It’s well understood that hip-hop was birthed in the Bronx, but thanks to The Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival we’re reminded that both the genre and the culture will always have a home in Brooklyn. Since 2005, the festival has been inviting hardcore hip-hop enthusiasts to enjoy several days of celebration and education. “We’re just on some pure hip-hop shit,” says the festival’s Executive Director, Wes Jackson. “We give you a more comprehensive and holistic approach to hip hop. Our tagline this year is: unapologetically and undeniably hip hop.” The hip-hop cred of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival certainly cannot be denied, especially when the list of who has graced the stage in the past includes Kanye West, Big Daddy Kane, Pusha T, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes and KRS-ONE. This year, the festival, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, will take place from July 9th to July 12th and will be headlined by Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan and Jay Electronica. More performers are set to be announced in the coming months. Wes Jackson recently spoke with Life+Times and unveiled how he plans to commemorate the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival’s tenth anniversary, why he chose Jay Electronica as one of this year’s headliners and what he thought of OutKast’s Coachella controversy.
Life+Times: Your mission statement is “Our aim is to highlight hip hop’s legacy as an agent of artistic progression, community building and social change.” In the beginning, how did you set out to bring that goal into fruition?
Wes Jackson: We set out to accomplish it in almost the same ways we do now. It was always about trying to put legends and old school artists on the stage next to newer or up-and-coming guys. That would sort of create the forum and the energy for change. We’d have the elders and the rookies. We didn’t want to be all old and living in the past or too brass, ignorant and young, but when you put those two together you get the stirred, provocative and yet, well informed third option. That’s what we wanted to do.
L+T: Ten years later, how do you think you’ve effectively accomplished that mission?
WJ: I think we accomplished it through a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice and then we’ve also had artists who’ve really continued to bring that energy and also who have given us discounts in fees and worked with us if sometimes we were struggling to meet a tech requirement or something.
L+T: For those who are not familiar with the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, what does the festival offer that lets say Hot 97′s Summer Jam or 105.1′s Powerhouse doesn’t?
WJ: I’ve been reading this book called The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop by Dan Charnas. Dan talks about how these events like Summer Jam or Powerhouse were never intended to be creative endeavors. They were marketing and sales initiatives and promo things to get more people listening to the radio station and a way for artists to get their records played. The purpose is to generate revenue and market share for Emmis Communications. With The Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, it’s to push the music, art and culture forward. If you want to get hit with a sort of orgy of talent you should go to the Summer Jams, but if you want to learn about your culture, find the next wave of your culture and celebrate your legends you should come to us. It’s just a completely different energy and execution, because we just aren’t trying to do the same things.
L+T: Aside from showcasing quality hip hop, what are some of the other aspects of the nearly week long festival?
WJ: One of the first criticisms we received back in 2005 was that we claimed that we were a festival, but in reality, we were just an outdoor concert. I’ve never forgotten that and those criticisms were right. From that point on I promised that it would be more than just music. The festival is about the culture. The music is obviously a huge part of it and the most visible part, but now we’re going to start the festival with our Hip Hop Institute event, which is where we’ll discuss hip hop’s impact. We’ll try to educate. We’ll put people who have been around a long time in front of young people who are willing to learn. We’re going to focus more on the education of hip hop. We have a film festival where if you’re a media maker making documentaries and short films we’ll give you the opportunity to shine on our stage. We have the “Salute the DJ” event where we promote DJ culture.
L+T: The festival’s headliners have normally had lengthy catalogues, but Jay Electronica hasn’t even released his debut album as of yet. What is it about him that though he doesn’t have much music out, still makes him right fit for the festival?
WJ: That’s something that we wrestled with. But for me, Jay Electronica is the best shit out. It’s the strength of the music. That’s why he’s a good fit for us. He may not have that much music out, but the bit that he does have is that powerful. He’s very prolific and there’s definitely at least as much music as Kendrick Lamar had when he did our festival. This was around the release of Section.80. I don’t really care that Jay E doesn’t have an album or a video out. Just listen to that “We Made It” freestyle with him and JAY Z. The talent is undeniable. The people that do know of him are going berserk and the ones that don’t know are going to be brought up to speed very quickly.
L+T: How important do you think festivals can be to music discovery?
WJ: I think we are very, very much needed. The oldest member of Pro Era is about 20 or 21. Those guys could literally be my kids and that means that they would’ve been listening to Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarface” while they were still in pampers. Those Pro Era fans may be like “Jay Electronica? I’ve heard of him. He’s signed to Roc Nation. Maybe he’ll bring Hov out.” Or, “Raekwon is from Wu-Tang. My uncle used to play them,” or whatever. These different generations will all be in one place. Hopefully, we’re all going to build with each other and introduce each other to something new.
L+T: How important do you think it is for this next generation to see hip hop progress and mature?
WJ: I think it’s critical. It’s critical to the survival and the advancement of the culture, but at the same time we don’t need to worry, because there were a ton of rock guys, jazz guys, blues guys and country guys who flamed out in those early years due to money, drugs or women. Rock has what I like to call the benefit of time as an editor. As time goes by, all the wack shit just gets sort of edited from the narrative. Now it’s all about “The Rolling Stones were so awesome,” but when the Rolling Stones came out it wasn’t a forgone conclusion. It is starting to happen with hip hop. In the beginning it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that Biggie was going to be so great. A lot of people hated that Versace and champagne stuff he was on. As time has gone on, people forget those early criticisms and they focus on Ready to Die and Life After Death. You also see it happening with the response to Illmatic’s 20th anniversary. You’re seeing the father and son rapping along to “N.Y. State of Mind.” That’s a new phenomenon within hip hop, which is a function of time. You can’t rhyme with your son when you’re only eighteen years old, but when you’re forty you can do that and that’s what’s happening now. I think we have to be patient and allow time to edit us out. We’ll be just fine. We just have to be careful not to rush it, because rock is over seventy years old and we’re only forty.
