On a Thursday evening in late September, Communion presents Say Woah took us all to church with a hip-hop extravaganza and a sold-out show at Saint Hackney Church in east London. Artists on the night included headliners, Brighton rap and producer duo, Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn, Jeshi and The Silhouettes Project.
Whilst UK rap as an umbrella term has undoubtedly become a commodity for the recording industry, genre offshoot drill has become increasingly lucrative due to its commercial viability, led by a dilution courtship with the mainstream. Other spinoffs under the parasol of rap have been overshadowed. Alternative rap, jazz rap, lo-fi rap, underground rap or my favourite term, bedroom rap, whatever you want to call it…
The polyonymous member of the rap family tree firmly places its cardinal virtues well and truly outside the realm of its mainstream sibling. If this was the Knowles family tree, drill is unquestionably Beyonce, more comfortable basking in the commercial bake of the sun, and alternative rap is Solange quietly crafting her art to a different set of aspirations. The two, albeit related, are incomparable in contrasts when it comes to musical output. As the more commercially successful member of the rap family (drill) continues to gorge at the mainstream top table. The invitation for new artists to secure a seat at the same table is conditionally stipulated by a set of requirements from recording industry executives. Where artistry is not the sole currency and other marketable barometers of KPIs (key performance indicators, if you’re wondering); a plurality of streaming figures, social media presence and potential of virality on TikTok.
By its very nature, the underground has always been an unconfined, unpolished and less elitist place for musicians to grow their craft and sound. And thanks, partly, to the technological advancements of home recording and studio set-up equipment, it’s a lot easier for rappers and producers to construct their careers outside the restraints and entry requirements set by labels to develop their sound artistically and release and market their music.
Consequently, the underground UK hip-hop scene is flourishing with the most incredible jaw-dropping talent. And for these artists, it isn’t just about designing their own sound with a DIY approach. They’re quietly rejecting the notion that they must be the commodity with an oven-ready fan base and social media following before their music even hits an eardrum. Deconstructing the industry’s elitism with an almost spiritual; if the music is good enough, they will come and a f*ck it anyway mentality. And coming they are, in their droves, the alternative hip-hop genre steadily racks up millions of plays and subscriptions to playlists on Spotify. The clearest indications that the genre and – whatever it will eventually be crowned – is going to be something to be reckoned with in the not-too-distant future; as a general rule, anything big on the underground is just a few short years away from becoming the next big thing everywhere. But for now, the genre’s habitat in the shade allows room for artistry to grow and incubate before the mainstream and all its trappings beckon.
The genre, however, as it stands, is not getting the recognition it deserves, and many artists are just starting to gain momentum. Most recently, we’ve seen Loyle Carner tip over the 2 million monthly listeners mark, and his UK and European tour dates have been a resounding sell-out. Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn are other acts on many people’s lips. The duo have the potential to become as synonymous with the genre’s developmental sound and as culturally relevant as The Streets became with his seminal Y2K debut Original Pirate Material and good-guy-geezer persona that bowled into the hearts of the nation. You can hear The Streets has been a direct inspiration for the pair. Their sound evokes comparisons of him throughout their music, alongside the melancholy of the late great Mac Miller. Mike Skinner has even come out as a fan of the Brightonian pair.
As the wider alternative-rap artist community takes the genre back to its cultural roots of connection, community and relatability. No beef, no takedowns, and no one pitted against each other; everyone’s on the same side, just straight-up family vibes. If any artists embody this new movement, it’s The Silouhette Project, a platform for the new generation of underground hip-hop, jazz, and soul music in the UK. The project aims to unify artists who are making groundbreaking music. Founded by Jaden and Asher (aka Eerf Evil & Kosher). The pair felt a collective frustration at the music scene in the UK and its lack of structure for artists who fall outside of the mainstream and their continuous overlooking of buzzing alternative hip-hop culture, leading to the brainchild and name, ‘The Silhouettes Project’, which shines a light on those artists in the shadows.
When it was announced that Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn were headlining, it was inevitable that the show would sell out. The best mates duo have built a loyal following over the years and gained a lot of attention and acclaim with their album releases Handle With Care which dropped in 2021, and 2020’s Breathing Exercises, both outputs featuring a who’s-who of the scene from Loyle Carter, Kofi Stone and Ocean Wisdom.
I spent the week before the gig immersed in their back catalogue. I revisited my; “I’m not crying, you’re crying” moment by watching the acoustic video to ‘No Sleep‘, featuring Sam Tompkins, released in late December 2021. The timing of the video hitting YouTube coincided with my newfound motherhood giving me all the feels. The video is 3mins and 11 seconds of the most beautifully wholesome content ever captured on film. Lyrically the song encapsulated the feeling of newfound parenting nuances, shifting sands beneath your feet, and the overwhelming love of becoming a parent for the first time. Before lockdown babies, like many others, I found myself gravitating towards their music during the lows of lockdowns; it was perfectly timed to aid the suffocation of the situation. Lyrically you feel every word that Frankie stutters, heartache, hope and self-growth. If you haven’t listened to the album yet, you’ll become a better listener as a side effect. Harvey’s intuitive abilities for production create a blank canvas for Frankie to lyrically paint his truths, showcasing why he is one of the UK’s best-in-class producer talents.
