Canibus: London Ladbroke Grove Subterania

Canibus finally re-enters the fray to hit back at LL...

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned scrap to get hip-hop fans’ pulses racing. Just like schoolboys who’ll run from every corner of the playing fields if there’s even the rumour of a rumble, rap aficionados will travel for miles at the first metaphorical smell of blood. From the days of KRS-One versus MC Shan and Roxanne Shante versus the Real Roxanne, battling has been an established part of hip-hop history. And in recent years, nothing has come close to touching the giddying heights of excitement generated by LL Cool J’s spat with Canibus.

A rangy, almost gangling New Jerseyite with a permanently furrowed brow and sporting a massive bejewelled “C” on a chain round his neck, Canibus is playing his first ever headline show in the UK. He once lived here, spending a year with an aunt in Clapham, and pays homage to his roots with the opening ‘Buckingham Palace’ which finds him “spittin’ fire, with gasoline for saliva/Drunker than Lady Diana’s driver with reporters behind her”. He follows the sublime with the almost ridiculous, performing the whole of his legendary ‘100 Bars’, an uninterrupted five-minute torrent of verbiage, humour and intellect. It’s stunning.

But the high point for most of tonight’s crowd comes towards the end of the set, as Canibus finally re-enters the fray to hit back at LL. The battle’s roots go back three years, and while Cool J has taken several pot-shots at Canibus in the interim, the young gun has kept his counsel, maintaining that his 1998 ‘Second Round KO’ single said all that needed to be said. But a new track premiered tonight, which Canibus performs without music so as to make sure everyone can hear every last syllable, shows that the lure of the fight has proved too strong to resist. Ideas come flying out faster than note-taking permits, though the suggestion that LL ought to alter the title of his album from ‘G.O.A.T.’ to ‘G.L.O.A.T.’, as he’s both the Greatest Liar and Greatest Loser of all time, sticks indelibly in the memory.

Canibus has a problem here. He’s consistently raised himself above the schoolyard level and his aloofness has helped him maintain an unassailably cool position. Most rap fans scoring this bout make him the clear winner on points. But everyone wants him to step back in the ring, even if it means he’ll find it ever harder to shake the tag of simply being “that freestyle cat that battled LL”. And this show underlines both sides of the conundrum: for as much as Canibus deserves to stand tall and proud and remove himself from LL’s shadow, he just can’t resist. And we love him all the more for it.

Chip Shannon