If you’ve never been to The Complex, imagine a prison with a dilapidated concession stand that sells Red Vines. Nothing about The Complex is conducive to kickin’ it. Unfortunately, it’s the only concert hall in SLC doing rap shows these days. As my friend and I walked in, an enormously gauche neon advertisement for an upcoming RiFF RAFF concert was projected on the far wall. It showed the rapper with a puppy in one arm and a baby in the other. I’d say it was disturbing, but it was actually sort of perfect.
Once we were inside we didn’t even discuss it, we went straight upstairs to the bar. To give you some idea how much we prefer things up there, we didn’t even buy drinks. The bar is nice not just because it separates one from the West Valley contingent always ubiquitous at The Complex. Just as important is that during crowded shows it’s the only spot in the venue where there isn’t a stubborn whiff of teenage nutsack in the air. Essentially we found ourselves a little perch where we could casually survey the sea of white kids and safely dip our toes into the shallowest end.
The opening act was a slender young man who looked like he was 9 feet tall. I could scarcely hear him rap over his DJ—it was difficult to tell if he was any good. The beats were world-class though. They had a late ‘80s industrial feel to them: cold, synthesized drums loops that sounded like they were sampled from Twitch-era Ministry or directly off Songs About Fucking.
I didn’t catch the MC’s name (nor was it on any of the promotional material) but he struck me as someone who was more humbled than emboldened by his opportunity to tour with Danny Brown. "I’m just going to do a few songs. Is that cool?" he asked the crowd endearingly. Frankly, Salt Lake City’s response could have had a little more class. We gave him a lukewarm welcome at best. "I’m with Bruiser Brigade," he sheepishly added, hoping that his bona fides might lend him some credibility (Bruiser Brigade is Danny Brown’s rap collective, see also A$AP Mob and Odd Future). That did get a few more claps out of the audience.
Nevertheless, this young man eventually won over his skeptics. The point when I knew he had them was when he jumped off the stage and took a stroll through the audience to rap with the kids. The crowd swallowed him whole. I could only tell where he was from the florescent light of the smart phones videotaping him. After that he finished his set and left with, "this is my first tour, I’m focused ya’ll." I believe him. Also, I did find out his name eventually, but more on that later.
The next act was flamboyant local rap duo, DopeThought. They had a lot of personality and could really rap, but I found some of their stuff a bit hokey. Which is to say, they felt a lot like the hip-hop equivalent of Jimmy Buffett. I have to give it up to them though, because they really hustled, tossing out t-shirts, and did their best to engage the crowd ("when I say ____, you say ____.”) There was, however, a fairly eye-rolling chorus of, "thou shalt not act like a bitch" repeated over and over. Ultimately, even though they occasionally got a bit “Cheeseburger” for me, I still found myself bobbing my head along most of the time. You could do a hell of a lot worse, I can tell you that.
In any case, I got distracted. Out the corner of my eye I caught the first rapper—who had just finished performing—sneak into the back of the bar. I wanted to go ask him his name but I noticed that he was suddenly surrounded by girls. He had the pick of quite the litter. It was one of those moments that I imagine every aspiring journalist has, where they find out exactly how intrepid they are. My quandary: do I chicken out or do I man-up and throw salt in this rapper’s game like a true professional?
I chose saltiness. No small feat either, because I have an irrational fear of talking to strangers, and strange rappers in particular frighten me. This fellow had a no bullshit air about him too that I did not wish to provoke. I took a deep breath and walked over. When out of nowhere two massive young men stepped into my path. They did not look like the kind who’d hesitate to rough someone up.
I didn’t know how to handle this situation so I turned to the meaner looking of the two and mumbled the whitest thing I could think of, “are you two guys friends with that fellow over there?”
He just stood there with his arms folded. Squinting, turning his head sideways, he looked me up and down. Then in the baddest gesture, ever, he blinked just long enough to nod.
“Here’s the thing,” I said, explaining how I was writing about the show and asked if he would mind giving me the young man’s name.
“Oh yeah?” he smiled, “you wanna know his name?”
“Sure, no problem,” he paused for dramatic effect, scoped the room, then leaned in to whisper, “his name … is Zelooperz.”
“Zelooperz!?” I openly laughed because that is obviously the most made-up sounding name anyone’s ever heard.
“Yeah,” he said with a confused look, clearly unamused.
Let this be a lesson to all of you, when a bad motherfucker says his buddy’s name is “Zelooperz” you had better take him seriously.
“Zelooperz,” he said again. This time with frightening conviction.
At this point I knew one thing: if this gentleman was messing with me, he sure as fuck didn’t want me in on the joke and if he wasn’t messing with me, I had better not dis his boy. I scrambled to recover.
“That’s a cool name,” I said, “how do you spell it?”
He seemed somewhat satisfied with that, shook his head in resignation and spelled it out for me. Then further clued me in, “and I’m Dopehead, that’s spelled D-O-P-E…”
Truthfully, the dope was me. I tried to express my gratitude but he interrupted me, “Bruiser Brigade!” he quipped. Then he shook my hand and pulled me in for one of those sideways half-hugs that hip hop guys do. I ain’t gonna lie, I felt cool as fuck. That’s when he whispered in my ear, “The Devil is heaven, man, the Devil is heaven.” With that, he patted me on the back and sent me packing.
If there was any doubt before, it was clear when Danny Brown began that Dopehead was not fucking with me—both he and Zelooperz joined Brown onstage. (If you’re familiar with Danny Brown’s catalogue you’ll know Zelooperz as the voice doing the hook on this).
I didn’t recognize Danny Brown at first. He was wearing a sleeveless leather jacket three sizes too big for him, he’s gotten a new haircut (with a neon dye job), and he’s started sporting fairly outlandish glasses. None of this was surprising, of course, Brown prides himself on having a fashion sense on the fringes. Thing is, his getup was not without a certain Dwayne Wayne quality. That, coupled with his often Steve Urkelish voice was a sight to behold. (Sacrilege? Imagine him rapping, “Did I do that?” and my point makes itself).
None of this is an insult. Danny Brown pulled it all off with panache to spare. Dude knows how to work a crowd. People in the front row passed him joints, he’d take a puff, pass it to someone else in the crowd, take it back to toke again. The crowd knew every word, and Brown knew exactly how to have fun with it, often allowing the crowd to enthusiastically take over crucial lyrical duties. Common interactions would go something like:
Danny Brown: “So guess who’s a little bitch?”
Crowd: “That’s you!”
Danny Brown: “You must suck a lot of dick.”
Crowd: “That’s true!”
At some point during the set I realized that I had never seen an MC of his caliber perform live before. It felt like watching a legend at the top of his game, probably because that’s precisely what it was. The man is truly a force of nature, he raps at breakneck speeds with an assassin’s accuracy. He’s also one of the best lyricists of his generation. If you haven’t spent much time with his small but powerful discography, you might want to rectify that. In fact, if you’ve been ignoring hip hop for the past few years (and I know most of you have), there is no doubt about it, you’ve been doing yourself an enormous disservice.
Danny Brown left without doing an encore, but it hardly mattered as he did all the hits. His DJ, SKYWLKR (who was absolutely flawless by the way) stayed on stage and did a short but sweet homage to Chicago’s recently deceased (brilliant) footwork pioneer DJ Rahsad by mixing up “Drank, Kush, Bars.” A large contingent of the crowd waited in hopes that Danny Brown would come back. It was only until SKYWLKR began packing up his gear that they dispersed.