When people look back on Skepta’s 2016, they’ll remember him raging across the Pyramid Stage as much as they will his mum dancing on the Mercury Prize stage. But did his most important moment come last week on the vast platform at Alexandra Palace, when he stood atop the burning shell of a car surrounded by his mates at the end of his biggest ever show, flames dancing behind him?
Skepta at Ally Pally on a Friday night was always going to be big, but it took walking into that vast hall to realise just how big. It was as if he’d tipped London on its side and let whoever was close enough topple into the north London venue until it was full. The crowd was a brilliant mix, and when 9 o’clock ticked round, every last person teemed towards the stage.
The set that followed took in big, beefy classics (That’s Not Me, Man, Shutdown…) and an array of guests (Kano, Giggs, JME, D Double E, Novelist, Lethal Bizzle, Section Boyz, Wiley…) and the impact quickly felt far more significant than Skepta’s triumphs at Worthy Farm and in Hammersmith. This was about more than just the music industry sitting up and taking notice of a phenomenon.
Yes, Warner/Chappell CEO Jon Platt called Konnichiwa a “landmark work” for his writer, and sales surged 260% after it won the Mercury in September, but Ally Pally felt much bigger and more important than any of that.
Similar to the April evening in 2015 when Skepta ‘shut down’ an east London car park with a surprise gig that prompted fans to scale fences and the police to arrive en masse, this felt culturally significant.
The references to police issues and politics were amped up here, the sight of a burning car uncomfortably close to televised news of the riots in Skepta’s Tottenham hometown in 2011.
If the music industry is belatedly waking up to grime’s commercial prospects, it still seems slow to understand what the genre, its stars and their attitudes mean to life in Britain at the moment. Watching Skepta’s imposing, sweat-covered frame stalk the stage surrounded by his mates on Friday night was as good a demonstration as there’s been so far.
Between songs he stuck to his usual rhetoric of ‘love’ and ‘greatness’, and his words included everyone in the room. This guy is a cultural force because he involves everyone fully, from his fans to his family. It’s not about the business squeezing its new grime toy dry, exclusivity, profit or climbing the ladder, it’s about one man trying his absolute hardest to be the best he can be and taking everyone else along for the ride.
He repeatedly pointed out, ‘We did it’, and the impression was that everyone felt their share of pride. ‘We put a fucking flag in the moon,’ he said later, and he wasn’t overstating the gig’s significance – this was Skepta on stage a few yards from where he used to chuck bread at the ducks on the pond outside.
He brought UK rap to a 10,000 capacity room next to which he used to go ice-skating as a kid. The show was beamed around the world via Apple Music. You can buy the live album, too. But this was that rare gig that meant more than music, and it was more than just another peak for grime, too.
Rather than the icing on a big year (whether you think the genre needed it or not), this show felt like a watershed moment that will not only allow Skepta to grow, but those around him too. What an opportunity for, say, 19-year-old Novelist to taste what he too could plausibly achieve.
So when people look back on Skepta and grime in 2016 – and they surely will – this giant hulk of a show will loom largest. Where were you the night Skepta played right by the duck pond he visited as a kid?