Long the curious stepchild of hip-hop festivals, the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival has lived a precarious existence since its inception. Every summer, the boom-bap would pulse from the banks of the East River, though recent years have been especially tumultuous; last year’s fest was relegated to a vacant lot underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
But for a hip-hop head born in the 1980s, the music programming is like a favorite jacket – well worn, timeless, comfortable. Typically featuring one legendary golden or silver age act, opening slots are filled by eager and forgotten second- and third-tier radio/video stars and anonymous hungry contemporaries. The 2012 edition, on Saturday, July 14th, with a grizzled, brawny Busta Rhymes as its headliner, was no different.
In fact, from the beginning, the entire production felt like a slow-burning fuse, with everyone waiting for Busta Bus to grace the stage with his vaunted vocal chords.
Pit bull terrier (and Brooklyn borough president) Marty Markowitz made his annual appearance, reading corny raps from a scrap of paper, but sounding smoother than usual – he flubbed only about ten percent of his rhymes. As is tradition, other local politicians followed, doing their best to co-opt hip-hop’s credibility with the borough, assuring us all that “I am hip-hop.”
New Jersey MC Kosha Dillz did his best to move the crowd early in the afternoon, in between rhymes from his song “Cellular Phone”, which was featured in a popular Super Bowl commercial for Bud Light. A fact he helpfully reminded us of, clarifying the song’s importance by boasting that he, “Made a lot of money off of that,” and that he, “Just wanted you to know that.” He was later seen flirting with a pair of teenage female fans while proudly donning an Israeli-flag yarmulke.
Independent MC Chuuwee spit a song about trying to find weed, and politely informed us that he, “Got a bunch of stuff for free; I don’t really sell music.”
By 7pm, the crowd grew restless. Noise curfews typically kick in near sundown, and the orange glow of this evening’s sunset was fading… but still, no Busta.
At 7:20pm, Busta strolled onstage, led by longtime hype-man and Flipmode Squad confidante Spliff Star. After cheesing it up for a few moments, the DJ slid into a surprise drop into “Pass the Courvoisier”, and the crowd lost it.
He transitioned into “Rhymes Galore” before bringing out M.O.P.’s Lil Fame for their raucous remix of “Ante Up”. Switching up the pace for J Dilla cut “Enjoy Da Ride”, Busta paused to pay tribute to Jay Dee before segueing into “Bounce”, from 2001′s Genesis.
But Mr. Rhymes was disappointed in his flock, making a point to chastise the crowd for their inability to properly praise the late producer.
“When I say do something, do it!” he barked. “STOP. Y’all are pissin’ me off!”
Finally corralling the crowd into chanting a mantra to honor his friend, he cheekily mentions that he has a lot of “new Dilla” on his new album. A curious proclamation, for sure, about a producer who, for obvious reasons, has not made new music for some time.
Buckshot (Black Moon), Steele and Tek (Smif-N-Wessun/Cocoa Brovaz) of the Boot Camp Clik joined Busta onstage for a few numbers, and Busta reminded us why we were all there: “We got classics, bitch!”
Double-decker sightseeing buses filled with tourists had cruised past the stage on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway all day, hands waving and DSLRs firing; their presence did not go unnoticed by those onstage. The smirk on Busta’s face as he spit, “I’m on my New York shit / Got the world following the New York script / International girls on my New York dick,” seemed meant for them.
Busta and his hype-man are a well-oiled machine; he and Spliff have worked together for so long that they seamlessly finish each other’s sentences. Busta’s world-class breath control allows him to carry most of the weight, but Spliff’s strategically placed breaks ensure the party never stops. Midway through the set, Spliff taunted the crowd, rhetorically asking, “Where’s the heart of New York at?”, stopping only when the response of “Brooklyn!!!” was loud enough. “I don’t want anyone to lose focus,” he explained.
A veteran live performer, Busta swiftly moved through early classics “Gimme Some Mo” and “Dangerous” before bringing out Reek Da Villain and J-Doe for their recent homage to an Egyptian king. “You already know my style, nigga, KING TUT.”
Just as he did at last year’s fest, Busta let the hook from Chris Brown’s smash “Look At Me Now” ride before sliding into his epic tongue-twisting verse. Clearly taking pride in his uncanny ability to crush such an ambitious verse live, he had the DJ lower the music so everyone in attendance could hear him recite it perfectly, word for word, unassisted.
At 8:09, the DJ played a bizarre yodeling Euro-pop track while Busta retreated to the back of the stage to put on at least five massive gold chains, hinting at his next guest.
And sure enough, Slick Rick, the ruler himself, emerged in a pink silk shirt, matching eye patch, and long sea foam green shorts. Their laid-back version of “Children’s Story” was heartwarming.
Charlie Brown and Dinco D of Leaders of the New School were in attendance, and Busta’s awkward attempt an intro was sternly interrupted by someone on the PA repeatedly reminding him to “stop talking and go” and when he had reached “three minutes,” causing the usually gregarious MC to exasperatingly yell, “YO, don’t violate!”, before breaking into LotNS classic “Case of the P.T.A.”
But no one in the crowd was quite ready for what came next, when the five-foot assassin himself, Phife Dawg, popped up onstage out of nowhere. “Scenario” began to blast from the stage speakers, and Phife murdered his opening verse – a welcome sight, considering his recent health issues. Busta looks electric as he bounced around the stage, flexing his muscles with minor convulsions. By the time Q-Tip joined the fracas to complete the line-up, there was pure joy and elation emanating from the festival grounds. Everyone in attendance was all smiles, knowing that they were witnessing greatness.
Alas, the man on the PA was persistent, and threatened to cut off his mic. Busta flippantly ignored him.
“Put on whatever you want,” he said. “I don’t care if they cut me off.”
He broke into “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See…” until they actually did cut him off.
For those of us too far to hear his unamplified voice, he preened onstage silently, and then turned to leave.