MIKE and Crew: Theatre Fairmount hosts an abstract hip-hop marathon

When I first heard MIKE in 2020, I was, as most first-time listeners are, surprised. At first glance, MIKE seems to be not much more than your average abstract hip-hop artist. Slurred bars laid over disjointed, chopped-up soul samples fill most of the rappers' tracks, but after a few minutes, it seems to transform. MIKE’s flows seem almost spiritual like he is nonchalantly tapping into a higher power to put any listener into some sort of jazz-rap trance. There is a friendliness buried in the soul chops and introspective bars, like a warm hug from someone you've known since childhood. With all this, it's easy to see how MIKE has hugely influenced the hip-hop scene. Mentored by Earl Sweatshirt himself, the New York MC has been crafting raps for almost a decade now and has formed a community of sonically like-minded individuals around him, working hand-in-hand with the said community to create a prominent new sound in today's industry.

Avant-garde jazz rap is what most refer to it as, and it is a genre truly brimming with talent; Navy Blue, MAVI, Sideshow and Wiki are a few names that come to mind. This sound has even crossed the border to the North, with rappers like Toronto’s Raz Fresco and our city's own Mike Shabb toting similar sounds. And, while these artists all bring their level of talent and artistry to the game, it seems to always come back to MIKE; acting almost like the heart of the sonic space, pumping out inspiration and style throughout the game. Seeing this raw talent live has been on my checklist for almost as long as I've been a hip-hop fan, and last Friday this dream was fulfilled at Montreal's very own Fairmount Theatre. 

Upon entry to the Fairmount, it was easy to tell what kind of sound would be hosted that night. The crowd was filled with familiar patrons, all toting merch from artists like Earl Sweatshirt and MF DOOM, like a sort of abstract hip-hop uniform. Even the DJ seemed to be in on the action, playing back-to-back hits from frequent MIKE collaborator The Alchemist. The all-around experimental rap theme didn't stop there; opening the show was a veritable abstract hip-hop hat-trick. First up was D.C. native El Cousteau, whose disjointed, in-your-face flow seems to vary just as much as his beats do. Hopping from Kanye-esque soul chops to heavy-hitting Detroit-style trap beats within the same song (listen to B/W), El Cousteau grabs listeners by the collar and drags them along a stylistic trip through his influences. Burning through a handful of tracks from his 2023 album Dirty Harry, Cousteau kept the entire crowd on their toes, an accomplishment for any opener. 

After a short 15-minute set, the rapper cleared the stage and Brooklyns' own Niontay took his place. Over pounding bass punches and melodic synth hits reminiscent of Pierre Bournes' best work, Niontay raps in the high-pitched cadence that his style of rap is known for; a slurry of words that feels drowsy, as if he couldn't care less about the bars he’s spitting. If I had to draw any comparisons to Niontays work, I’d look in the direction of Detroit rapper Veeze, who seems to hold the overall steez of his performance in the same high regard. With a similarly concise set to that of El Cousteau, Niontay covered most of his new album, Demon Muppy, before playing an unreleased track, and subsequently trading out with the final opener, 454.

Of the three openers, 454 is by a large margin the most prolific. Having worked with industry giants, from Frank Ocean to Denzel Curry, the Flordia native is already on the precipice of widespread adoption. His sound strays from the frequent soul chops that mark El Cousteau and MIKE’s work and goes even deeper into that “SoundCloud trap” sound that Niontay is known for. Most of 454’s music brings to mind the prominent underground hip-hop coming out of TikTok right now, with whining keys dancing over simple, bedroom-production drum loops. It's a sound that to many rap fans feels nostalgic, paying sonic respect to the 2016 SoundCloud era while still staying fresh and new. These three openers seem to form a posse of sorts around MIKE, appearing frequently on his past two albums. While their sounds are different, the unofficial group has a sort of coherency in the space they operate in; they each seem to represent a different side of the current underground hip-hop scene, meshing styles and sounds together to make art that is as unique as it is enjoyable. It seems that now more than ever, MIKE is bringing unmatched influence to the game, while still staying true to the music he wants to make. 

After the underground trifecta of openers, the crowd was eager for the main event. MIKE’s stature is something he's known for (garnering him the nickname “Big MIKE”), so it was tough to miss the rapper as he strode out onto the stage. Before rapping a single bar, MIKE led the entire crowd through a series of warm-up stretches, then abruptly began rapping cut after cut from his 2023 critical hit Burning Desire. These are pure rap songs, with MIKE spitting verse after verse of soulfully introspective lines, but they were balanced out with a surprising amount of singing. MIKE sang along to every soul-chop sample played that night, encouraging the crowd to follow suit. 

It's clear that every second of the music counts to MIKE, as he embraces not just the raps but the beat in his all-encompassing musical exposition. In the words of one attendee, “There is a man who LOVES his beats.” Jumping throughout his catalogue, MIKE covered everything from early hits like “Hunger”, to tracks off of his newest collab with producer Tony Seltzer like the dark trap cut “Yin-Yang.” Throughout the music, MIKE’s flow floats with an elegant drawl, as if he's on the brink of taking a nap mid-track, but cares too much about the performance to bother. It's easy to trace and just as easy to get lost in, like he's casting some sort of soul-chop-powered enchantment on the crowd. By the end of the 18-odd song setlist, the crowd had morphed from a group of onlookers to a hivemind mass of positivity. A mass joined by MIKE who, donning a Palestinian flag as a cape, moved off of the stage and into the crowd, embracing audience members and mumbling along to the disjointed closer to Beware of the Monkey, “Closing Credits.” Between his all-accepting attitude, endlessly entertaining interludes and genuine, down-to-earth tone, MIKE is a generational talent. Very rarely do you find someone with so much to bring to the game remains as humble as MIKE, and I cannot endorse anyone more. And, at only 24, he’s still got a lot to give. 

Check out MIKE’s newest album Pinball, a collaboration with producer Tony Seltzer, here, and his critically acclaimed 2023 release Burning Desire, featuring Niontay and El Cousteau, here.

Sam Kitch is the host of I Think You Might Like This, Tuesdays 11:00AM-12:00PM