I don’t think I’ve ever been to a High Focus show and not experienced a non-stop onslaught of quality hip-hop with a real party atmosphere. The Four Owls’ tour in support of their recently released second album Natural Order came to Mine at Leeds University and they brought with them Onoe Caponoe, Ocean Wisdom, Edward Scissortongue, three individual, diverse and impressive MCs on the circuit. On DJ duties came DJ Madnice and DJ BB.
After some pretty hefty security checks, I walk into the buzzing, attentive crowd full of anticipation for a masterclass in energetic live shows and authentic UK hip-hop packed with content and concepts.
First of the High Focus roster to rock the stage is Onoe Caponoe and DJ BB. The haunting beats and the left-field lyricism impress from the word go, with a chilled out vibe and flawlessly delivered flows. Onoe’s charismatic presence on the mic means that the Planet Cattele is being felt in full force in Leeds tonight. Fliptrix holds down the hype-man duties from a shrouded position at the back of the stage and Caponoe’s hypnotic, spacey flow completely captures the crowd’s attention. Leaf Dog also briefly joins on stage to jam with Onoe’s funked out material, serving as a little reminder of the main event to follow.
Next comes Edward Scissortongue. He stands centre stage with rock star sunglasses and a swaggered out posture. There is no DJ for Scissor’s set; only him, the microphone, his laptop and a midi controller are on stage – and this mystique matches his musical vibe perfectly. His vivid imagery and complex flows are impeccably delivered, demonstrating a cutting live delivery on the mellow and menacing Teeth. He has such a commanding presence, both on record and on stage and although tour fatigue is kicking in, by Ed’s own admission, he continues to hold down his unique brand of imagery laden lyricism with class. His intricacy and intelligence is absorbing and relentlessly impressive. He drops a new characteristically detailed and developed tune, packed with sharp bars. Spastic Max is also a highlight of the set; it really is one of the most captivating tracks of recent UK hip-hop history.
Following Scissor comes one of the most promising spitters to recently make his stamp on the scene. Ocean Wisdom, a young Brighton MC, set the internet alight when he dropped his video for Walkin’ and I was very excited to see him perform live tonight. He takes to the stage with DJ Madnice donned in a black bandanna round his neck, demonstrating his gritty and grimy flow with a cocky delivery and forceful impact. He has excellent breath control, with a jaw dropping double-time flow. He debuts a new tune over a Foreign Beggars beat; the rapid instrumental and standard necksnap-inducing bars all contribute to one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen for a long time. Wisdom shows his versatility with tongue twisting percussive flows one minute and golden era boom bap bangers the next. He closes his set with Walkin’ – and i’m not even going to try and put into words how good that was!
The Four Owls storm on stage in full owl mask get-up. These certified legends show their four distinctive styles over beautifully constructed boom bap beats, with bars packed with detailed lyricism. Tonight’s set includes a nice mix between their classic 2011 Nature’s Greatest Mystery album, and the excellent new project, Natural Order. The delicate keys and hard hitting drums of Life In The Balance provide the backdrop for tight, precise spitting from each member; the chemistry between Fliptrix, Leaf Dog, Verb T and BVA is crystal clear.
Each track is packed with deep, meaningful, well structured bars and the encapsulating stage presence shows the veteran MC’s experience. Big Flipper calls for the beat to be cut and pays respect to Leaf Dog’s production talents – and their new album is certainly a testament to this. Three Hits To The Dome is the perfect joint for the persistently rowdy crowd and the consistently effective raw hip-hop entertains the Northern crowd into the very early hours. Much Too Much is energetic, raucous rap music at its finest and the crowd goes nuts when DJ Madnice drops the beat for Not Like Before.
The Owls’ content, witty punchlines and expertly delivered verses show their undoubted, undeniable skill. After the crowd chant for one more song, DJ Madnice drops the DJ Premier-produced Think Twice, before Fliptrix kills Wylin’ Out with hard hitting bar spitting, followed by Verb T dropping the dope Leave Me Alone; Verbs is one of the most consistent MCs still tearing it down years into his career.
