I grew up in a small London suburb – you won’t have heard of it, trust me – and, as a teenager who was the recipient of some pretty strict parenting, I didn’t get up the capital much. (The suburb’s name? Yiewsley. You see? Told you.) The good thing was that I always valued those rare occasions when I was allowed to hang out in town, and few more so than my schoolfriend Nick’s 18th birthday.
A whole gang of us had gone along to a club called 333 in Old Street, to a hip-hop night that played Wu-Tang all evening. We’d gone to check out the music but Nick had other plans. You see, Nick was an MC – not just someone who rapped in his spare time, but someone who was good. Outstanding, in fact. He went by the name of Yungun and he was as gifted as anyone of his generation – Doc Brown, Lowkey, you name them. I knew that because I’d heard his work. But it never means so much as when you see it live.
Towards the end of the night, a group of MCs, some of whom belong to the celebrated Mud family crew, are passing the mic around, surrounded by an exhilarated crowd. As the crowd writhes, Nick surges forward from it and grabs the mic, and then just – for a minute and more – goes in. His shoulders seem to grow in wingspan, his bobbing head mimics the rattle of his tongue.
Before our eyes, Nick shapeshifted from a quiet, unassuming soul into a swaggering titan of the rap scene. It wasn’t until that night, years before I would start to perform my own work, that I truly understood what stage presence was. It was a timeless education, and I had one of my best friends to thank.
The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special