Oh, the controversy surrounding this concert. Where to begin… North By Northeast, or NXNE for short, is an annual music festival that brings hundreds of artists to Toronto every June. There are many wristband and ticketed concerts put on throughout the city during the one-week festival, and it’s all capped off with a set of free, public concerts in Yonge-Dundas Square on the final weekend. Rock music is usually represented on the Saturday, and Hip-Hop is on the Sunday.
Last year’s Hip-Hop show was headlined by Juicy J and featured Run The Jewels, and in previous years I’ve seen Ludacris, Joey Bada$$, Raekwon & Ghostface Killah, Killer Mike and Action Bronson all hit this very same stage. The controversy is all about that last artist: Action Bronson. In 2012 he performed at NXNE’s free Dundas Square show, opening for Killer Mike, who in turn opened for Rae & Ghost, and in this 2015 edition he was slated to headline the show.
I was looking forward to writing about how far he had come along as an artist, going from being a barely known opener to being able to headline the festival off of the success of his major-label debut album, Mr. Wonderful. Weeks before NXNE however, a petition was launched to have him removed from the lineup, and at the very least changed to a ticketed venue. The petition highlighted obscure tracks from early in Bronson’s career including “Consensual Rape,” and his music video for “Brunch” (off of his Dr. Lecter album), claiming that he glorifies gang-raping and murdering women, and therefore shouldn’t be sponsored to perform in a public space such as Dundas Square. There were many heated arguments I witnessed online, with some very extreme views on the issue.
On one hand, you had angry fans who felt that these obscure tracks unfairly misrepresented Action Bronson’s body of work (as a fan, I personally had never heard of them until this petition brought them to light), and that his set would not be spreading “hate speech” against women if he simply didn’t perform them (“Consensual Rape” has never been performed live, and never made the cut onto any of Bronson’s albums). Many fans are more familiar with the comedic style Bronson has developed in more recent years, and feel that his overall image is not consistent with his character portrayal on Dr. Lecter.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see how many would be put off if their first impression of Bronson was the “Brunch” video, where he throws a woman in his trunk and stabs her to death. I’ve seen fans accuse petition supporters of misinterpreting lyrics, but most art forms, including music, are open to interpretation, and clearly this is one interpretation that resonates with many. There’s also the point that music is immortal; even if these songs aren’t being promoted, they, along with their message, will continue to exist forever, no matter how much Bronson changes and evolves as an artist.
Is this fair for Action Bronson and his fans? Are we wrongfully limiting an artist’s opportunities based on an image they no longer carry, or are we really achieving the goal of protecting women from the glorification of rape culture? It’s a discussion worth having, but in the end, over 40,000 people signed the petition and Action Bronson was removed from the NXNE lineup, eventually being replaced by Shad. While NXNE tried to move Bronson’s show to a ticketed venue, they couldn’t work it out, and Bronson ended up not coming to Toronto at all. There’s also the issue of systematic racism here, which I won’t get into for the sake of getting to the actual concert review.
It seems Shad is replacing folks left and right these days; first Jian Ghomeshi on “q” and now Action Bronson at NXNE. Those who follow me know I recently covered Shad’s concert at Massey Hall in March, and also did an Ambrosia For Heads spotlight on him to celebrate his ten-year anniversary of being a professional artist. While this would be his first time headlining and performing an entire set in Dundas Square, he had previously performed a couple songs here during the 2013 Manifesto Festival. There were some opening acts performing before Shad though.
When I arrived at Dundas Square, Ty Dolla $ign was already on stage just beginning his set. Other than a guest appearance on a Snow Tha Product song, I don’t really know any of his music. He’s one of those rapper/producers I probably heard a couple songs of once, and they did nothing to spark my interest. While he had some cool moments during his set, like playing a bass guitar and bringing some female fans on stage to dance, his set was mostly frustrating to see because it reminded me of the race issue regarding Action Bronson’s banning.
