With super-cool conductor Jules Buckley, the iconic Dutch orchestra Metropole Orkest and a selection of London’s hottest grime stars, Late Night with BBC Radio 1 Xtra was a treasured ticket. The Royal Albert Hall was packed with a buzzing crowd, if not entirely sold out: and by and large, it was a question of playing to the converted, the line-up having drawn committed fans, with a sprinkling of casual cultural tourists, plus the odd determined-to-look-calm-and-politely-interested parent, ignored by their utterly rapt tween or teenager. London’s grime community had come out in impressive force: “I don’t think the Royal Albert Hall has ever seen so many black tracksuits,” chuckled Mistajam, presenting, and while the venue may have been unfamiliar to some, the music was well known to all. The verbal recall in the crowd was astonishing: even in the queue, I overheard coordinated chanting lasting minutes at a time as groups of excited fans re-enacted their favourite tracks, and during the performance some artists had their vocal line entirely overwhelmed by their word-perfect audience. The carnival atmosphere of the night, and sheer energy of the crowd, was exhilarating.

Wretch 32 and Shola Ama perform at the Late Night BBC Prom with Radio 1Xtra © BBC | Mark Allan
Wretch 32 and Shola Ama perform at the Late Night BBC Prom with Radio 1Xtra
© BBC | Mark Allan

Stormzy opened with two strong, bass-laden tracks, Know Me From and Functions on the Low, loping across the stage with fierce grace as he played his crowd expertly. Rhythmically instinctive yet forensically accurate on his line, Stormzy took absolute command of his music in a compelling, skilful performance never quite equalled in intensity by anyone else. The syncopated, reverberating, off-kilter beats of grime, underground dance music’s most rhythmically sophisticated genre, began to weave their hypnotic spell over the delighted crowd, who held their mobile phones aloft like so many digital candles, flagrantly and joyfully disregarding house rules: this is music for the mobile phone generation, after all.

Wretch 32, immaculately handsome in an elegant camel coat, gave us an anthemic, soulful 6 Words. His thoughtful phrasing and appealing voice recalled Tracy Chapman, and the contrast between Stormzy’s furiously accomplished delivery, and Wretch 32’s open-hearted lyricism, illustrated the range of emotions grime can embrace. Wretch 32 was to become the central artist of the night, changing into a diamond-dusted black tracksuit to perform with Krept & Konan, surprise guest Shola Ama, and others: he returned later in the set with yearning ballad Alright With Me, with superb backing vocals from Vicky Akintola, Vula Malinga and Brendan Reilly.

Fekky was determined and engaging, though not always technically superb, with Way Too Much and Still Sittin’ Here, the sharpness of his delivery slipping occasionally. Chip, who has successfully navigated the treacherous transition from child star (when he was known as “Chipmunk”) to mature artist, impressed constantly with his snappy delivery and gleaming, film star smile. Unsurprisingly, Chip is a stage natural: after a technically polished, rather interior entry (Where Are You), his small set caused a power surge of enjoyment as more artists joined him on stage for a riotous medley including School of Grime, though his voice (still rather high and metallic) holds more interest in collaboration than solo. Lethal Bizzle’s medley included an oldskool jungle rhythm briskly spliced into a nonchalant grime swagger, rhythmically fascinating, his gravelly voice subtly differentiating between one track and the next.

Although production values were high, with luscious lasers, some simple technical problems (most notably with sound balance and microphone volume) persisted through the night, losing words despite enthusiastic delivery, which in this word-driven genre is a problem. Sometimes the delivery itself was suspect: Shola Ama sounded as if she hadn’t been on stage for years, barely getting her quavery, hazy voice to her mic as Wretch 32 nursed her with exceptional warmth and gentility through their duet Don’t Go.

More saddening was that, when the microphones did work, we had an occasional, uncomfortable reminder that this music comes from a world of bullying and casual violence, not to mention depressingly aggressive sexism. The lyrics of Krept and Konan’s relentlessly bouncy hit “Freak of the Week” are so primevally misogynistic as to be frankly heartbreaking, particularly as it has already had 10 million views on YouTube: presumably, not all from outraged feminist academics. Sexism was also palpable in the generally muted response to Little Simz, the only female rapper on stage. Little Simz delivered her first freestyle rhyme Wings with animation and clarity, gradually building its shape and metric structure interestingly through internal rhyme structures, but an anaemic bassline didn’t help her cause with the crowd, who tolerated rather than applauded her. Bars Simzson went down better, principally because it had a stronger bassline which ironically threatened to swamp her voice. Nevertheless, her proudly independent style and well-honed technique bode well for the future.

But philosophical holes aside, this music is full of joy. As Wretch 32 declared: “Music is a universal language; many hands make light work; tonight we lit this place up.” 

***11