Every summer, megacommercial, corporate-sponsored events like KMEL's Summer Jam and KYLD's Bomb 21 offer up much-hyped concerts which are little more than jockfests with minimal actual substance. These shows are cash cows for the stations, and it's safe to say they don't exactly do it for the love. It's also safe to say there's not a big emphasis on hip-hop culture.
The exact opposite could be said of Hip-Hop in the Park, an underground-flavored free annual event sponsored by UC Berkeley's Students for Hip-Hop. For the past decade, it has offered a viable alternative to corporate rap shows, promoting all elements of the culture (not just MCs) and this year's tenth anniversary celebration was easily the most impressive yet.
To paraphrase the old Berkeley Farms slogan, "Hip-hop in Berkeley? Yes, yes, y'all." This year's event began with a nod to African ancestors, courtesy of soukous dancers, and finished almost four hours later with a mind-boggling set by hyphy superstar Mistah F.A.B. In between, there were high-energy B-boy ciphers, live graffiti painting, turntablist exhibitions, freestyle demonstrations, and quality sets by a host of talented underground artists, including Black Lion Crew, Kirby Dominant, Native Guns, the Attik, and Pep Love. It was a lineup easily worth paying fifteen or twenty ducats for, but the fact that it was all free made it that much sweeter.
The event has come a long way since its humble beginnings a decade ago. Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, one of the original organizers, related that Hip-Hop in the Park was started with a $150 budget from the university, barely enough to rent two mics; he even had to borrow his dad's speakers for the PA. Over the years, however, it's evolved considerably. This year, the $6,000 budget paid artists, hired security, and rented a decent sound system. The event serves a vital function, Jacobs-Fantauzzi says: "It's about bringing hip-hop back to the essence" and keeping the proceedings "relevant and cultural. ... The need for us to gather as a people is important."
The fact that Hip-Hop in the Park celebrated its tenth anniversary means "that people want it and they like it," says Kirby Dominant, who founded Students for Hip-Hop along with Jacobs-Fantauzzi, and has since gone on to a successful solo career. "If you keep building on it, it's always gonna get more support and get more advanced," he says, adding that he's pleased that the organization's momentum has continued without him being personally involved: "That's what gives me hope."
Another of the founders, Kahlil's brother Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, has also been successful post-college, not as a rap artist, but as a documentary filmmaker. To him, the tenth anniversary of Hip-Hop in the Park represents nothing less than a cultural validation. "When we started this, there wasn't no hip-hop classes in universities, people didn't really respect it as a culture yet," he says. "Ten years deep that just means our roots are planted. We're not falling anytime soon."
DJ Icewater who has become ubiquitous to the East Bay hip-hop scene, making beats and engineering projects by numerous local artists in addition to holding down a weekly slot at Oakland's Golden Bull nightclub also got his start as a member of Students for Hip-Hop. "I think it's cool that it's carried on," he says of the event. "It's carried over to the next generation, and it's just gotten bigger and better," he says, adding that he's happy "to have laid the foundation for it."
This year's event gathered a nice-sized crowd of several hundred, the majority of whom hung out all afternoon. It upheld the historical legacy of People's Park as a place for grassroots gatherings, but with a hip-hop twist not usually prevalent at the site.
The live performances delivered many highlights Pep Love was a particular audience favorite, and the Attik's high-energy show didn't lack in intensity with the unquestioned cherry on the top coming from Mistah F.A.B. Arriving onstage wearing a knapsack and sporting a blinged-out diamond-and-gold-encrusted timepiece, he stated his intention to unite the backpack and hyphy segments of the hip-hop audience then proceeded to do just that. After admitting "there was a lot of dumbing down" involved with him becoming a commercial radio favorite, F.A.B. proceeded to demonstrate the lyrical skills that made him a freestyle champion before the hyphy movement emerged. He performed his most "conscious" song, "If 'If' Was a Fifth," then moved on to bangers like "Kicked Out the Club" and "SuperSikwidIt," holding the entire crowd under his thrall.
The absolute showstopper, however, was a five-minute freestyle routine that had jaws dropping. That's a long time to be rhyming spontaneously off the dome, especially considering that the majority of that time, F.A.B. rapped a cappella. Not only did he never waver or stumble, but he actually gained intensity the longer he rapped. With lines like lyrics that come from the spirit/nothing that I wrote/it's all off the head, he easily disquieted those who claimed he wasn't "hip-hop" enough for them and left the crowd buzzing about what they had seen as they peacefully departed. It was definitely a you-hadda-be-there moment, but even if you weren't, there's always next year.