Black Milk / J. Pinder / Diaz Great Hall, Toronto ON March 8

Black Milk / J. Pinder / Diaz Great Hall, Toronto ON March 8
In the incredibly limited spectrum of hip-hop acts successfully putting together fully fleshed-out backing ensembles for the road, Detroit representative Black Milk is a king among men, and he proved as much during his most recent trip to a city that must feel like a home away from home. Armed with a band of rambunctious players named after the legendary, rebellion-heading American slave Nat Turner, the deadly producer/MC led an all-out non-stop aural assault that had a room full of seasoned supporters running down lines with arms extended from open to close.

Such enviable excitement was not so easy to come by in the early going, however, as Toronto battle rhymer/host Diaz, fresh from a competition representing the city in Sweden, attempted to breathe life into the unsurprisingly slumberous crowd of first comers. A characteristically polite yet tame response followed the passing of the baton from Diaz to little-known main opener J. Pinder, who fared only moderately better at the outset, but eventually found his rhythm after taking his set to the middle of the comfortably half-filled room. Toronto is often notoriously (though perhaps unjustly) referred to as "the screwface capitol," but it takes a skilled performer to actually acknowledge the fact that people aren't about to cheer simply because you have a mic in your hand. Pinder, in engaging the audience and flipping the script on his planned track selection in favour of something more musically expansive and lyrically reflective, battled his way into the crowd's good graces and left the stage on a rewarding high.

Of course, all of this was soon a distant memory as the night's main course was promptly wheeled out of the kitchen.

As with every speaker-rattling Black Milk sound attack, it's the drums that lead the barrage, and this night was no different, as the group's drummer took his seat behind the kit and fired off a twisting precursory solo to bring his bandmates to the stage. After an incendiary opening flourish that snapped the room to attention like a fire alarm, an affable Black Milk bounced through a high-paced series of expertly sequenced tracks from his deep catalogue, bursting through Tronic banger "The Matrix" before riding back to more recent fare in "Black & Brown."

Cuts that would have been strong enough had they simply emanated from two vinyl plates became Herculean at the hands of Nat Turner's drummer, bassist and keyboard player. The skilled tandem, at times joined by a backing DJ, each exuding an impressive mix of talent and swagger as they completely flipped familiar tunes like "Distortion," introduced a bit of church during a lengthy and unexpectedly soulful musical interlude, and swapped instruments to unleash an impromptu dance party later in the set.

Through it all, Black Milk maintained his stature as a consummate master of ceremonies, feeling out unplanned improvisational moments with beat-boxed and half-sung cues to his players, laughing off an over-exuberant stage-crasher without missing a beat, and even attending to an audience request for fan favourite "Give the Drummer Some."

As hip-hop shows go, you'd be hard pressed to find a stronger and more grounded musical performance than the one turned in by the gifted Detroit native, and those on hand graciously responded in kind.