L+T: Why do you think an established brand like Rock the Bells had to cancel festival dates last year?
WJ: I don’t know the specifics, of course. These are just my thoughts. I do feel for them, because I do know that it is extremely difficult to put on these events. They are extremely expensive. The powers that be don’t really want these types of things to exist. There’s racism, so many regulations and just so many things that can go wrong. I really do feel for them. I was doing a panel with Talib Kweli and Nelson George and Kweli was saying music fans take pride in not paying for music. They’ll gladly say something like “I ain’t bought a record in ten years,” as if that’s somehow a good thing. That creates an economy where literally your customers don’t value what you do, but yet and still they want it desperately. That just doesn’t make any sense. Fans need to understand that we need their support to make these things happen. If they aren’t buying any tickets how are we suppose to continue these events? At times, our fan base doesn’t heed the call to action and can be lazy, soft and complacent. Also, in order to make these sorts of events a reality we sometimes get in bed with these huge corporations. I feel like at some point someone just looked at the spreadsheet and said “Sales are in the danger zone, and if they don’t pick up by this date Accounting says you’re dead.” It can be a very numbers based market where if the advance sales aren’t there the people in power are going to pull the plug. They may have put themselves in a conversation with people who don’t really understand the language, because a lot of the times the people we’re working with aren’t from our culture. It’s not even a racial thing. Every year us hip hop-based festivals have to prove ourselves in ways that maybe Shakespeare in the Park or rock festivals don’t have to. When it comes to the guys signing checks at Coachella they understand why a Rolling Stones would work, because they get it. Just look at what happens when a Coachella does book an OutKast. You end up with people acting like “Who the fuck is OutKast?”
L+T: The way that audience treated them was so disrespectful, on so many levels.
WJ: When we heard they were coming back, we tried to make a play to get OutKast perform at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. They wanted more money than what was probably three of my annual budgets, but we still tried to give it a shot. It ended up not working out, but they did go for Governors Ball, Coachella and these other festivals. You are one of the greatest hip hop groups of all time and then you diss the hip hop event to go to Coachella. Do you think the Rolling Stones would diss Coachella and come to the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival just because a lot of hip hop kids like the Stones? No, because they support their own, but we run for the acceptance of outsiders. It doesn’t make any sense. Those kids are on their iPhones looking for the next set being disrespectful to you OutKast. I think hip hop’s yearning to be accepted by the publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork and the Coachellas and the Bonnaroos is this self-loathing that needs to stop. We need to support Hip Hop DX and SOHH. We need to support Rock the Bells, Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival and A3C. We need to support ourselves, because we are the people that’ll support us when we’re down. You know that would never happen at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. People would be so excited that they’d be fainting to see Andre 3000 and Big Boi together again. It’s just ridiculous that 3000 has to be on stage asking the crowd “Are y’all awake?” They don’t love you. We love you to death. There was a Who Is OutKast? tumblr created as soon as it was announced that they’d be headlining Coachella. Coachella is paying you like you’re the guest of honor, but all of the guests are dissing and dismissing you. The downside is that their legacy has potentially been damaged a little bit. These publications have these headlines like “OutKast Bombs at Coachella!” That has become the discussion. The discussion should have been “Andre 3Stacks and Big Boi are back!” There were so many positive things to talk about, but instead there’s all this chatter from these EDM ravers who told you from the jump that they didn’t really care. But the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival is in a few months, so if they want to changed their minds I would love to have them [laughs].
L+T: I hear that a Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival book is in the works. Could you speak on that a little bit?
WJ: I’m very excited about this. We’ve gotten very nostalgic with this being our tenth year and all. We definitely want to let people know that we’ve been around for ten years and that that’s pretty fly. I also wanted to bundle up all of the lessons that I’ve learned and be able to give them to the 2014 version of me. In order to be able to improve you need to have a textbook or manual. Writing that manual became fun, because we started remembering all of these stories and memories like seeing Kanye’s Maybach pull up backstage or Styles P being so nervous before he went on that he had to go into the Porta Potty and smoke a blunt. We just started to revisit all of these really great stories that make you appreciate these cats that much more. We’ll have a version of the book ready for this year’s festival and we’ll have another version of it come in the fall. It’s an attempt to share the secrets and the lessons. We’re also shooting a documentary to go along with it, which will outline our first ten years.
L+T: What does ten years of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival represent for you?
WJ: It’s triumph, man. This was just a crazy idea I had ten years ago. I guess I was lacking a little confidence back then, but I would ask “Would people actually want to come to this show?” Then all of these people who have helped make this possible said “Yes, let’s take a shot at this.” I haven’t had an idea go from the brainstorming process to reality so quickly before this. It’s just a triumph over a lot of adversity. It’s been a lot of challenges, so when I look back at ten years it’s like Jay E and JAY Z said, “We made it!”