On Saturday, August 10th, New York City (the city that gave birth to hip-hop culture on August of 1973 thanks to founding father DJ Kool Herc with the help of his sister Cindy Campbell in the Rec Room at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. South Bronx) held a big tribute concert at Summerstage in Central Park with DJ Kool Herc and a host of other icons from the genre all participating in what was a most uplifting musical celebration of the global culture of hip-hop. The following day -Sunday, August 11th - was the actual 40th birthday so Kool Herc continued the party over in Long Island City, Queens at graffiti mecca 5Pointz (I will report on that party in coming days here on the Amoeblog).
Saturday's event was the big official party/concert marking this momentous anniversary; it oozed love and respect for the genre and culture that was for so long dismissed by many as "just a fad." Of course, as we all know, hip-hop in its four core elements (DJing, MCing, B-boying, and graffiti/writing) has grown to become a universal language and a globally influential culture. To drive home this point on Saturday in Central Park, a display of flags from various countries round the globe adorned Kool Herc's onstage turntable set up. So did a big mounted poster of James Brown.
Saturday's historic concert, with performers such as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, DJ Red Alert, Roxanne Shante, and Grand Wizzard Theodore, started at 3pm with gates to the outdoor concert spot opening at 2pm. It was an amazing lineup, a historic must-attend event for any fan of hip-hop, and (like all Summerstage shows) it was FREE thanks to the underwriting of the good folks at the NY City Parks Department. Considering all that, I figured getting in would be difficult, that it would be mad packed from early on with imagined long lines snaking through Central Park. Wrong! I got there about 2:40pm and there was no line at all. Even an hour or two into the event you could still get into this free show no problem and with little or no wait. Furthermore, once inside you could easily make your way up front near the stage for a perfect view. I am not sure why so many in New York City missed out on attending this amazing free concert, but all the better for those of us inside.
Before the show began, the big screen onstage projected info on upcoming City Parks Foundation free concerts in the remaining summer weeks ahead in the wonderful SummerStage summer long This Is….Hip-Hop series. (Note: I will do a full listing of these along with a review of the Sunday 5Pointz Hip-Hop 40 Year Anniversary party in this coming weekly New York State of Mind Amoeblog post.)
DJ Eclipse, who is affiliated with several entities but repping the Rock Steady Crew this day, was the first to come on stage to welcome everybody to the historic day. When Roxanne Shante - the host of the day - arrived onstage, she was sporting big boots, distinctly seventies clothes, and a big Afro wig as the Staples Singers "I'll Take You There" played on the booming sound system. As the host, she was entertaining, down-to-earth, and gracious - constantly giving props to hip-hop, Kool Herc, and all the guests she would welcome to the stage throughout the talent-rich, four-hour event. As for her costume (one of three for the day), she said it was a tribute to her mama's look in the '70s. Then she talked about growing up in the '70s and hearing songs like (cue the DJ) "Flashlight" by George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars. In fact one of the great things about the Saturday's hip-hop celebration was how it gave constant props to the music that came before and kick-started hip-hop: funk music like George Clinton and of course James Brown. So when Kool Herc himself arrived onstage behind his turntable set-up he didn't waste time in pointing to the James Brown poster to state that "This day is James Brown's day too. He inspired me." Naturally then he played a lot of JB and other older funk breaks, mostly culled from his original vinyl arsenal from back in '73 and the following formative hip-hop years.
Throughout the long afternoon Herc showed respect to many folks. He invited "one of the first b-boys" Trixie up onstage to give him props. He also welcomed Coke La Rock who is considered to be the first MC in hip-hop. Herc shouted out people and places including the legendary Randy's Place and Joe Conzo, the early hip-hop photographer of Born In The Bronx fame who was in the house avidly shooting pictures. Many of Conzo's early hip-hop era photos were projected on the stage in the well-presented photo and flyer collection assembled by the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection. All day there was lots of shared love, respect, and shout-outs. Before Grand Wizzard Theodore began his set, Roxanne Shante shouted out the creator of the scratch, noting how he was once her DJ. Mean Gene, Theodore's brother and partner from the legendary L Brothers, was onstage too at one point and shouted out late great Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins of the Furious Five. There were many other hip-hop luminaries, such as Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, who were floating around backstage and never even made it onto the concert stage.
One of the many highlights of the day was when the Soulsonic Force (sans Afrika Bambaataa) came on to do two of the best known/loved songs/singles "Looking For The Perfect Beat" and "Planet Rock," during which they led the crowd in call-and-response "Rock it don't stop it" and "Say Planet Rock….Planet Rock." For me, a lifelong hip-hop fan who has been a fan of this music from the day (literally) it was released, I was getting goosebumps during moments like this Soulsonic Force set. And it just kept getting better. The ever-personable Roxanne Shante, before intro'ing her original DJ and former neighbor Marley Marl, talked about how she grew up in the building opposite him in the Queensbridge projects and how he would put his speaker out on the window facing the street. She (along with the rest of the projects) would hear it loud and clear. The vibe of whatever he played would set the mood of the day for everyone in the complex. Marley Marl, who would rejoin Herc the following day over at 5Pointz, did a killer set and before leaving the stage gave it up to both Herc and to the late great pioneering NYC hip-hop radio DJ legend Mr. Magic.
