Raekwon performing on Friday of A3C Hip-Hop Festival 2012. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
I woke up sluggishly on Friday morning with Oh No’s blend of bassy Bollywood bombastic beats still swirling around my head amid the usual fog of confusion that comes with having to wake up just way too early. That confusion soundtracked by a fractured sample of J Dilla matched with Turkish Qanun twinkling around the outskirts of the mix actually made for quite the experience. After being at A3C for a day, I already felt more connected to hip-hop than I ever had. The inclusive and familial atmosphere that was going on down in Atlanta, everyone joining together under the name of hip-hop, was really powerful and calling to me all day as I plugged along at my nine to five. Throughout the day I got my second, third and fourth winds, and by the time Jenna and I got to the Masquerade—if I had to guess—I was on perhaps my seventh. Once we got there, however, breathing in the beautiful October evening and the hip-hop culture surrounding the event, all the drag of the work day faded away. Every corner of the Masquerade was occupied by hip-hop music, whether it was the DJs spinning in the cool autumn air at the entrance, or the audio equipment set up inside for attendees to learn the craft of beat making. It was incredible to just walk around and take it all in, experiencing all the nuances laid out by the festival, and with every step I felt more connected to hip-hop itself.
We headed behind the Masquerade to the Music Park, grabbed a spot on the grass, and enjoyed a cheesesteak from one of the various food trucks in the back of the field as Fred The Godson took the stage. Out of the Bronx, New York, Fred The Godson was the first of many acts on Friday to represent the East Coast, but there was once again worldwide representation at A3C throughout the night. He commanded the outdoor stage with his classic sound and almost immediately distinguishable voice. His hit “Too Fat” worked the crowd up with its old-school take on new hip-hop sounds. It was a great way to ease us back into the music, combining sounds of the greats that came before him but putting his own spin on things.
Speaking of the greats that came before him, that seemed to be the name of the game on Friday. Prodigy of Mobb Deep was up next, performing to an energized and eager crowd. The way that A3C has legends sitting up against the new faces of hip-hop is something special; it once again shows the unified nature of the event, with the old and the new sharing the same stage and rocking the same crowds. Prodigy’s set itself represented that notion—he mixed Mobb Deep classics with his newer solo material to perfect cohesion. The crowd in the Masquerade Music Park was reciting all the words right along with him on songs like standouts from the classic record, The Infamous, “Shook Ones, Pt. II” and “Survival Of The Fittest.” With the depth of Mobb Deep’s catalog, Prodigy could have rifled through the hits all night, but his set was over in a flash, leaving his songs to echo in our heads throughout the duration of the beautiful night.
Prodigy by Jeff Pearson.
After some proper East coast representation, the iHipHop Distribution Stage in the Music Park needed some left coast sounds to balance things out. It is All 3 Coasts festival, after all. The next performer, with roots in both Atlanta and Los Angeles, had two of those coasts covered, and represented the diversity of hip-hop in his style. J-Lie, of both South Korean and South African ancestry, not only represents both of his cities in his unique sound, but he also has a bit of his cultural heritage emanating from his music. He took the stage sitting on a chair, performing a subdued, yet somehow explosive verse before bursting up from his seat and delivering a fiery set. He tackled issues of his race and showed that though J-Lie is different from your typical emcee, he is to be taken seriously. With the skills on display on the stage that night, he wouldn’t even have to literally command the crowd’s respect to earn it.
J-Lie’s stifling southern swing on hazy West coast production was the perfect segue to the classic California sound of Nipsey Hussle. The young man working simply off the back of some renowned mixtapes—his album is set to come out next year—showed why he is one of the biggest and brightest stars on the rise in hip-hop today. Nipsey Hussle performed mostly cuts from his last two mixtapes, The Marathon and The Marathon Continues, as the crowd bounced in unison under the blackening sky. He showed exactly why he was put in such a high profile spot, commanding the crowd with his blend of street-wise lyrics and ferocious delivery. He brought out Torae, who was set to perform himself later on in the evening, and the two exchanged verses, showing the diversity of each of the emcee’s styles and how well it blends together in a live setting. Nipsey Hussle ended his set in a fit of energy, with the entire crowd completely swept up in his amplified set.
