Here's the thing British rappers need to learn if they want to make it big in the States: Never, ever start your shows on time. Live hip-hop is about many things, but punctuality isn't one of them, and street cred goes zooming out the window if you don't at least make your audience suffer through a seemingly interminable wait.
One day the Streets (aka Mike Skinner) and Dizzee Rascal will learn that important this-side-of-the-pond cultural lesson, but on Thursday at a sold-out 9:30 club, the two English rapping phenoms were perfectly prompt and remarkably polite during sets that showcased two very different styles.
Up first was the aptly named Dizzee Rascal, a speed-demon rapper who made his U.K. debut last year with his much-heralded CD "Boy in da Corner." His bursts of verbal jabs and parries, slang-heavy lyrics and thick British accent create an almost impossible-to-decipher words-in-a-blender feel. Combined with sharp hammering beats, the overall effect of tracks such as "Brand New Day" and "Jus a Rascal" was almost hallucinatory.
Easier to understand was the partying "Fix Up, Look Sharp," and there was no mistaking the expletives he shouted out in a mid-set call-and-response that would have made Dick Cheney feel good. The Londoner was at his best, though, when he chose to freestyle without any backing beats whatsoever. His furiously clever wordplay was easier to decode -- and marvel at.
Headlining the show was the Streets, (okay, we'll just call him Skinner from now on) whose style is less hip-hop than hipster-hop. His audience, in America anyway, is culled not from traditional rap fans but from indie-rock circles. This show attracted a crowd that was far whiter than even Vanilla Ice would have drawn in his heyday.
Skinner is a slacker rapper whose mumble-mouth lyrics are only just a little clearer than Rascal's. But he's also a self-assured entertainer. Joined by four band mates, the Birmingham lad had the enthusiastic crowd singing along and even joining in on a decidedly dorky, hands-in-the-air dance he quickly dubbed the "Washington Push."
Songs from his new concept CD, "A Grand Don't Come for Free," including the exceptional "Dry Your Eyes," made up the bulk of his set, but he also dropped in a few from the debut CD "Original Pirate Material." Success for British rappers in America is a rarity, but on this night, two Englishmen showed much promise. If they can just learn that rap shows don't start on time, they might be on to something.