Roxanne Shante told the audience how the next guest to come onstage was the person responsible for her becoming "Roxanne Shante" and not just simply Roxanne. That next guest was Kangol, aka The Kangol Kid, from UTFO who in 1984 scored their big hit "Roxanne, Roxanne" that unintentionally begin the famous Roxanne Wars in rap. After UTFO's record gained in popularity Marley Marl's Juice Crew featuring a very young Roxanne Shante responded with the answer rap "Roxanne's Revenge." Then came the UTFO answer record to to the original response record featuring "The Real Roxanne." Fast forward three decades to Saturday afternoon and onstage together there was nothing but good vibes between these former rap rivals with the two even happily rapping together. More hip-hop history had unfolded for those lucky attendees. Up next was DJ Premier who killed it playing a variety of great records including (of course) some Gang Starr classics (his famous group with the late great emcee GURU) including "DWYCK (featuring Nice N Smooth)" with everyone in audience rapping along to the lyrics they knew off by heart ("Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is. I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis").
Up next was DJ Red Alert who played only vinyl (no Serato or other laptop assisted digital technology) and promised to play "all old school." This included "The Mexican" and later as one of his records skipped he jumped on mic to say that it only proved how he was playing records. Then Kool Herc ran on stage to grab the other mic and offer to Red, "The record never skips. It gets excited!" Before members of the physical fitness Bartendaz organization had their bars ready to do some entertaining workout exercises on stage Herc grabbed the mic to say, in reference to the First Lady's public healthy living stance, "We love you Michelle Obama but we need to see you in the community." On the topic of living and looking healthy a great many of the hip-hop artists on stage, who were in their third or fourth decade of hip-hop such as the aforementioned Kangol from UTFO and Kool Herc himself, looked healthy and fit. This included the host Roxanne Shante who had mentioned several times throughout the day that she was in her 40s . She proudly told the audience that, "I ain't had no plastic surgery" adding that she had no intention of getting any either. "I'm happy being me!" she proclaimed to loud applause from an audience made up of mostly folks who were in her generation. The next artist first came to fame in the latter half of the 80's and before introducing him she said he "makes me wanna be a Five- Percenter again." Then in a blaze of glory and wild applause Rakim - considered by many to be the greatest emcee in hip-hop history - arrived on stage to deliver a truly satisfying set that included such bangers as "I Know You Got Soul" and "Eric B Is President" during which he led the audience in a repeated call and response of one the famous song's lyrics "Thought I was a donut. You tried to glaze me."
Before leaving the stage Rakim gave props to Kool Herc recalling how as a young kid in school he got treasured tapes of Kool Herc & The Herculoids. Herc then returned the compliment to say that Rakim was one of the few hip-hoppers to go out of his way to give props to the originators of the genre. Last but not least was another one of Roxanne Shante's fellow Juice Crew members (as well as Marl, Craig G was also onstage earlier performing), Big Daddy Kane (BDK). But before BDK even started his own set, he invited onstage Lil Rodney Cee of Double Trouble and Funky Four + 1 to join him in a quick impromptu version of the famous Double Trouble song from the Wild Style movie soundtrack with (to make the moment even more memorable) Grand Wizzard Theodore on the ones and twos accompanying them! As well as for those of us in the audience it was also a a truly magic hip-hop moment for BDK himself who afterwards said how he could now cross this dream experience off his bucket list. Then without missing a beat the legendary emcee delighted the cross as he ran through a string of his hip-hop classics including "Smooth Operator" and "Ain't No Half Steppin'" again with everyone rapping along to every lyric.
All in all it was the perfect tribute to hip-hop: a genre that has stuck around all these years but it was also a reminder of how much the music and its content has changed over the past four decades. At the start of the concert Kool Herc spoke on this as the screen behind him projected a giant image of the tribute mural by Tats Cru for the concert occasion (that you can see up at 166th Street and Grand Concourse in The Bronx - image right). Herc first talked about how hip-hop has always been dismissed as being a passing fad but how it "started giving people a life, money, jobs." But he said hip-hop is really about the kids and how it is the kids who inspire him. "The kids inspire me and hip-hop belongs to the kids," he said. Hence why he gets upset when he hears the predominant air of misogyny and lack of community awareness in contemporary popular hip-hop. "I hear a lot of 'Let it rain in the strip club.,'" he said, quickly adding. "Let it drizzle in the daycare center. Let it rain in there sometime!" to loud applause. "Hip-hop is about respecting people and that is how it is supposed to be!"