VALEE with SYDANIE, JUST JOHN x DOM DIAS and THE DIRTY B-SIDES at Sully’s Boxing Gym, Saturday, January 12. Rating: NNN
We’re not even half a month into 2019, and it’s clear that the increasing lack of Toronto music venues will continue to pose challenges for artists and promoters this year. The hip-hop community has faced the brunt of these struggles, as many bookers have refused to book rap shows or do so at higher costs.
New live music series It’s OK* is attempting to be part of the solution. For their first edition, organizers Alicia Bee and Said Yassin took over Sully’s Boxing Gym, the city’s oldest boxing gym, founded in 1943 (where legends including Muhammad Ali and Canadian George Chuvalo once trained), and transformed the ring into a stage. With a headlining performance by Chicago rising star Valee (who signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music last year) and support from local heavyweights Sydanie and duo Just John x Dom Dias, it’s no surprise tickets sold out quickly.
Responsible for warming up the crowd was Sydanie, whose 2018 mixtape 999 was one of the city’s best last year, showcasing her storytelling abilities and fleet-footed rhymes about Black motherhood and sexual identity. While she admitted to some nerves, she didn’t show it, delivering a tight and energetic set, which suggested she has larger stages in her future yet.
Sydanie with the Dirty B-Sides
For the second half, she was backed by live hip-hop band The Dirty B-Sides, which got bodies swaying around the ring. The band stuck around to bridge the gap between sets, playing instrumental covers of songs by Lupe Fiasco and Snoop Dogg, complete with horns and flute.
Scarborough-born rapper Just John is no stranger to fighting for DIY arts spaces in the city, which he acknowledged briefly at the beginning of his high-octane set. He’s cut his teeth performing in similarly-sized venues, and it showed. He took full advantage of the ring to move around and hype up the crowd, while producer Dom Dias provided hard-nosed, punk-inflected beats from a laptop.
Just John x Dom Dias
They also brought out fellow Toronto MC DillanPonders, who enthusiastically sparred with John. Just John x Dom Dias recently signed a deal with Warner Music Canada, and if the forthcoming single Drippy (which they debuted live during the show) is any indication, 2019 should be a big year for them.
Unfortunately, the openers’ livewire energy didn’t rub off on Valee. The rapper – who released the excellent EP GOOD Job, You Found Me and a handful of infectious singles in 2018 – is an undeniably talented and charismatic MC, whose whispered flows and penchant for off-kilter beats has spawned many imitators. But despite the crowd’s rapt attention, and a DJ acting as hypeman, his brief half-hour set felt flat. Valee saved his biggest hits for last, ending with the 1-2 punch of Miami and Womp Womp, before shouting out his label one last time and exiting.
While it was a slightly anticlimactic finish to an otherwise strong evening, the packed gym proved there’s an audience hungry for smaller rap shows in non-traditional venues. Host Cheffy announced at the end of the night that the next It’s OK* event will happen in March. With a successful first show, the series has a solid foundation to build on.
@nowtoronto | @Max_Mertens