Nipsey Hussle by Jeff Pearson.
We made our way into the heart of Little Five Points after Nipsey Hussle to catch Atlanta underground legend Witchdoctor as part of the Dungeon Family showcase at the Star Bar. When we entered the small, packed club, Rico Wade of Organized Noize was introducing Witchdoctor and describing how nice it was to have A3C take over Little Five Points. Wade was inspiring, saying that the way that individualism is embraced in Little Five is special, and he encouraged the crowd to always be themselves, and to never give in to being like someone else. It just struck a chord hearing him say that, because being an individual is so important, especially in the context of A3C, and that when you find other individuals who are like-minded yet also completely real, a special bond is formed that isn’t based on pretenses or anything other than just who people are at their core. Coming into the Star Bar, I don’t think Jenna or I was expecting to be so inspired by the host, but it was one of the most poignant moments of the day, and one that will always stick with me. Tying in the Dungeon Family theme, Wade said that “Nothing is cooler than being an outcast,” which is not only true but empowering to those who struggle.
We were so wrapped up in what Wade was saying that we almost forgot there was hip-hop to be heard. Witchdoctor came out and performed a rapid-fire set of tracks from his classic debut record, A S.W.A.T. Healin’ Ritual along with a couple of new tracks. The energy in the Star Bar was at a high for the festival thus far; everyone in the venue was giving back Witchdoctor tons of respect and participation for his welcome back to Atlanta. Seeing him perform his classic dirty south sound in Little Five Points, where diversity is celebrated and encouraged, was really special and the atmosphere in the Star Bar was set accordingly. Witchdoctor was one of the first credible emcees to come out of the south, and the knowledgeable and respective A3C crowd treated him with a warm Atlanta welcome.
We arrived back at the Masquerade, discussing how meaningful it was to hear and experience individualism being celebrated at the festival, to a buzz about a surprise set from one of the most individual and talented producers in the game today, Just Blaze. Not many had caught wind of the set yet, because the room was only slightly crowded, giving his DJ set an intimate atmosphere. He made his way through his classic productions, working the small crowd into a fit of glee. It was a perfectly-crafted set of songs that show the incredible depth and accessibility of his productions. Just Blaze is one of the best in the game, and hearing him spin his tracks along with hip-hop classics was a real treat.
Just Blaze by Jeff Pearson.
Back outside in the Masquerade Music Park, Philadelphia legend Freeway was pounding the crowd with his lyrical gunplay. The atmosphere during Freeway was an all-out party, a family reunion onstage as everyone in the park was bouncing with complete abandon. Freeway’s set was short but sweet, practically over before it even started, but constantly enthralling. I don’t think anyone was ready to see him go, but with the talent still to come, it was just something that had to be done. He treated the crowd to “Jungle,” the rowdy single from his upcoming record, Diamond In The Rough, and left the crowd wanting more. Already throughout the night on Friday, we had seen representation from all over the country; from coast to coast emcees were representing their unique styles but showing the like-minded balance within the world of hip-hop. Freeway’s Philadelphia bounce may be quite different from Witchdoctor’s visceral Deep South throb, but at the heart of their music is the message of empowering the hip-hop community.
Freeway by Jeff Pearson.
