August 11, 2016 The Art of Rap Arrives in Coney Island, NY 7-29-16
By definition, a festival is a time when people come to celebrate a tradition. The festival has been used in modern times to celebrate seasons, food, art, and explicitly music. With that said, some of the most legendary music festivals of our time have been centered around everything from Rock-n-Roll, Heavy Metal, Folk, and Country. All respectful genres in their own right, what about Hip Hop? Looking to change the currents, co-creators Ice-T and Mickey Bentson launched The Art of Rap on July 18, 2015 out in Irvine, California.
Taking its namesake from the 2012 Ice-T directed executive produced film, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, The Art of Rap returned in 2016 for a full summer tour featuring the architects of Hip Hop. Presented by SiriusXM Backspin, the eight show engagement spanned North America, hitting all the hotbeds of Hip Hop with stops in New York, Detroit, L.A., Atlanta, and Chicago, among others. That in mind, on Friday, July 29th, the tour made a stop in Brooklyn, New York; a subway ride away from The Bronx where DJ Kool Herc is credited with inventing Hip Hop by isolating beats from Funk and Soul records in the ’70s. Brooklyn’s newest venue, Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk, hosted the event with a buzz all around. In fact, DJ Kool Herc, as well as Spoonie Gee, who is widely credited with releasing the first Rap record, were both seen enjoying the show amongst the crowd. And what a show that was on tap with an all-star lineup including The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster’s Furious Five (featuring Melle Mel & Scorpio), EPMD, Kurtis Blow, Mobb Deep, Naughty By Nature, Ice-T, and Public Enemy.
The Sugarhill Gang
First up was New Jersey based Rap pioneers The Sugarhill Gang. Being the first to have a Rap single to become a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, The Sugarhill Gang’s name is known by all. Ready to get the party started, their current lineup of Wonder Mike, Master Gee, Hen Dogg and T Diamond delivered a relatively brief set harping back to the late ’70s/early ’80s, highlighted by an extended version of their smash “Rapper’s Delight.” In tribute, snippets of the song would appear again throughout the night by other artists.
Next came East Coast Hip Hop legends EPMD. Hailing from Brentwood, out on Long Island, and celebrating their thirtieth year in the game, they brought their high-energy and slick rhymes to the stage. Tearing through a set featuring all-time classic tunes, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith burst on the scene in the mid ’80s during what many consider the golden age of Rap. Sampling classic Rock, Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, and Blues, EPMD treated the crowd to smash after smash as they churned out Rap staples “Strictly Business,” “I’m Housin’,” “You Gots to Chill,” and “So Wat Cha Sayin” to the delight of the amped-up crowd. The already hot night got a lot hotter under the tent that covered the audience as no one was in their seat and everyone was up moving.
Moving along, hailing from the next borough over, Queens, Mobb Deep was next in line. Comprised of Havoc and Prodigy, the duo first hit the scene in the early ’90s cutting their teeth as youngsters on the acts that laid the foundation of the Rap scene. Inspired and talented, Mobb Deep developed a hardcore sound that has led to over three million album sales, including their legendary 1995 record, The Infamous. Contrasting the West Coast Gangsta Rap style with a just as tough East Coast sound, Mobb Deep was part and parcel of the East Coast /West Coast tension that helped fuel the industry.
With sparse, hard-hitting arrangements and crisp vocals, Mobb Deep cut through their back catalog on such gems as “Survival of the Fittest,” “Hell on Earth (Front Lines),” “Shook Ones, Part 2,” and “Eye for an Eye (Your Beef is Mines).” Tough lyrics over banging drum loops let the crowd know Mobb Deep, twenty plus years after their debut, could still deliver a soul-stirring set. Lyrics such as, “There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from / you could run but you can’t hide forever from these streets that we done took / you walkin’ with your head down scared to look” epitomized the overall sense of dread, and depiction of the thug life that has helped Mobb Deep stay relevant this long into their career. Those interested in what else is going on currently with Mobb Deep, Prodigy just unleashed a new EP, so go check it out.
Grandmaster Melle Mel & Scorpio
Returning to more old school flavors, next came Grandmaster’s Furious Five featuring Melle Mel. Another Rap pioneer as the former lead songwriter for the groundbreaking group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, he and Scorpio laid down a set worth its weight in gold. This set featured two tracks considered to be two of the greatest Rap songs ever released, “The Message” and “White Lines.” Then there was “Beat Street Breakdown,” from the 1984 film Beat Street, a revered classic in the Hip Hop culture canon which had the crowd going wild as the folks who saw the film in their youth reveled in nostalgia and the younger generation got a taste of classic old school Rap. The aforementioned “The Message,” one of only 412 songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame, was a slice of American Pop culture history. Released in 1982, the song told the tale of a hard life in the inner city, and it would become an all-time Rap anthem, as the subject matter it tackled would become a staple in the Rap scene. Finally, “White Lines,” a song about the dangers of the drug scene, is also considered a paramount track in the history of Hip Hop, and it brought the house down.
