B.Dolan played Whelan’s on Saturday night, backed by Buddy Peace & Dan Le Sac. Siobhán Kane was there to check it out.
There is always a sense of anticipation about a B.Dolan show, because you are never quite sure where he is going to take you, but you know that it is going to be somewhere interesting. As much a performance artist as he is steeped in hip-hop, B. Dolan (like friend and collaborator Sage Francis who signed him to Strange Famous Records some years ago) is hard to categorise, impossible to ignore. As he takes to the stage in crumpled linen jacket, sunglasses with one of the lenses removed, and noose around his neck like a tie – visually he suggests we are in for an unusual evening, and lyrically he doesn’t disappoint. Backed by Buddy Peace and Dan Le Sac on searing, swirling, interesting beats, he tears into tracks from 2008’s The Failure and last year’s Fallen House, Sunken City, whilst also previewing some new material which sounds evermore inventive, perhaps because of the addition of Peace and Le Sac’s production, a collaboration which Dolan refers to as “awesome”.
“Awesome”, in it’s traditional meaning, is synonymous with Dolan, who is at once an activist and poet, a huge presence in both the underground worlds of spoken word and hip-hop. Yet no regime can claim him, and though he has won several awards for his abilities within the spoken word movement, he eschews any mode of establishment, evidently distilled in his brilliant anti-advertisiting initiative and website knowmore.org. And his impulse is to provoke – previously he has mentioned how audiences “clap no matter what….I wanted to do something that would make everybody silent.”
And tonight there are moments of true inspiration, points where people that may have wandered in absent-mindedly, (or as Dolan points out, “looking for a Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip show”) and had their minds rattled. Then again, this is the man who created the character Bombzo the Clown, a grotesque caricature that often pops up guerrilla-art style, a character that was invented purely to upset and offend. Yet when the joke or idea wears thin he moves on. What he is moving on to next sounds so interesting, and we can only hope the show gets to Ireland – a “fantasy” he has composed called The Church of Love and Ruin, replete with an eighteen person alt-marching band, a Bostonian drag queen called Ms. Nicholle Pride, and “animated sissy-bounce outfit” from New Orleans Vockah Redu and the Cru. Dolan’s sense is to push people that think they know what hip-hop “means”, and bring them along to a place that asks difficult questions, of the form as well as of themselves.
Hip-hop shows can be terrible, but they can also be sublime, and when they are, they serve to remind that the form is wonderful, expansive, playful and challenging, and Dolan is a great example of this. A self-described “outsider to hip-hop in the industry” he is a raw version of the truth behind hip-hop’s artistry, the whispered vision of the street, and he is able to survey high and low brow concerns with ease; from crude, saucy commentary to vicious political polemics on social inequality, corporate greed and state of the nation concerns, and all delivered with an enviable flow.
So many of the beats that accompany tracks like ‘Joan of Arcadia’ or ‘Economy of Words’ are dense and apocalyptic-sounding, but his own sense of rhythm delivers a bobbing lightness that infuses the work with a glow and purpose; even something, like the post 9/11 ‘Leaving New York’, which at first appears to be about his own account of witnessing the attacks first hand becomes, more subtly, a way to refocus his own battle with the torment within himself.
There is always something philosophical at work with Dolan, yet he is also lovable and funny, at one point mentioning that we must appreciate that he, as an Irish-American, has “two Brits on my payroll” to which Le Sac quips back “er, well actually, I’m Irish too”. And later debates the merits of the airhorn – “is it the most overused sound in hip-hop?” When someone heckles that it is, Dolan explores the point, reaching the conclusion that actually, it is the most useful sound in hip-hop, one that suggests triumph, that something really interesting is about to happen, and on top of everything else “allows me to drown out your heckles”.
From the bumping ‘Heart Failure’, to his loveletter to Marvin Gaye (“possibly the best singer ever” ) on ‘Marvin’, and fantastic, electric ‘Border Crossing’, Dolan once more redefines the boundaries of hip-hop. He does this with his records, but also when performing live, through rearranging songs and exploring the form. His love for language is evident, and any of his freestyles would make more well known hip-hop artists shudder with the kind of talent and truth that flies from the microphone, reverberating around the four walls.
A particular highlight is his new poem, which was performed unaccompanied, and to a reverential silence – ‘Who Killed Russell Jones?’, which he said he would perform “in the style of Bob Dylan”. What followed was an amazing verbal essay on the state of not only hip-hop, the music industry, or ‘scenes’, but also a lack of kindness in society itself. Using Russell Jones, more famously known as ODB from Wu-Tang Clan, he eloquently detailed the rise and fall of the rapper, and the complicity of unkindness and manipulation between both the mindlessness of certain fans and knowingness of boardroom executives, and the culpability that is hard to ignore. It was both precisely meaningful and lyrically adventurous, and perhaps that is why he invoked Bob Dylan, though at this stage Dylan could learn something from him.