Everybody wishes they could have seen their favorite artists before they blew up–intimate shows in cramped venues, where the talent exceeds the capacity of the room. The tragedy of these shows is that nobody knows when they’re happening; the music industry is both fickle and unpredictable, it’s hard to tell who’s going to be the next big thing or your new favorite artist until they actually are. For his NYC debut at Baby’s All Right, Ekali played one such show in a performance that showcased not only his talent but his absolute love and dedication for his craft.
There’s nothing quite like opening a door into a room packed wall-to-wall and realizing you have to wedge yourself in a corner in order to breathe, but unfortunately such is the reality of most live music events. In the case of this show, it was packed out well before Ekali set foot onstage. Luckily, my particular corner ended up providing an incredible vantage point from which views of Ekali and views of the audience’s reaction to his set were equally accessible. About fifteen minutes into the set, from this vantage point, came the first major realization of the night: there was not a single person in the crowd who wasn’t moving their entire body. There was no performance of the slight head-nod in recognition that music is, in fact, playing that has become so popular (especially among New York City crowds) these days. There was real movement, real dancing. Everyone, absolutely everyone, was smiling and having a good time. Certain moments stood out more than others–like when the entire room broke out singing along to Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson,” grew more excited as it transitioned into Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” only to have that transition into the forever crowd-pleasing “Know Yourself” by Drake. Or when he picked up the microphone to say the words “This is probably the only time I’ll play this one…y’all used to listen to dubstep back in 2010 right?” before dropping Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop,” a song which guaranteed a nostalgia trip for the 21+ crowd. But Ekali’s prowess doesn’t lie in fan-service, it lies in an ability to mix fun and technical skill, something that was proven time and time again as he married dance music and hip-hop seamlessly while avoiding the awkward rift between the two that most trap producers have a tendency of falling into when performing DJ sets.
About halfway through the set, a friend pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed initially: Ekali wasn’t really wearing his headphones. In fact, more often than not, they were completely off his head–usually somewhere on the ground. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t actually mixing (often a lack of headphones implies both a use and overuse of the sync button) but that he was so well practiced that for certain maneuvers, the headphones just weren’t a necessary item. More amazing than that, however, is when it occurred to me exactly why was taking his headphones completely off: to dance. And along with this, a new contributing aspect to the success of the show that I hadn’t considered before, hit me. Ekali genuinely loves the music he’s playing. Not in the way all DJs “love” the music they play, but in the way that he was dancing to his drops in the same manner as his crowd, yelling the words along to songs like everyone else. He was more than a performer, he was an ecstatic fan, someone who could have just as easily been standing on the floor and dancing to his set as any single person in the crowd was.
So naturally Ekali would know what to play, and exactly how to go about it. Because he more than just plays what he thinks his fans might enjoy–he plays what he enjoys. By taking into account what he wants to hear, and not just what he thinks other people want, he opens up a connection between himself and his fan base that allows them to feed off each other’s energy during the live show. He provides an experience that is communal but at the same time personal to him and everyone else in the building. This is further proven by how he treats his fans when meeting them: there was not a single person that approached him who he did not stop and talk to, not a single picture he refused to take. He manages to stay on a level with his fans that most people don’t, taking his time to connect with them person-to-person. And it is this level of care for the quality of his music and understanding of not only the scene that he is in but its fans that makes his performances so special, and guarantees we’ll be seeing a lot more of him very, very soon.
– Carolyn Hanson
all photos by Alex Abaunza