Big Narstie comes to Cambridge
Close encounters of the #base kind.
When it comes to grime, Cambridge is more triple A* than D Double E – but that didn’t stop South London’s finest son being given a hero’s welcome at his set at Fez on Thursday.
Even at this most archaic of Unis, grime has found some sort of home – most Cambridge clubbers might know enough of the words to Shutdown for a passable roadman impression, but chances are you know a few people who huddle in a corner of the JCR, caps pulled down low, muttering about exotic things such as ‘reloads’, ‘Eskimo Dance’ and ‘I should’ve gone to Bristol’.
For those discerning few, this Thursday Fez was the landmark event of the term, the gig that Skepta at Strawberries and Creem and Stormzy at Junction were just warmups for – Uncle Pain himself was coming to town. The scene veteran had a stellar 2015, benefitting from the renewed public interest in grime, whilst his Uncle Pain videos also went from strength to hilarious strength. It looks like 2016 may hold even greater things, as the hype around his recent Craig David collaboration shows no signs of dying down.
His first engagement in our historic city was at Wolfson college, for an interview to promote the upcoming Strawberries and Creem festival (passed off to porters as a ‘poetry reading’ however). Both on and off camera he was on his usual spectacular form: topics ranged from a planned BDL album in the works to the eeriness of Cambridge architecture (‘this place is spooky cuz’), and the unexpected security risks of skinny jeans (‘man’s trousers are so tight now you can see their credit card number through them’).
After Narstie’s very own Cambridge supervision (of sorts), he recovered from it in the way any self-respecting Cantab would: head straight to the JCR to cotch. There are unfortunately many in the rarified world of academia who have yet to be blessed by the BDL goodness, and a chance encounter with a group of non-plussed students over their choice of board-game left the man doubtful about how his upcoming set would go down.
Undeterred, he headed to the pool table, but unfortunately fared little better there.
Game over, he was whisked away, and we were left counting down the hours until he touched mic at Cambridge’s sweatiest sweatbox. Local stalwart Cardinal Sound did a virtuosic job in warming up the crowd at Fez, lining up the choicest grime and garage cuts for a set that went down a storm with an audience bedecked in Palace, Supreme, Adidas and Ellesse. Even before the headliner himself arrived, tracks like Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow’ had the sort of riotous impact that made you realise why it was banned in clubs back in 2004.
Fez is an ‘intimate’ place at the best of times, but rarely has it seen moshpits like those that erupted when Big Narstie took hold of the mic, delivering his BDL sermon with the Fez DJ booth as pulpit. Many people write off Narstie as a comical figure, good for a laugh on YouTube, but not one of serious musicality. Yet whilst he had his tongue-in-cheek moments, screaming ‘Man’s a fish, cuz!’ from the ubiquitous Vine over pummelling beats, he was dead serious in delivering as high-energy a set as anyone would want. Tracks like ‘Gas Pipe’ had the crowd heaving in a way that was far from ironic, whilst ‘When the Bassline Drops’ delivered a groove as silky and supple as Versace leather. He even showed unexpected musical variety, dropping a new exclusive in the form of a brooding yet intense drum’n’bass banger called ‘Sunshine’ at the end of his set.
And so, with Ralphies soaked with sweat, the Cambridge ravers made their way back home to their three-hundred-year-old dorms. To those already converted, it was just yet another testimony to the power of one of Britain’s most vibrant and unique music scenes. To the skeptical, it was proof that grime is not about Daily Mail-esque gangsters in tracksuits, but that it is glorious and inclusive party music, even if you spend most of your waking hours reading 16th-century devotional poetry.