When gig evening arrived, I continued with my new tradition of reaching on time to experience the support acts. Stepping out of the Uber, my feet touching the sacred ground with excitement as I walked towards the Grade II listed church. The churchyard buzzed with excitement as eager fans marched toward the entrance to the church. Smiley security faces greeted us at the door and were faster at checking tickets and doing security checks than an Aldi checkout attendant. Entering the church is a full-blown sensory experience; contemporary in look and feel, and not a Jesus crucifix in sight. Architecturally, the interior has been stripped back to its former oak glory, and the alter-come-stage is set underneath a magnificent stained glass window. It’s a jaw-dropping and perfect space for live music. Inside, the venue was bustling to the background sounds of the DJ. To the left of the stage was a small set design replicating a living room with a standing lamp and house plant.
Doing a quick recce, I checked out the smoking area, buzzing with excited music fans discussing who they’d come to see. Hearing voices take to the mic, I rush back into the church. The Silhouette Project were on stage announcing the set-up for the night. Kicking off the sweetest of vocal performances was Natty Wylah and South London’s Elisa Imperilee, her angelic vocals perfectly intertwined with the environment on her track Closer.
Next up was Stephanie Santiago, who took us to C-H-U-R-C-H (even though we were already there). With a stunning performance showcasing her impressive raspy vocal abilities alongside laid-back rapper Turt on their Silhouettes Project track, ‘The Process‘, Stephanie was so mind-blowing I could have listened to her all night. When Keep Vibes Near slid to the stage, looking seriously slick, joining the Nix Northwest for their Purple Cloud produced track ‘What U Need‘, the tune got a huge reaction from the crowd, and with vocals seriously on point, he demonstrated why he should be on everyone’s artist-to-watch list.
As the night rolled on, it was hard to keep up with the abundance of talent presented. The crowd relished every moment as they bounced and swayed to hip-hop beats. When Jeshi took to the stage, the energy in the crowd surged as he performed his stand-out tracks from his Universal Credit album release, including ‘Generation‘ and ‘Protein‘.
A little after 10pm, Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn casually took to the stage. It was clear from the congregation that most attendees had pilgrimaged to their set. The duo opened with the most appropriately fitting opener of any show I have attended. The sacred sounds of ‘Adult Workers‘ heralded from the speakers. The dance floor, which felt packed, became more gridlocked as everyone hustled and bustled for their crowd position; the excitement was palpable.
“Yeah, yeah, London.
How we f*cking feeling?
“What a venue!”
As the anthem instrumentals dropped for ‘Tortoise‘, the audience turned into an impromptu choir, reciting the lyrics word for word. Every face in the venue was beaming and the vibe was filled with love. When Harvey slammed down the garage-infused ‘Fatboys Cafe‘, it was a clear sign that night wouldn’t be a subdued head-bopper and that the holy spirit of the garage scene was very much inside the ride.
“Everyone at the back make some noise.”
The crowd obliged and threw their hands up under the neon glow of the stage lights. By the time ‘Good Will Hunting‘ played, the fellowship was well and truly hyped.
“London, make some f*cking noise.”
As the piano sample of ‘Humble Pie‘ fell across the room with its garage-infused underbelly, the crowd bounced and spat verses in unison. Frankie’s ability to spit meaningful bars with feeling whilst finely balancing a quick spit delivery proved his mastery on the mic. When ‘Tears on My Window‘ rolled through the building, Frankie instructed the audience to hold their phones up, lighting the room up with the glimmer of hundreds of iPhones.
Throughout the show, the performance reminds us that the two aren’t just musical partners. “Make some noise and appreciation for my best friend Harvey f*cking Gunn…“
The tracks continued to roll from ‘Put it On Me‘, leading to garage homage ‘Coconuts‘, which got the night’s biggest reaction and brought out the bubbling crew. Frankie spat with crystal clear precision at lightning speed, flexing his stamina and technical skills whilst Harvey slammed multiple reloads.
Their headline slot was a marathon which solidified two very special talents at the top of their game. They showcased that their musical catalogue is not just for lonesome lounge listening – you won’t be holding up the wall during their live shows, that’s for sure. Whether you’re looking to lose yourself in the solace of lyrical kinship, because your life scales are tipping towards the not going so well scale, or, if they’re in perfect equilibrium, journeying into their music will be one helluva deep and enjoyable dive through heartfelt lyricism. Wherever you’re at, trust me, Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn have something for you.
Words by Chris Kelly. Chris is a freelance music journalist and feature writer with a focus on emerging and established artists, subcultures, the art world and mental health. Chris has multifaceted expertise as a media and creative specialist working with your favourite brands and helping them to embed themselves within the culture through strategic and entertaining content for brands, businesses and organisations.