Keeping the energy flowing, dressed in a classic, all-white track suit, Harlem, New York’s Kurtis Blow appeared next on stage. Treating the crowd to a nostalgia drenched set of classic B-Boy Rap, never taking a break, he ran through a non-stop medley of upbeat classics including “If I Ruled the World” and “The Breaks.” Being the ultimate showman that he is, even while approaching sixty years of age, Kurtis Blow never stopped moving. He even brought back the fine art of breakdancing, as he was joined by two dancers for an impressive display of creativity. All in all, Gen Xers were treated to a flashback of their youth as Kurtis Blow channeled the mid ’80s with heartfelt passion.
Naughty by Nature
Flashing forward back to the ’90s era of Hip Hop, out of East Orange, New Jersey, Naughty By Nature were ready to go next. Bursting onto the scene in 1991 with their self-titled release, sampling the Jackson 5’s smash hit “ABC,” the group had a worldwide smash with “O.P.P..” Released at a time when Grunge Rock ruled the airwaves and teen angst was the flavor of the day, the upbeat, raunchy, fun song would reach number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Billboard Hot Rap and Hot Dance charts. That in mind, “O.P.P.” had the crowd going wild, and Naughty By Nature kept the party theme going with “Hip Hop Hooray,” “Uptown Anthem,” and a raucous cover of House Of Pain’s “Jump Around.” Naughty By Nature also paid tribute to one of their forefathers with a flawless cover of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” Bringing a fantastic house-party vibe to the stage, Naughty By Nature was in top form as they continue to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut album.
With so much action already unfolding, co-tour organizer Ice-T took the stage just as the sun went down on this hot night in Hip Hop hotbed Brooklyn. He addressed the crowd, preaching peace and love, and lauding Hip-Hop culture. A legend in his own right, Ice-T holds the distinction of releasing the first Rap album with an explicit content warning label, 1987’s Rhyme Pays. Born on the East Coast, but residing in Los Angeles, Ice-T was a pioneer in the West Coast Gangsta Rap scene. In addition, Ice-T also gained substantial notoriety with his Heavy Metal band Body Count’s track “Cop Killer,” released at a time of great tension between police and the public. Ironically, Ice-T would go on to play a police officer in film and on NBC’s Law & Order SVU.
Ready to light up the stage, Gangsta Rap anthems were the flavor of his set as he blasted out the bleak tales of the criminal life on classics “Colors,” “O.G. Original Gangster,” and “New Jack Hustler.” Themes of depravity, tough streets, and rampant criminality ran through each track, having the audience’s full attention. Spicing things up, joining Ice-T on stage to close out the set were Brooklyn natives Smoothe da Hustler and Trigga (a.k.a. Trigger tha Gambler). Amped up for the interjection, it was obvious to the audience the two men cut their teeth on Ice-T’s music as they performed with unbridled passion, clearly honored to be sharing the stage with a legend. It was not only a great set, but it was an honor that the man who had a vision for The Art of Rap performed as well.
Last but certainly not least, closing the show was another New York act, an act that is regarded as one of the greatest Rap acts in music history, the incredible Public Enemy. Hailing from Roosevelt, Long Island, Chuck D and Flavor Flav teamed up in 1982 to begin a Rap career that would eventually land them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. With a unique sound that featured production from the Bomb Squad, incorporating elements of Rock, Jazz, Funk, and Soul, Public Enemy was a one of a kind outfit when they released their debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, in 1987. Their debut, and their three subsequent releases, would all achieve gold or platinum status.
Themes of a troubled culture, media criticism, and failed leadership have always run through Public Enemy’s music, and they kicked off their set with a song that had that in spades with “Rebel Without a Pause.” Playing on discontent with authority, particularly the police, “911 Is a Joke” told the tale of neglect and brutality at the hands of law enforcement. A danceable groove and serious subject matter are the hallmark of Public Enemy, and this track took it to the hilt. Then there was “Don’t Believe the Hype,” a tribute to journalist and activist Harry Allen, which had the crowd bouncing along to the old school beat dripping with classic Soul and Funk loops.
Bringing it up a few more notches, rebel anthem “Fight the Power,” a song made popular by its inclusion in Spike Lee’s 1989 classic film Do the Right Thing, brought the crowd to a fever pitch. On this track, Public Enemy proved why Rock-n-Roll is an attitude and not necessarily a style of music, and thus why they are enshrined in the Hall of Fame along with all the other rabble rousers who stirred up the industry. Raising the roof, “Shut ‘Em Down” closed the set with an extended audience participation chanting of the chorus. Humble and gracious to all, Chuck D and Flavor Flav shook as many hands as they could as they triumphantly exited the stage after delivering a powerhouse set of classic, booming, reverential Hip Hop.
The Art of Rap tour was brief, but a huge success. Bringing together artists that helped shape Rap and Hip Hop history led to a stage show that was overflowing with talented artists. These are artists that have the uncanny ability to deliver hard-hitting tracks that tackle serious subject matter, tracks that make people move their feet. Most of all, their sophisticated music taste sets the background through an expansive variety of samples and beats touching on all genres of music. All of the artists featured on the Art of Rap tour are continually touring the world and making new music. Those looking to relive their youth, or younger generations looking to experience top flight Hip Hop for the first time, this is a tour not to be missed when it returns in 2017.Photo credit: Ken Buglione Photography