It’s only been two years since the advent of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and it’s already filled a growing void of free hip-hop shows in New York City. Attending a hip-hop show in New York has become a major financial undertaking: $150 for Hova‘s “Reasonable Doubt Anniversary Show” (the day after this festival), $75 for the Roots‘ Dilla benefit at Radio City Music Hall, $45 to help Marc Ecko “Save the Rhinos.” Only a few years ago it was a common occurrence to see Talib Kweli (he showed up at the Tobacco Warehouse for a guest appearance, as did Craig G, CL Smooth, Just-Ice, Boot Camp, and Scoob Lover, among others) and Mos Def play for free in Prospect Park or catch Nas in the summer of ’04 make history by shutting down Central Park for a hip-hop concert.
So it seems fitting that for each of Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival’s two years, the organizers have invited the Chicago Rilla, Rhymefest, who proudly reps the masses with his blue-collar-popping brand of hip-hop. Cast squarely in the shadow of fellow Chi-towners Kanye West, Common and Twista, Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco (another performer at the festival, along with an excellent performance by Big Daddy Kane, Sleepy Brown, the Procussions, Maya Azucena, and Panacea) represent a second generation of Windy City artists on the come-up. Many are looking toward the Bay and hyphy as the next big “movement” in hip-hop, but it may just be Chicago that is next in line for some regional shine.
In Rhymefest, we find an emcee who speaks the often-forgotten language of the proletariat. As clichéd as it sounds, Rhymefest is doing it for the streets, for the people with fucked-up credit, who live paycheck to paycheck and cut coupons along the way. Reality is bitch, and it’s nearly lost in hip-hop, where damn near everyone fakes membership in the billionaires’ boys club. It seemed for a long time that Rhymefest’s debut was in a perpetual holding pattern by Jive Records, leaving ‘Fest grasping to keep the buzz rolling and keeping the album from leaking on the Net. Perseverance clearly paid off, battle-tested and Grammy-approved: Rhymefest’s debut, Blue Collar is a reflection of the man himself: witty, uncompromising, and engaging, topped of with an irrefutable swagger. Through out the LP, Rhymefest does not diverge from his blue-collar mantra, whether it’s deconstructing the misleading imagery disseminated by hip-hop artists on “More” or the pre-club anthem for the regular folks on “Go Out Clothes.”
But that perpetual holding pattern meant that Rhymefest was performing at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival in support of his debut album for two years in a row. It was an ideal marriage of a festival and an artist reintroducing time-tested principles in order to establish a following in a narrowly fixated hip-hip market. Hip-hop was cultivated and nurtured in park jams in the Bronx, were artists’ biggest dreams were to out-duel a local rival and bring the music downtown to the clubs in Manhattan. But things have significantly changed in the post-Guiliani New York, a safer city for visitors and a restricted life for residents. Which in part helps explains the void and need for the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. It may far removed from good ole days in Mott Haven, but it’s a worthy imitation of the once-intimate parties that used to dominate the Mecca of hip-hop.
Despite the constant barrage of rain and menacing clouds, Rhymefest gave a performance not usually given at a free concert, freestyling off the top of the dome, moving the crowd and introducing cuts off Blue Collar. In between acts, we sat down with the unofficial Mr. Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival to reminisce over last year’s show and talk about the new album.
So you where here last year at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. What makes you come back to Brooklyn every year?
What makes me come back to Brooklyn every year to the Brooklyn Festival is that it is like a family reunion for me. There is a sense of family. You have black, white, Asian, Latino, women, children, young and old. The Brooklyn Festival is us getting back together and getting to the business of hip-hop.
Your album was supposed to come out last summer. What has been the delay on the album coming out?
Well, my thing is I don’t want an album, a dope album, to come out and sit on the ninety-nine-cent shelf. I want to build up the awareness, I want to build up the eagerness, anticipation. So we did things like the AOL Session, the Brooklyn festival, tours with Kanye, Method Man, Little Brother. And now that more people are aware of Rhymefest, the time is right, the time is now: July 11, Blue Collar.
You have made the transition from somebody who used to freestyle to now being more of an artist. A lot of people try to do that transition but can’t. What’s the difference between you and a lot emcees who just freestyle?
The same difference between me as a freestyle artist and songwriter and being able to make that transition is the same difference between somebody who says they can write songs but can’t really write songs. There is a lot people out here who don’t freestyle and say they are song writers and are bad at it. But we concentrate on the freestyle artists because they do have a dual type power. My thing is, some people can write, some people can’t. Some people that can’t but want to write music but can’t are good at dancing, good at performing. You know, I didn’t necessarily think MC Hammer was a great song writer, but he was a good entertainer and he was a great dancer. Now, was it because he freestyle battled? No, that’s not necessarily a handicap to writing songs. So stop thinking that. But my thing is that I’m just multi-talented.
So let me ask you about “Bullet,” a great song where you decide to talk about the war. At what time did you really feel it necessary to talk about the war?
Well, I believe my music is not something that is my decision. My music is given to me from my creator and I am used as a vessel to deliver it to the people. So there is not really a timeline on it. The time is given to me to give it out.
You won a Grammy for “Jesus Walks.” Where do you keep it?
I keep it on the mantle in my living room until I can find an airless glass bubble to put it in.