When I heard Wordplay Mag were curating a stage in an old shoe factory for Norwich’s Wild Paths Festival I was not quite sure what to expect. However, when I arrived to find my well-put together 30-something Airbnb hostess playing Skyrim and cracking open the latest mod releases in her quaint canal-side flat, I knew expectations wouldn’t be of much help.
It turns out that this challenging of preconceptions is exactly what Wild Paths is all about. Organised by Norwich native Benjamin Street to both cajole artists into making the detour through the “armpit of East Anglia” and spotlight its wealth of local talent to outsiders, I was certainly not the only one feeling a bit out of my comfort zone. Seeing the likes of Bone Slim and Jelani Blackman wondering Norwich’s cobbled streets in the hopes of finding some munch is as much a funny image as it is a success for Ben’s aims. Taking artists and attendees off the beaten track in more ways than one, I found myself meandering from Saffiyah’s dulcet R&B tones in a beautiful church to grime in the old shoe factory that formed Wordplay’s residence for the weekend- and all the while wondering how a UKHH journalist wound up there.
Putting this question to the other guests didn’t offer much help: “you need categories, just use them loosely”, Ben reminds me. Even among the likes of Natty Wylah and Silhouettes Project member Bel Cobain I wasn’t safe, both artists choosing to perform alongside a live band and rejecting conventional labels like pretty much everyone else on the line-up. So I did the only thing a bucket hat-wearing hip hop fan can do when he finds himself outside of his comfort zone: grab a Nandos wrap and take some pics for the ‘gram.
Rocking colours that pop and voices that are pure dirt, Latekid and Avenhue were one of many pleasant surprises from the weekend’s proceedings. Members of the Norwich-London collective FWDMTN that seem to sum up everything Wild Paths sets out to achieve, the duo intersperse hard-hitting grime flows with melodies that feel equally inspired by R&B and ragga; all the while somehow crediting dubstep label UKF as one of their biggest influences. By this point, I’d expect nothing less.
Four-piece Dutch boy group that sound (and look) like the Beach Boys with a Spotify subscription? Checks out. Banji are not exactly the first act I was expecting to see when turning up to the Wordplay stage (subsequent conversations revealed this performance was entirely unplanned for them as well), but I was sold halfway through the show when drummer Jasper opened with a DnB pattern only to be met with signature off-tune Indie melodics from singer Morris. You can take the boy out of London…
With a voice that makes Darth Maul sound like a chihuahua, Jelani Blackman finds rhythmic pockets so unique that they can only be described as the BPM equivalent of Harry Potter’s platform 9 3/4.
Sounding like Google deep learning with a human soul, with perhaps equally as many electronic doo-hickeys, Tony Njoku is truly one-of-a-kind. Layered ambient rhythms and improvised detours are met with soaring vocals and the odd grime synth and 808 in a sensory whirlwind. Catching up after the show, Tony began digging into the question on everyone’s lips. “I don’t think about genre” he told me, comparing labels to an identity- a way of aligning with others but in no ways definitive of the full breadth of music. After that, asking others to label themselves felt a bit weird- as superficial as asking what make of phone they had or, fittingly, their favourite Elder Scrolls instalment.
Bel Cobain is probably the most confident ‘Introverted Stoner’ I’ve ever met. Boasting a genuinely impressive presence strong enough to turn the somewhat day-wearied crowd into an interpretive dance studio, Bel’s live sets are sure-hit on any line-up.
Underground UK hip hop legends and pioneers of the genre-crossing sounds that seem to have paved the way for many of the other artists on the Wild Paths line-up, a group performance from London’s Nine8 Collective felt like the Friends reunion that never happened. Pictured from left to right: Bone Slim, Lava La Rue, Nige, Mac Weather, Biig Piig, LorenzoRSV
Making the 5-hour trip back to the South, Tony’snotion of genre as nothing more than identity began to echo back to me. In many ways this explains my own experience as a hip hop journalist listening to smooth jazz in a converted church: no matter how tight I pull my Blah(c) hoodie-strings I can’t block out nice sounds. And the same holds true for the owner of my AirBnB, kitchen islands and hanging plants need not be mutually exclusive with a good dose of Elder Scrolls modding. I suspect that in a weird sort of way this is a big part of what Ben hoped for in Wild Paths, reaching beyond individuals’ beaten tracks of beats ’n’ tracks and exposing attendees to new environments- both sonically and physically. Something that is likely inspired by his own experiences touring the world as part of Warner Music signees Coasts- which is ironic because I was the one travelling 5 hours coast-to-coast to do so (reminder not to take trains on Sundays).
Shout out to Wordplay for sending me on this adventure and to Wild Paths festival for challenging my preconceptions- you can check out their own highlights of the weekend, plus all of the great acts that I missed myself, below.