Great music: Paid Dues hip-hop fest

It feels bittersweet using my introductory post to this lovely blog as a simultaneous salutation and pre-emptive farewell, but it’s how it has to be. That’s not to say I won’t be posting as frequently as possible leading up to the return to my hometown of Austin, Texas this August. I intend to blog my big, Southern heart out. But I may as well divulge the departure here, now, because living anywhere other than Southern California – my home for the past seven years and base as a music journalist and photographer for most of the last four years – ties into the purpose of this post.

Which is to give a shout out to a exceptional sector of this region’s music scene that I will miss terribly: independent and underground hip-hop.

I’m not claiming that this type of music is exclusive to the L.A. area by any means. Prominent pockets of hip-hop have risen up in nearly every urban community, some of them more unlikely than others (Minneapolis’s still burgeoning Rhymesayers Entertainment, led by the groundbreaking group Atmosphere, is a fine example).

Yet SoCal has carved out somewhat of a Mecca for the scene with its internationally acclaimed annual festivals. I’ve witnessed it firsthand at seven editions of the main event, Rock the Bells (celebrating a decade this September after expanding to two days for the first time in 2012); full-scale versions of it are also held in the San Francisco and New York City areas, but L.A.’s bash has always been its flagship.

And then there’s RTB’s mini-me, Paid Dues, which I’ve hit up every Spring for the past six of its eight-year existence under the blazing hot sun of San Bernardino. In years past, PD only scratched the surface of what its Mother fest could offer. But this year’s edition, held a week ago (March 30) at Devore’s 20,000-plus capacity San Manuel Amphitheater, pushed above and beyond previous runs, touting top tier acts that are helping to elevate the face of underground hip-hop into a world-class arena.

Hip-hop fans at the 2012 edition of Paid Dues fest in San Bernardino. Photo by David Brendan Hall

Hip-hop fans at the 2012 edition of Paid Dues fest in San Bernardino. Photo by David Brendan Hall

The lineup comprised a healthy mix of old-school legends/veterans (De La Soul, Talib Kweli, Tech N9ne, members of the Living Legends and Hieroglyphics crews …) and formidable newcomers (Black Hippy and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis co-headlined).

Some were purely dope entertainers. Let’s be real: Kendrick Lamar and his Black Hippy buddies don’t harp a lot of substance (booze, bitches and weed are fun topics, but not inspiring or cutting-edge in the long run). Still, others delivered performances that were carefully crafted to underscore why and how a mass-gathering of hip-hop heads (as we call ourselves) is so significant and powerful within this era of music.

The prime example: Macklemore. If you haven’t yet checked out the Seattle-based MC’s work (his latest release with DJ/producer Ryan Lewis, The Heist, is a great launching point), now’s the time. His raps are socially and politically relevant, emotionally moving, innovative and brutally honest. Those factors, combined with an exultant style of performance last weekend, spoke volumes of his capability to further the worthy cause of independent hip-hop as one of this century’s most viable art forms.

After a rousing rendition of his hit single, “Thrift Shop” (a goofy concept, but SUCH A BANGER, ya’ll), he paused to drive that point home, “You know what’s crazy about that song, and it ties in with Paid Dues … that song went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and that was an independent record. That means the masses control the music game right now – it was made by the power of the people!”

That proclamation already had me swelling with a sense of privilege for bearing witness to proof of how far an artist’s determination can carry him, and then he took it a step further when introducing “Same Love,” a poignant argument for equal rights.

Macklemore performs March 30 at Paid Dues fest in Devore. Photo by David Brendan Hall

Macklemore performs March 30 at Paid Dues fest in Devore. Photo by David Brendan Hall

“This is a very important week in America right now … we’re right in the middle of biggest civil rights movement of our generation!” he bellowed, clearly referring to the nationwide clamor for marriage equality. “There are lots of perspectives in hip-hop … a lot of hate … but I am of a perspective where no government or state can tell you who to love! This song is about compassion…”

The roar of approval – tens of thousands of voices – stirred sentiments that I’ve never felt at a hip-hop show prior. And the delivery of the lyrics, “I might not be the same / but that’s not important / No freedom till we’re equal / damn right I support it,” was enough to bring tears of elation to my eyes.

Now, I’m well aware that Macklemore is an artist and has very likely made similar remarks at shows worldwide, but there was something else afoot here, a unique feeling lingering in the air even before the show began, and long after it ended.

It goes back almost 10 years now, to my initial point about how no other place in the world hosts hip-hop events on this scale, where people have traveled enormous distances to take part in celebrating an art form that they genuinely love. One that is far more meaningful and cross-culturally accessible than it normally gets credit for in lieu of how the mass media and mainstream radio/TV normally portrays it.

Within the sprawling web of contemporary music, independent hip-hop events like Paid Dues represent far more than a budding entertainment scene. They epitomize hope for struggling artists – those who will make any sacrifice, financial or otherwise, to pursue their mediums. On a more universal level, they personify a pursuit for peace, compassion and  expanded consciousness through music.

Personally, I am incredibly proud to have resided so long – participating and contributing as an artist and ardent fan – at the crossroads of that movement, here in Southern California.







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