Respecting the Underground: The Arizona Hip Hop Festival Reigns

The Arizona Hip-Hop festival is coming to town.
The Arizona Hip-Hop festival is coming to town. Shot by Dub
The Valley’s festival circuit is like a jungle. But one festival has not only survived for six years but flourished: the Arizona Hip-Hop Festival.

The 2019 edition features a whopping 340 rappers, singers, and artists, including headliners Futuristic, Vee Tha Rula, Rockness Monsta from Heltah Skeltah, DéLa Preme, J.Rob the Chief, Delly EveryDay, and Tommy Will. The festival promotes the other “elements” of hip-hop, with breakdancers, DJs and turntablists, and street artists all appearing. But to get here, adjustments had to be made.

“It grows every year,” says founder and organizer Justus Samuel. “It was year three where we really figured out the logistics. But to say it’s gotten easier, it’s relative; if you asked me yesterday afternoon, I would’ve told you a different answer. But people thought it’d be a logistical nightmare, and we’d collapse under our own weight. We proved the world wrong.”

But Samuel, a long-time proponent of the scene through his Respect The Underground media/artist group, says he has found the challenges to be a blessing. Part of that process, says Samuel, has been to “take the helm, to own” Arizona’s place as capital for great hip-hop on par with a Chicago or Atlanta. As such, Samuel sees the fest as representing the state in every way possible.

“The goal was to have Arizona businesses with Arizona people and musicians, all eating Arizona food, drinking Arizona craft beers, wearing Arizona brands,” he says. “We’re bubbling [as a state], and we’re a diamond in the rough nationwide. Phoenix is going to be the mecca of the Southwest.”

Underground Illuminati performs at the festival in 2016. - FRANK CORDOVA
Underground Illuminati performs at the festival in 2016.
Frank Cordova
Growth could only occur by condensing, with the fest in its inaugural year at The Pressroom after past editions at Comerica Theatre. Samuel said that downsizing was to “create a better experience for artists and fans.” He says he pulled inspiration from SXSW as well as famous hip-hop fests Paid Dues and Rock the Bells, which impressed the importance of “how to position and marketing.”

Samuel admits that our local hip-hop scene “doesn’t always get the respect it deserves,” and that that can be traced to how corporate entities “control the narrative.” He adds, “You’ve just got to do it on your own.” But that’s not to say the fest is a solo feat, and Samuel admits it’s a deeply collaborative process. That’s true not just of artists, vendors, and organizers, but even fans.

“If you spend $1 [at a local business], 70 cents stays here,” he says. “If you spend $1 at Starbucks, 7 cents stays here. It costs you more, but you’ll live longer in your lifetime. If you help others succeed, you’ll be successful.”

Samuel has a great story reflecting that very concept.

“We [previously] made an offer to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; Arizona just loves ‘em,” he says. “But at the last minute, I balked, I passed. We’re going to sell out, but I didn’t want Bone Thugs to get the credit. It wouldn’t have taken any heavy lifting, but we already possess what we need to win.”

Samuel says that much of the scene behaves in a similar way, with everyone uplifting one another. Does that include competitors like Pot of Gold fest?

“They’re not competition; they’re my friends,” Samuel adds. “We don’t have $10 million for talent, and we can’t facilitate that or we don’t want to. But they make us look good. They honor our dates.” Samuel believes that his efforts influenced Pot of Gold, who’ve added a “locals only” stage.

click to enlarge A billboard advertising this year's Arizona Hip-Hop Festival. - RESPECT THE UNDERGROUND
A billboard advertising this year's Arizona Hip-Hop Festival.
Respect the Underground
It’s those “locals” that imbue Arizona Hip-Hop fest with significance, growing something essential to the scene’s continued existence. Roqy Tyraid has been involved in the fest for several years, having either hosted or performed as far back as 2015. As a veteran of Phoenix’s scene, he was amazed at what the fest has already accomplished.

“To go from me selling CDs [on my own] to the fest closing down one of the busiest streets in Phoenix was just insane,” he says. “In 2006/2007, we were trying to put [ourselves] on the map, and now you have people actually flying out here just for the festival. It’s been a long time coming.”

Mega Ran, another longtime Phoenix vet, says that “10 years ago I didn’t think this [festival] would happen,” and the growth and expansion still “has me in my feelings a little.” Despite his ample love for the city, Mega Ran recognizes its shortcomings.

“Things don’t typically grow out here,” he says. “You’ll have a hip-hop festival or a nightclub and it often doesn’t last.”

Tyraid gives much of the credit to Samuel for “galvanizing this idea” and “materializing” a lot of the subsequent growth. Mega Ran, meanwhile, believes it’s Samuel’s “persistence” that has helped something flourish where other projects fell short.

Tyraid sees the festival now, with its mix of legacy acts and up-and-comers, as a kind of training ground, where “the hottest kids in the scene in three or four years will get their feet wet.” It’s especially important as “every sub-scene in Arizona is represented. There’s no stone left unturned.”

That sense of inclusion isn’t just about uplifting the culture; it’s also savvy business. With 340 artists, Mega Ran says that if each of those “brings 50 fans or friends,” the event will be a massive success.

No matter what draws attendees, though, Tyraid believes the fest presents a “snapshot, a taste” of Arizona’s hip-hop offerings.” He adds, “It reminds me that we’re here by ourselves, and we had to do a lot of things on our own. But we did this off the strength of our scene.”

With growth comes questions of what comes next. Namely, are artists worried that the festival may grow too fast to maintain its local roots? For his part, Tyraid says the “turtle has left the beach,” and the scene’s reached that next level. Luckily, he adds, “we have the internet and social media to keep feeding the beast, and pass the torch” to rookies.

Mega Ran, meanwhile, considers himself a “glass-half-full guy,” and while the fest may grow “to where they can’t bring back some artists,” they’re “building something in the desert that’s positive in more ways than one.”
Perhaps the best way to look at the festival’s impact and future is to understand the “kids” as Tyraid so eloquently put it. Phoenix’s Desert Baby says his festival spot is maybe his “third show ever.” He adds that while he’s excited, he looks at his appearance as an opportunity.

“This is a business move, a stepping stone,” he says. “If you have 300-plus artists, maybe 40 to 50 are trying to have an actual career. If you’re an artist standing next to a veteran, you take any chance to learn something. They spent maybe $20,000 making mistakes you can learn for free.”

Desert Baby echoed support for Samuel, adding that the scene would be far better off with “10 Justus’.” While he thinks Arizona’s still sorting itself out (“No one made a blueprint for us yet,” he adds), the festival offers the one thing any artist needs most.

“They’re giving you a platform to look bigger than life,” he says. “Then you try to sell yourself.”

The Arizona Hip Hop Festival 2019 is scheduled for Saturday, November 16, and Sunday, November 17, at The Pressroom. Tickets are $30 at azhiphopfestival.com.

Editor's note: The print edition of this piece inaccurately states the number of years the event has been at The Pressroom. We deeply regret the error.
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan