Concert Review: Apathy & Celph Titled at Smiling Buddha in Toronto

Always relevant in the underground hip-hop scene, Apathy & Celph Titled have returned to Toronto on the Escape To Canada Tour!  Whether it’s as part of the six-man group, The Demigodz, the large collective of east-coast emcees known as Army of the Pharaohs, or just as solo artists, Apathy & Celph Titled remain among the most respected emcees in hip-hop today.  It’s been a few years since they released full-length albums with The Demigodz or AOTP, but Apathy is coming off one of the best rap albums of 2016 with his fifth solo album Handshakes With Snakes, and there are rumours of Celph Titled preparing to release his first solo album since 2010’s Nineteen Ninety Now in 2018.

The last time Apathy & Celph Titled were in town, they were just kicking off their 2015 Canadian tour at The Rockpile.  Being the first day on tour, they didn’t have a planned set list and basically let their DJ decide on the fly which beats to play from their various catalogues.  This time, they started their tour across Canada on the west coast, and are nearing the end with only two stops remaining after Toronto.  Rather than hit the isolated, mid-sized Rockpile again, they would be performing at a bar dead in the middle of Little Italy which I had never been to before, the Smiling Buddha.

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Just blocks away from other Little Italy concert venues like the Mod Club and Revival, Smiling Buddha is a small, intimate venue that consists of a bar, a stage, and an open floor.  I showed up about an hour after doors had opened and the club was about half full, with opening acts warming up the stage.  Off the bat I have to say this was the best set of opening acts I’ve seen at a hip-hop show in a long time.  Scarborough emcee Lyve Kaos was spitting crisply enunciated, sharp rhymes when I showed up; he made the comment that if you’re an Apathy & Celph Titled fan, you’re a fan of raw spitters, and that this lineup was stacked with those.

After Lyve Kaos was another Toronto group called Moon Crickets, who were filming part of a music video during their performance.  They got the crowd to throw up their Wu-Tang W’s, as the song they were filming for featured verses from Ghostface Killah and Killah Priest.  They also performed their groovy single “The Get Down,” which features the same Wu-Tang emcees plus Cappadonna.  The local Toronto artists really brought their A-game tonight.

Next up were the touring openers who came across Canada with Apathy & Celph Titled.  Connecticut emcees FNX and SeeS each had their own solo sets, before coming together to perform a single called “Can’t Out Rap Me,” which really captured the competitive spirit of the type of hip-hop we were in for.  CB Smooth came out next with a decent set, although he did rap over his own vocal recordings for a few songs, while Suave Ski followed with a more energetic set.  Suave was more familiar to the crowd since he’s collaborated on a few songs with Apathy, including the single he performed, “How To Breathe Underwater.”

The last opener of the night was N.M.E., who had been working behind the merch booth all night.  He brought the most energy to the stage, getting the crowd to jump and wave their arms to the up-tempo beats and fast flows.  It’s no surprise that he would later return to the stage and play hypeman for Apathy & Celph Titled.

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By the time Apathy & Celph Titled got on stage, the building was packed and the body heat was intense near the front.  The last few times I’ve seen Ap & Celph perform, they opened their sets with the Rocky Theme-sampling “Demigodz Is Back,” but this time decided to switch things up and start with the DJ Premier-produced “Stop What Ya Doin’.”  The certified head-nodder got the crowd turned up right away, as everyone rapped along to the verses.  They followed that up with some new material off Handshakes With Snakes, performing Celph Titled’s feature on the album with “Amon RAW.”

For the next few songs, Ap & Celph would go verse for verse, performing bits of various songs the other may not be featured on.  Apathy did verses from his newest album, including the rapid-fire “Attention Deficit Disorder” and “Moses,” while Celph Titled rocked some older tracks like “Mad Ammo” and the first quarter of “Primo’s 4 Course Meal.”  They then came together again and rocked a song they’re both featured on, the 2010 classic “Swashbuckling.”

The building was so hot that Apathy noticed a fan with a vinyl record in the crowd, and decided to borrow it to use as a fan (peep the wordplay).  That vinyl record happened to be his 2014 album Connecticut Casual, and he then performed the single off that album, “The Curse of the Kennedys.”  Next up was a Demigodz segment, as Ap & Celph performed a few songs off the 2013 underground classic, KILLmatic.  They of course did “Demigodz Is Back,” and followed up with “Raiders Cap.”  I especially enjoyed when they performed “Dead in the Middle” while they were actually dead in the middle of Little Italy.

Next was a classic that Apathy has been performing for years: “It Takes A Seven Nation Army,” which of course samples The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”  DJ Mercilless let the crowd jam out to that classic guitar riff before restarting the song so Ap could find his place over that booming bass.  Ap & Celph then got into an Army of the Pharaohs segment to close out the show, performing their verses from several of the large posse cuts.  Despite the deep catalogue they have with AOTP, they pretty much stuck to the same songs we’ve seen them perform on the last few tours.

They performed both their verses on the 2014 single “God Particle” before getting into some decade-old throwbacks.  Celph Titled performed his verse from “Seven,” and Apathy did his own from “Feast of the Wolves,” along with an accapella freestyle verse that seemed to be a work in progress (Ap likes to preview verses at his live shows before recording them for his albums).  Celph Titled then did some of his most memorable verses from “Swords Drawn” and “Dump The Clip,” with the crowd shouting out his punchlines with him.  They then closed out the show with the first song off the first AOTP album, “Battle Cry.”  Apathy signed the Connecticut Casual vinyl he had been using as a fan and returned it to the fan in the crowd – the rest of the fans moved in on the stage trying to get their own autographs.

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It’s always a pleasure seeing Apathy & Celph Titled perform.  I liked seeing some of the new songs off Handshakes With Snakes get performed, but I would’ve liked to see some different Army of the Pharaohs selections.  Since releasing two new AOTP albums in 2014, I’ve only seen one of those new songs ever get performed.  I think in order to bring some more variety and really give the fans what they want, we need to see a tour with more AOTP and/or Demigodz members.  A tour including Vinnie Paz, Esoteric, Reef, and Outerspace could potentially put up numbers – definitely more than each artist touring individually.

Overall though, this was a good old fashioned, grimy underground hip-hop show, with beer spilled on the floor and weed smoke filling the air.  The Smiling Buddha was a great fit for the hardcore, battle-rap oriented performances, where the lyrics are the number one focus.  It was a fun night from start to finish, with opening acts and headliners alike capturing the spirit of raw, competitive hip-hop.  Apathy & Celph Titled have shows in Ottawa and Montreal before wrapping up the Escape To Canada Tour and heading back to the land of Donald Trump in the US (who’s depicted in the tour art chasing the two emcees).

 

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