Canadian hip-hop icon k-os has always been an uncompromising artist intent on pushing hip-hop forward. On Wednesday, April 17, at Sugar Nightclub, he put on a show that was as much a tribute to the past as it was a peek into the future. Flanked by a full band that included a scratch-tastic DJ and not one, but two drummers, the show was a raucous celebration of the music that has inspired and informed k-os throughout his storied career.
Over the years, it’s been easy at times to forget that k-os is, first and foremost, a rapper. His public persona has been increasingly associated with the Canadian modern and indie-rock scenes. This show roundly refuted that idea with a ragged, powerful hip-hop assault that proved that shift in image has more to do with the cross-over appeal of his music that bothers so many hip-hop purists.
On this night, k-os fully embraced nearly every aspect of hip-hop culture with his beatboxing, his more-than-able singing voice, his I-forgot-he-could-do-this rapping and freestyling, and his maniacal DJ scratching. Still, the most entertaining person on stage might have been the break-dancer who b-boyed his way across and around the stage with power and grace, hamming it up all over the place. K-os’s hit “Superstarr Pt. Zero” provided the first soundtrack to the incredible dance display. It was hip-hop culture coming together like back in the day.
Reminders of and praise to hip-hop’s past came in the form of short bits from others’ songs interspersed throughout K-os’s own tunes, a staple of great hip-hop. When he jumped up to the front of the stage and yelled out the legendary Beastie Boys refrain, “So whatcha, whatcha, whatcha, whatcha …” and expected the crowd to end it with the appropriate, “Want!”, the audience was reminded that he is a student and keeper of hip-hop tradition.
Part-way through the set, the lights dropped, leaving just dim red bulbs as the band broke into a familiar beat I couldn’t immediately place. After a few bars of k-os’s inciendiary “Emcee Murdah,” I placed it as the legendary beat from the Dr. Dre/Eminem collaboration “Forgot About Dre,” which was not so cleverly changed on this night to “Forgot About K.” Combined with “Try Again” from his fascinating new record, Black on Blonde, the tracks showed k-os is comfortable sounding as grimy and nasty as anyone else rapping today.
Not letting one side of his personality overshadow the other, k-os mixed swirls of rock music love throughout the creamy hip-hop ice cream with interpolations of classics like Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt.2” and The Police’s “Roxanne.” Another highlight came as k-os and his guitar player took centre stage to reinterpret his breakout hit “Heaven Only Knows” over the classic riffs at the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
The best rock moment of the night was when k-os dedicated a song to an ex-girlfriend in the crowd (who looked exceedingly embarrassed when he pointed her out) and then stopped himself before he dove into the track, explaining that it felt mean to follow through. At the crowd’s boisterous urging, k-os turned to his first instinct and broke into “The Dog Is Mine,” a disco-bouncy breakup track from his latest record.
As he and the band returned to the stage for a second encore, k-os noted the rarity of such an encore but said the night and crowd called for it. It was a fitting end to an evening that was all about love — K-os’s love for his fans, their love for him and everyone’s shared love of hip-hop music.