It was -32C in Toronto the night of February 19th. It’s an important fact to remember because despite all that bitterness hundreds of people lined up outside. Clearly, numb extremities were not enough to keep people away from the Opera House for a rare chance to see Ghostface Killah and local heroes BadBadNotGood align.
Yes, Ghostface books numerous Toronto dates every year. So do BadBadNotGood. And even though their new album Sour Soul is a nearly unanimous (and well-deserved) critical success, there are no tour plans. Knowing all that, Converse (in conjunction with their Rubber Tracks project) made this night happen. Within minutes of the doors opening, the Opera House (which is no stranger to sold-out crowds) was at capacity. This was the kind of night where abandoning a spot close to the stage to get a drink meant losing that spot forever. This was the kind of night where people were squished up against the bar and sound booth and sides of the club and any other hard surface until the last notes of the show.
Hand picked by Converse, local emcee Raz Fresco (literally) warmed up the crowd, with an electric energy. Hitting the Opera House with tunes from his most recent joint The Screwface Tape, Fresco is one of the most promising faces of Toronto’s hip hop scene; teaming with talent – diverse, exciting and innovative.
After another 45 minutes, the members of BadBadNotGood took the stage. This alone was one of those homecoming moments. It seems that with each passing month, the group’s public profile reaches new heights. Consisting of bassist Chester Hansen, keyboardist Matthew Tavares and drummer Alexander Sowinski (the band’s mouthpiece), BadBadNotGood has gained a great deal of buzz since forming in 2010. With the crowd’s excitement reaching its peak, BadBadNotGood burst into selections from their catalogue; the kind of weird, frenetic, high-energy jazz that’s as reminiscent of Charlie Parker as it is John Zorn. And after a mini set, the band launched into “Mono” the instrumental intro to Sour Soul. This was Ghostface Killah’s (followed by faithful Wu-Tang Clan hype man Killah Priest) cue.
No one knew what kind of show this was going to be. It could have been a live performance of Sour Soul or a Ghostface Killah set with BadBadNotGood as the backing band. Either way, nobody was going to take issue. As it turned out, it was bigger and better than either of those. Where so many emcee/band combos have tried and failed, Ghostface Killah and BadBadNotGood have found and cultivated their chemistry eons ago. That’s why versions of “Run”, “Daytona 500”, and “Cherchez La Ghost” were bigger and more alive than the traditional DJ/emcee dynamic could allow. Ghostface Killah, the most artistically innovative member of the Wu-Tang Clan, was even more animated than usual with this added dynamic. In addition to his own songs, the Staten Island emcee took the band through versions of Wu-Tang staples like “Tearz”, “Can it Be All so Simple”, “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t Nothin ta Fuck With”. For BadBadNotGood’s part, their instrumentation was flawless. The band is obviously used to playing their own material together, but watching themperform with an obvious childhood hero of theirs was a thrill to witness.
In addition to the catalogue Ghostface Killah knows, the group also performed covers of Ghostface Killah’s own contemporaries, including Nas (“The World is Yours”), Raekwon (“Footsteps in the Dark”), GZA (“4th Chamber”) and even Kanye West (“New God Flow”), which is a rarity at hip-hop shows. And to top all of those off, Ghostface Killah and Killah Priest gave a heartfelt tribute to fallen Wu brother Ol Dirty Bastard. “That motherfucker would come over and get drunk with my moms. That motherfucker would, instead of doing laundry; just turn a pair of socks inside out and wear em another day. That motherfucker was DIRTY.” As if the crowd wasn’t frothed up enough, the group’s rocking versions of “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” were an unbelievable sight to behold.
Also notable was how obviously floored Ghostface Killah was of BadBadNotGood’s skills. “Do you even realize how ill thesemotherfuckers are?” the emcee crowed. This in addition to bringing out producer (and the glue for this whole project) Frank Dukes for a well-deserved ovation from the crowd. “This guy brought this whole shit together. Show him some love!” The mutual respect and admiration was palpable. Here was a veteran artist and a group of rising stars in a symbiotic relationship. BadBadNotGood’s stock and international exposure is rising exponentially because of Sour Soul and at the same time Ghostface Killah has taken his artistic vision further than the majority of his peers. “Y’all only seen the first part of my career” he said. “After tonight, phase two is in effect.”
Hopefully, other cities will have a chance to experience these two acts live some time this year. But with no concrete plans for additional dates, it could have been a one-off. Either way, this was the kind of show everyone felt genuinely lucky to be experiencing, as did everyone on stage. Now sweaty and delirious, the crowd filed back into the blistering Toronto night, knowing the wait had been unquestionably worth it.
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