Arizona Hip Hop Festival's Justus Samuel Reminisces About Past Shows | Phoenix New Times

Justus Samuel Is the Phoenix Hip-Hop Scene's Cool Dad

The founder of the Arizona Hip Hop Festival believes in the event's transformative power.
Justus Samuel on stage at 2016's Arizona Hip Hop Festival.
Justus Samuel on stage at 2016's Arizona Hip Hop Festival. New Times Archive
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Welcome to Concert Chronicles, where local promoters/bookers share the best shows they've ever put on. It's a chance to celebrate those operating behind the scenes of Phoenix's dynamic local musical scene.

Justus Samuel, founder of the Arizona Hip Hop Festival, has two clear favorites among the many shows he's booked over the years.

"One I can't talk about and the other has got to be the festival," he says. "It’s such a loaded question."

Samuel doesn't see choosing the festival’s entire six-year run as a cop-out — even as the list of performers numbers in the high hundreds. For him, it's about hinting at something much larger.

"Every festival had its own unique point of magic," he says. "It's the progress of something that's so beautiful. I can't pick a single moment. It's all this epic journey."

He adds, "Raising a child is the best analogy. Or raising an Olympic athlete. Seeing Mike Bibby dropping on Kobe [Bryant] or winning at Shadow Mountain in 1996 — they all carry the same energy."

It's easy to see why Samuel celebrates the entirety of his brainchild: It's been a battle of inches in proving the validity of the Valley's hip-hop scene.

"The first one, they thought we were crazy," he says. "The second fest, Master P came out and signed two Arizona artists. We crushed attendance in year four and five."

In a major way, Samuel admits the fest is a "cultural anomaly. It should not be a thing." And because of that, the event's success is all the more fulfilling.

"In year three, where we separated from Live Nation, [former Phoenix] Mayor [Greg] Stanton actually called it 'Hip-Hop Day’ citywide," he says. "This in a state where they didn't celebrate MLK Day officially until [1993]."

Still, there are smaller moments Samuel has enjoyed. He called Futuristic's 2019 headlining set, when he "stood on 2,000 people's hands," among the "most monumental moments I've ever seen." Or Bouji's 2016 entrance inside a "10- to 12-foot Styrofoam cup wearing $100,000 in jewelry," which Samuel admits is "obnoxious" but also "hip-hop as fuck." He'd have more highlights, but duty always seems to call.

"People call me Bruce Wayne," he says. "I'll be on stage hyping someone, hand the mic off, and then I'm away on another stage."

The 2019 edition, though, proved to be a real watershed moment — for both the festival and Samuel.

"We did 17,000 people," he says. "We were scared to reveal the numbers because we didn't want Phoenix [police] to come down. But they just said, 'Go and clean up, and pick up all the stickers.' Normally, [if] I have to meet with a room full of cops, I'd be scared, but there was none of that. Everyone was smiling; it was so rad."

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The 2019 festival's main stage after dark.
Benjamin Leatherman
Ultimately, Samuel sees the festival as growing Arizona hip-hop into a national commodity, adding, "The first time Futuristic has a Top 100 hit, it will forever alter the landscape of Arizona." In turn, Samuel believes a properly empowered hip-hop scene will have much larger ramifications beyond arts and music.

"Hip-hop is working class; it's urban," he says. "Not everyone can afford to attend. That’s why we never charge for kids. People have said, 'Why don't you not invite the kids?' Why, so I can cut off 4,000 people from attending? We've had kids who are 12 or 13 come back. So in 2025, when they break the Top 100, they can say, 'My pops took me here back in the day.' It's all about the Butterfly Effect."

That same approach continues as even as the coronavirus pandemic spells uncertainty for live music. Samuel says while he took a "five-figure loss" with the closures, his team quickly adapted to the change.

"We’ve been hosting virtual live concerts now with green screens," he says. "They're all done in 15-minute spurts. We kind of ‘teleport’ the artist in. We've had about 30,000 collective views for all of them. Humble, but organic, so it's cool."

But these are no mere gimmick, and Samuel says they're now another part of the fest's ongoing evolution.

"We're never not going to do virtual in some degree," he says. "Now we have a backup, and that will make us stronger and more durable. It's a fraction of what it was, but it gave a glimmer of hope."

Samuel hopes to sell the business by the time he's 45 or 50, allowing the next generation to guide the festival into the future. That doesn't mean, however, he won't still be around.

"I want to have a say as a consultant," he says. "I want to be able to arrive at 2 p.m. and just experience it all. Get drunk and have fun."

Samuel and his staff are in the midst of planning the festival's 2020 edition. He says it's become a "365-day commitment," a task that he happily accepts. It's his chance to celebrate his home state and culture while forging a legacy for himself and his cohorts. But one final loaded question: What's he looking forward to the most?

"I can't wait to celebrate the [festival's] 25th anniversary," he says.

The next virtual concert series is set for Saturday, May 23 at 4 p.m., and features OceanView Slim, Gastronaut, and Dame Daniels, among others. Stream it on the Respect the Underground Facebook page.

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