Comerica Theatre’s loading dock is a mildly steep, ceiling-less tunnel underground. While it could feel oppressively narrow, it floods cheerily with sunlight during the day. Even with the light, it’s at best a garage at the bottom of a concrete hill. This space is usually occupied by roadies unpacking a tour van. Last Saturday, though, it was one of five stages stormed by Phoenix’s underground rappers for the second annual Arizona Hip-Hop Festival.
At this particular stage, artists descended the slope and maybe worked through a few cigarettes while they waited for their name to be called — not their given name, but one they made for themselves. And, in five minutes that were less 8 Mile and more YouTube, they showed a small crowd what they got.
Nearly 150 artists represented the Arizona hip-hop community on Saturday. While the artists are waiting in the wings, the audience needs some time to catch up. If there’s one mission Saturday’s festival accomplished, it was nurturing the fanbase with a taste of what hip-hop could be to this state.
Hip-hop is a subculture built around community. While its primary mainstream mode is communicated through music — and its modern manifestation is more tightly interwoven with consumer products. It has traditionally included emcees, DJs, breakdancers and graffiti artists who come together to share messages that benefit the community. Hip-hop began as a series of Bronx block parties during the politically tumultuous 1970s. Intentional or not, the festival really brought that block party vibe to life. Credit to the ingenious transformation of Comerica Theatre into a five-stage venue.
There were three outside stages — a free-admission stage at the will-call entrance and two admission-required stages in the loading dock behind the venue and a smoking-friendly patio stage overlooking Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Vendors were out en force — radio stations, recording studios, swag, a custom grill manufacturer (teeth, not ribs), clothes, and booths upon booths of performers peddling their mix tapes and merch.
Pink, gold, and bright, pimped-out SUVs and lowriders lined the sidewalks surrounding Comerica Theatre. Booths selling smoking paraphernalia were adjacent to marijuana activists soliciting voters, and curious passersby collected around the outdoor stage.
Along the walkway at the top of the lower-level theater, artists painted a type of “fine street art.” Think: Outkast floating in a galaxy of stars, while another artist illustrated Lego characters in a pink, psychedelic forum.
The crowd wasn’t just hip-hop heads or sneaker freaks. It was the other side of mainstream hip-hop. It was a community of people who either write bars full-time, like local rapper Prophetiko, or have part-time gigs to make ends meet. The audience was the performers’ parents, grandparents, and their kids. It was young couples who joyfully carried their strollers up the stairs to the club level so they could catch what was happening on The Hip Hop House stage. The artists’ lyrics shared the struggle of making it. They showed their musicianship — Ashton Charles spit verses between picking up a saxophone for a more pop-induced, hook-heavy song. Young Arizona act Kannon came onstage with backup dancers and a storyline to his three-song set. Skky Brown broke out an acoustic guitar and beatboxed on a loop pedal. Stevie Hardy tickled the keys. And, while the performances varied in quality, the nearly 150 artists who took the five stages during the 10-hour festival were a feat of concert planning. Artists were up for brief sets, usually lasting three tracks, before another rapper took over. There were a few obvious mishaps. For instance, Bag of Tricks Cat performed twice on the Young AZ/Respect the Underground main stage (once around 2 p.m. and again after 8 p.m.). The quickie sets were bittersweet. They allowed for a massive sampling of Arizona’s hip-hop talent while also making it easy to miss someone.
In the future, this may mean fewer artists have to rely on people’s ears to the ground to catch them. However, there’s a curve on those hopes.
Just as no president has ever come from Arizona, we haven’t had that blockbusting hip-hop talent come from our state. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have the type of politics that hip-hop fearlessly tackles. Opinions about Arpaio and race flew — but not as far as the artists’ hometown pride.
Now that Arizona has shown it has the politics, the artists and the chops, it’s time to ask — is anyone listening?
Saturday Night: Arizona Hip Hop Festival at Comerica Theatre.
The Crowd: Rappers, hype guys, parents, grandparents, and a lot of young kids.
Overheard: “If I never hear a blow horn noise again, I’m good.”
Personal Bias: I bump Sincerely Collins’ “Light Work” during my evening runs. Until last night, I didn’t realize he was a local artist. If possible, I love it more. Hip-hop stations 101.1 The Beat and Power 98.3 are in my morning commute rotation.
Random dump: (see “Overheard.”)