Up next was someone who has done his share of empowering and glorifying the message of hip-hop, perhaps more than anyone else on the bill. Raekwon, the raspy-voiced Chef of the prolific Wu-Tang Clan was due to perform in the perfect October night. The anxious crowd was chanting “Wu! Tang! Wu! Tang!” and throwing up their W’s, willing Raekwon to drop his gifts on the already frenzied music park. There was a practically tangible buzz all day, and it all came to fruition as Raekwon took the stage. The set was a celebration not only of hip-hop, but of Wu-Tang Clan, the most electric and innovative hip-hop group of all-time. Raekwon worked his way through an indelible set of classics from not only Wu-Tang’s career, such as “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Protect Ya Neck,” but also classics from his solo career like “Ice Cream” and “Criminology.” Basically, “classic” is all you could say about Raekwon’s set. With each song he proved that everything the Chef touches is classic. Just when things seemed to not be able to get any better, fellow Wu-Tang Clan member GZA came out, and they did. GZA was set to play his legendary Liquid Swords record later that evening at Terminal West, and used the open time before his set to help out Raekwon and make the performance all the more special. The two ripped through “Guillotine (Swordz),” a standout cut from Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, to a sea of cell phones, iPads, even a laptop, recording every moment. The entire set felt like a pure celebration of what Raekwon and Wu-Tang Clan have done for the hip-hope world. Simply put, without their contributions to hip-hop, the genre wouldn’t have progressed so rapidly and a festival like A3C might never have been in existence.
Raekwon with GZA by Jeff Pearson.
To continue with the celebratory vibe cultivated by Raekwon, Detroit’s Slum Village showed the power of hip-hop in the face of not only adversity, but heartbreak and anguish. Slum Village’s original producer J Dilla, brother of one of the group’s emcees, Illa J, passed away in 2006, leaving a huge hole in the hearts of hip-hop fans. The group were innovators, bringing wizardry in not only production but in lyrical content for years. Having them at A3C is a huge deal for the hip-hop community, and hearing Illa J and T3 exchange verses over the group’s timeless sound was a special moment for everyone involved. The set was focused primarily on older material, providing a live, high-energy approach to the soulful productions of songs like “The Look Of Love.” As Slum Village was finishing their set, fellow Detroit emcees Clear Soul Forces joined them onstage for an explosive version of “Raise It Up.” Seeing the camaraderie within the musicians of the city of Detroit was special, and the joy that was palpable onstage was completely infectious. Not only was the moment important to me because of the general fun-loving vibe that was being cultivated, but the support that was being shown to Slum Village felt like a tribute to their fallen brother in addition to the city they call home. If there was ever a moment on Friday where the power of music to bring people together, through hard times as well as good ones, the closing to Slum Village’s set was it.
Slum Village by Jeff Pearson.
The special thing about a festival like A3C is that, though the message of hip-hop is unified and powerful in its singular nature, the way that the different artists choose to deliver it is often incredibly varied. The next act, Chancellor Warhol, showed just that notion with their blend of live instrumentation and explosive energy. Warhol ran around the stage like a madman, delivering fierce verses over incredibly propulsive instrumentation. Singer Boss of Nova joined the band onstage to sing smooth and fluid hooks to songs like “Games,” giving the completely vehement sound a melodic and beautiful tinge. Chancellor Warhol were perhaps the surprise of the evening, an act I was completely unfamiliar with but completely blown away by at the end of their set. Hip-hop purists might not have been ready for their blown-up rock sound, but to me, the group stood out as being completely unique and original.
Chancellor Warhol by Jeff Pearson.
The last act of the night to play was the four-headed monster known as The Liknuts, a group comprised of the New York-based Beatnuts and Alkaholiks out of Los Angeles, was a coast-to-coast party, celebrating hip-hop and being alive. The group traded off songs, either performing as a full group or performing cuts from their respective outfits, but the atmosphere in Heaven at the Masquerade never wavered: absolute party. It was a great way to end a night that really had every aspect a festival should: from the thought-provoking and inspiring to the fun-loving and carefree. There is always that bittersweet moment during a festival when you just reflect on how much fun you’ve been having, but realize that, “Wow, this is going to end soon,” and my moment came during The Liknuts entertaining set. Looking around, seeing everyone lost in the music in their own way, brought a smile to my face, and thankful that I could be a part of this tremendous event, but also sort of sad in a way that soon we would all be going our separate ways, back to our normal lives. Nothing will change the fact that we lived in the moment together, however, and enjoyed our lives and celebrated music well into the night on Friday.
The Liknuts by Jeff Pearson.