, an amazing producer and musician, had been schooling himself on Mos Def to get ready for the gig. While we were standing waiting for the support, a Manchester based rap group called The Mouse Outfit, Ed was raving about The Ecstatic and all the different influences used. Of course, influences that Ed was already familiar with, most notably a Turkish folk singer called Selda Bağcan. The Mouse Outfit was a scaled down version, no band, but the two rappers were the perfect warmer to a rap gig at this location. Definitely showcasing a Manchester flavour and style with funky or soulful beats and some top class rapping. I must say I was very impressed and if they play sometime soon with the full band, I’ll be there. Yasiin Bey however, blew them out of the water.
At nearly midnight, Bey floats on to the stage wearing a linen hooded top and a man-bag across his shoulder. He’s got flowers and balloons all over the stage and he has a pouch of petals that he keeps sprinkling over his head and around the stage. He slowly takes half of his robes and takes something out of his bag, only when he plugs a lead into it do I realise it’s a microphone. A microphone he holds like a police radio. Completely drenched in red light, he doesn’t look like your average idea of what a hip hop star should look like, and I’m so happy for it. After his intro track he goes straight into the Selma sampled Supermagic which gets everyone pumped, moving into Wahid and other Ecstatic tracks. He thanks the crowd in a cynical fashion for spending their pounds, their currency, but then changes to a more hopeful tone when he tells us it means so much more to him that we had given up our time to be with him tonight. At this point I suddenly feel a twinge of sadness mixed with privilege thinking that if this is truly his last tour, I’ll never get to witness this again. I think I’m in love with this man. Don’t tell the wife.
The guys behind us start to get pushy and aggressive and start to really annoy Ed and me. We move to the front trying to get the rest of our group to move but I think because it was cramped they assumed the front would be worse. Right near the front of the stage had plenty of room, even more than the back. Yasiin Bey put me and Ed into a trance, focusing more on his more beautiful and spiritual tracks but with the passion and enthusiasm I believe all performers should have when they play. When Neil Young, Kendrick Lamar or even Beyonce performs, you get the impression that they would rather be nowhere else but there, in no other time than that moment. If an artist doesn’t show that emotion then it can still be a great show, but not sublime. Yasiin Bey was sublime. The way he moved, his dancing, his never ending smile (at one time pointing to the front of the crowd and asking why they’re so serious), his golden voice and of course his flawless and effortless rapping.
Roxy appears behind us saying the guys from the back were driving her crazy complaining that Bey wasn’t playing anything. What they meant is that they needed a straight up rap show, which would have been great I’m sure, but this half singing performance is not what they came for. During the show I bump into a primary school friend, Andre, who I haven’t seen since we were 11. We quickly catch up and share a moment remembering Andrew. An odd but fitting coincidence to see this guy, hopefully not for the last time.
I return to the front of the stage where Yasiin Bey is now, and for the rest of the show, drenched in dark blue light. It’s a moment I could live in forever. He play Ms. Fat Booty and it feels like the whole venue lets out a huge sigh of relief which I feel resentment towards. To finish he plays UMI Says, a trippy organ- laced tune from his first album. As the track plays out he starts to put his robes and bag back on, disconnects his mad looking microphone and puts it away. He backs up heading towards the stage door, almost gliding and slowly waving. It felt like a farewell from Yasiin Bey but a fond adieu from Mos Def. He disappears and for the first time ever at the end of a gig, I miss the artist. I miss him. I still do.
Speaking to other friends who were there and hearing reports from his London show, people seem to have given him a lukewarm reaction. As I said before, maybe people were just geared up for a full on hip hop experience. That’s not what we got but what we did get was so much more soul affirming. I’m so glad Ed was there. He completely felt the same way saying he thought it was the best rap show he’d been to. Without Ed, maybe I would’ve thought I was going crazy. All I can hope is that at sometime in the future he wants to do it all again. Andrew would’ve loved it.