Here we have an artist who blatantly makes songs that are designed to be used in strip clubs (i.e. institutions that promote treating women as objects), focusing his content on graphic, sexual situations, and yet somehow Action Bronson is the one being banned from this show?! Ty$ can’t even rap that well; I didn’t hear one dope bar when he was spitting. Ironically, there were a lot of fine women in the crowd who enjoyed dancing to his beats. He had some cool beats, and the girls he brought on stage were fun to watch, but his partial lip-syncing and half-bar-rapping goes against what it means to be a dope MC. If you ask me, his music and performance goes against what Hip-Hop stands for, and definitely goes against what the 40,000+ petition supporters wanted to achieve.
As he was leaving, Ty Dolla $ign got the crowd to chant some obscenities in regards to Action Bronson not being allowed to perform. Soon afterwards, an entire band got set up on stage and Shad came out to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” They started the set with a high-energy track off of Shad’s latest EP (Boarding Pass), “Hang On.” This then led into some classics that especially sounded great with the live instrumentation (including a trumpet), “Compromise” and “Rose Garden,” before Shad formally introduced himself with “A Good Name.” As with the last few times I saw Shad perform, he brought out his Toronto peer Saukrates to perform the hit “Stylin” with him. As expected, this track absolutely rocked the crowd and brought the uninitiated on board 100%.
Next, the whole band except for the DJ left as Shad brought out another Toronto favourite, Eternia, who ran between the barricades to the middle of the Square as they performed “Love Means.” Whenever they perform this song together, Eternia always makes one hell of an entrance, bringing the energy levels up high. As they got towards the end of the song, the smoke machines made a huge cloud on stage, and the beat mellowed out for Shad to spit the last verse. This made for a smooth transition into the 2007 track “Brother Watching,” which had a violin player come out to perform part of the beat as well as a solo at the end of the song.
Shad performed another fan favourite with “Yaa I Get It” before the band came back out on stage. The keyboard and trumpet players made a dope build-up into the classic “I Don’t Like To,” another track that really benefits from live instrumentation. Next, Shad made a quick dedication to the multicultural city of Toronto before performing the rowdy “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigins).” He then made a dedication to the ladies, something that seemed necessary given the controversy surrounding this show, and performed his tribute to them with “Keep Shining.”
To lighten the mood, Shad made a joke about rapping over some dentist office music before performing the more obscure “It Ain’t Over,” which samples Lenny Kravitz’ “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over.” A classic moment followed as Shad performed “The Old Prince Still Lives At Home,” and the crowd took a little while to get the timing down for their claps on the acapella final verse. While the last verse on this song relied on the crowd to clap the beat (something that was especially cool since it was out in the Square), the band got rocking again with the guitar-heavy “We, Myself and I.” The entire square had their hands up during the chorus for this one.
To wrap up the show, Shad performed “Remember 2 Remember,” which features Lights on the chorus, although she was a few blocks away at the Much Music Video Awards. As the band played out the instrumental bridge of the song, Shad walked up to the crowd and took some selfies with fans in the front row, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do before. Although his set was finished, the crowd chanted “one more song!,” and he returned with his DJ.
The encore started with the “Intro” from Shad’s latest album, 2013’s Flying Colours. Shad then performed a bit of a freestyle before bringing the band back out for an epic performance of “Progress Part 1: American Pie.” You could see why this song was saved for the encore; it’s not a head-nodder or a party track, but rather an epic journey that fans just stood, watched and listened to. The song was especially mesmerizing with the band performing the live instrumental. Shad left us with one more freestyle verse that I recognized from previous shows before saying peace.
Overall, this was definitely an improvement from last year’s NXNE Hip-Hop concert. While the openers weren’t as great as previous years, the headliner was a big improvement, both from last year and from the original lineup with Action Bronson (you mad? This is Hip-Hop; competition is good). Despite the controversial banning of Action Bronson, Shad is an artist who definitely deserves this platform, and he took full advantage of this rare opportunity to perform a full set in Dundas Square. Between the recent Massey Hall show, Burlington’s Sound of Music Festival this past week, and now NXNE, Shad fans in the GTA are getting a lot of love from him, and there are plenty of new fans being put on.
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