It was a very dismal turn out at the Espy on Saturday night; local ‘it’ producer MPhazes started proceedings with a classic hip-hop DJ set, delivered to only small handful of people.  Having quickly established himself as a presence in the international hip-hop community, the past year has seen the release of MPhazes’ debut album ‘Good Gracious’ pick up an ARIA for Best Urban Album, and his beats being featured on records by such luminaries as Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli, Redman, Bliss N Esso and Drapht.  Despite this resume, as a DJ he’s inoffensive yet average, mixing in some of his own beats with predictable classics from the likes of Ghostface Killah, Gangstarr and BDP, it would have been nice to have heard some Oz hip-hop in there too, but it did the job.

Geelong rapper Fatty Phew then took to the stage and brought some generic, juvenile Australian raps, which immediately killed any of the mood that the previous act had created.  Without wanting to be too harsh, it was difficult to understand whose idea it was to book Fatty Phew to open an international gig on a Saturday night at the Espy, could no one get hold of Pegz, Mantra or Illy? Really?!  After a thankfully brief set, MPhazes reappeared and stepped the vibe up a little, playing higher energy cuts from well known groups, and by now a small crowd of baggy jeaned bogans had gathered near the front of the stage, waiting for the acts that we were all there to see.

As was drawn to our attention upon entry this evening, 9th Wonder, the DJ half of the headlining musical duo, did not perform due to ‘unforseen circumstances’, in fact, as it turned out he never even made it out of the US.  Some disappointment at not seeing the celebrated producer aside, the vocal half of the Murs & 9th Wonder team strolled onstage and gave it his all, delivering a ‘best of’ set that finally justified the $45 entry fee.  Despite the fact that he had to play all the tracks himself directly off of a laptop, Murs brought all of the energy and charisma which he exudes on record, delivering tracks spanning from 2003’s The End of the Beginning (‘You & I’), ‘Dirty Girl’, from his Felt collaboration with Slug in 2005, as well as the 9th Wonder albums –  ‘H-U-S-T-L-E’ and ‘Bad Man!’ from 2004’s Murs 3:16 :The 9th Edition, ‘Dark Skinned White Girls’ from 2006’s Murray’s Revenge, amongst others.  With dreadlocks swinging, Murs rocked the house, in spite of the disappointing turnout, and gave a tight and consistent show.

In what in retrospect was a very oddly assembled bill, next up was a man who in his own words is “mad famous for being unknown”, RA the Rugged Man.  On paper pairing RA and Murs on a bill together might not have seemed so strange; they’re both American MCs who’ve been releasing records since the 90s, both are signed to independent labels and could be described as underground acts.  However, musically they are miles apart, while Murs’ music is often based around soulful grooves, riding a line between street tales and personal songs, RA seems to favour a sparser sound compounded with harsh beats and a constant monotone rap-flow.  The other thing about RA is his ‘act’, where he pretends to be mentally ill (although according to the confessional style of songs like ‘Lessons’, it might not be a put on), bugging his eyes, yelling his lyrics and trying to basically be as obnoxious as possible.  Instead of coming across as a loveable jester, such as Flavour Flav or ODB, RA’s act is much more aggressive and less melodic, and by which I mean less musical in general.  At one stage the dude took his shirt off on stage, and, upon viewing this overweight, balding, sweaty white guy who was shouting at us, my friend turned and asked why we were watching this.  I had no answer.  See, RA can rap, he has a very fluid and well honed flow, but both his choice of beats, vocal delivery, and over the top ‘wild man’ act,  resulted in a show that was jarring, crass and just plain not interesting.  Many people, including my friends, retired to the front bar mid-set, although a small dedicated group were lapping it up at the front of the stage, continually throwing their hands in the air AND waving them like they just didn’t care.  But personally, I just didn’t care.

While it might sound like some extremely harsh criticism is being dished out for two of the four acts who performed tonight, it was actually an enjoyable, if uneven, evening.  The next time Murs is booked to return to our shores let’s hope he brings his musical partner, some of his usual touring mates like Atmosphere, or maybe even some of the artists he featured at his annual Paid Dues festival in California last month, such as Black Starr, Immortal Technique or Bun B, now that would be a show worthy of such a gifted entertainer.

–        Alex Watts