Fliptrix, Scissor, Caponoe, Wisdom and Leaf Dog finish the show with a tight cypher with DJ Madnice and DJ BB going back-to-back; Leaf Dog spitting on uptempo trap beats is heavy, if unexpected – and Verb T’s versatility is also proven when he goes in double-time style on a thumping, grimy instrumental. High Focus pull it out the bag again with a convincing, captivating and skilful show packed front to back with first rate lyricism and distinctive styles. If you’ve not seen these guys before you’re missing out on something truly special.
Interview with BVA of The Four Owls
How has the Leeds crowd compared to the other cities you’ve hit up on tour so far?
Leeds are just as loud, just as hype as anywhere we’ve been so far.
Can you tell us the craziest experience you’ve come across?
I dunno if I can tell you, it’s one of those things you’ve gotta guess about…
How about something memorable?
Okay, well this ain’t crazy but this is something that happened this morning (before the Leeds show). We were staying in an apartment in Manchester last night; we were in this one upstairs before we checked out, but the lads went back to get their bags at like 4pm or something and the guy at reception just went, “What was that obscene weed that they were smoking in apartment 901 last night?” and they all started laughing – brightened their day!
What’s the lifestyle been like on the road? Have you had time to explore cities or have you been busy rehearsing?
We rehearse before we come on tour and obviously we don’t all live near each other, so like, me and Leaf Dog had a little rehearsal, Verbs rehearsed, Fliptrix… I’m sure the rest of them did, so when we’re on tour we’re just having fun. When we can, we’ll go walk around the city, look at everything, know what I mean? But to be honest the traffic’s fucked this tour up. We’ve been arriving everywhere like an hour before the show and shit the whole time, apart from Leeds. Leeds is actually the only city we actually enjoyed. Everywhere else we just turned up for the show, did the show, woke up and had to leave and shit. We’ve got a lot of love for Leeds. We’ve played here for years a good few times and there’s always a good turn-out. You can’t fault Leeds.
Who was controlling the music on the ride up today?
Well there’s a car and a van. I don’t know what they’re listening to in the car, I’m in the nine seater minibus. On the way up I was in control: we were listening to Big Daddy Kane, Ghostface, Wu Tang, Gangstarr… shit like that.
DJ BB took control the next day, we were listening to Roc Marciano, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$’ new album – that’s a banger! Then I got back in control today, we were listening to a bit of Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane again, always good shit.
How have the vibes at Mine tonight compared to other hip-hop venues in Leeds?
The vibes were probably better tonight than any party I’ve ever played in Leeds, I won’t doubt that! But vibes as a venue… I’d give it to Wardrobe, because the security are a lot more chill, you could burn and do whatever you wanted and they weren’t so angry about it!
For the people who are seeing tracks like Silent Flight and Think Twice but are still unsure about purchasing the new Natural Order album or not; what have you got to say to those people?
All I’ve got to say is: we’re four serious dudes. We made that first album kind of by accident; because we were all just rappers and we happened to fall together, if you know what I’m saying. The second time round we tried to make an album, so we made about thirty, maybe thirty five tracks, met up three or four times and just kept refining it down and refining it down. The aim the whole time was just to make it as good or better than the last one – and when the point came that we all felt it was as good or better than the last one, it’s out. That’s just by our opinion – if people don’t agree that’s up to them, but as long as we’re all happy that it’s as good or better than the last one, it’s coming.
Do you think Natural Order is better than the Nature’s Greatest Mystery debut?
I could never tell you man. That’s something for the people to tell us.
You’ve just had an incredible reception from the crowd for the new album, but the crowd inside went off to oldies like Original & All My Life…
That’s the crazy one, like seeing that and having people telling me things that make me think… that it’s bigger than you imagined it was.
The Owls are taking flight again, we’re proud to see you representing UK hip-hop on the forefront.
I’m happy to hear you say that and if I am representing it I’ll carry on trying to help other people help represent it as well; Smellington Piff, Jack Jetson, check that shit, RLD Records!
Interview by Ethan Everton