The fourth annual Paid Dues Festival, held Saturday at the National Orange Show Events Center in San Bernardino, straddled the tenuous divide between serving as a celebration of the leading lights of the backpack breed of indie rap -- a movement formed in the late ‘90s as a response to the rap that was being played on the radio at the time, which was perceived by some as too corporate -- and operating as a Petri dish for the flaws of the contemporary underground.
Despite an energetic slate of performers, the 120-acre sprawl of the NOS Events center often felt gloomy and vacant, with a 40,000 capacity but only a few thousand in attendance. The one-two assault of the recession and the two-hour-plus drive from Los Angeles (in Saturday afternoon traffic hell), no doubt kept the masses away, but the $40 face-value tickets, $15 parking fees and exorbitant concession prices certainly didn’t help either.
Even with the ill-chosen location, the glut of consummate professionals on the bill ensured enough compelling performances to justify the event’s raison d’etre.
In particular, headliner Atmosphere illustrated why, after a 15-year marathon grind, he’s finally earned the radio play and Top 10 Billboard chart placement that had eluded him for most of his career. Rapper Slug’s poetic heart-on-sleeve tangents always have struck a chord with collegiate crowds, and at Saturday’s performance, which featured turns from fellow artists Brother Ali and Murs and DJ/producer Ant, the audience mouthed along to every word, hands perpetually in the air.
Meanwhile, Slaughterhouse -- a rap super-group composed of major-label refugees Joe Buddens, Royce Da’ 5'9,” Joell Ortiz and Crooked I -- made its West Coast debut, donning butcher’s aprons, prison jumpsuits and splashing red-colored liquid on the crowd. Displaying a rowdy and raw energy worthy of Onyx or early Wu-Tang, the set was technically flawless and surprisingly well-rehearsed -- a performance providing an immediacy often lacking in the sub-genre, with each performer rapping as though he carried daggers in his teeth.
But the day wasn’t without its disappointments.
Backed by two dancer/hype-men, Kansas City’s Tech N9ne, one of the paramount independent success stories of the last decade, put on a rambunctious set of his Bone Thugs N’ Harmony meets Bay Area hyphy raps. Although the audience didn’t seem to mind, it appeared that N9ne was lip-syncing, a regular occurrence in the pop world but an act of apostasy in the purist-oriented universe of indie-ground rap.
Cage and Blu and Exile, two of the days’ most vaunted acts, were missed by most, thanks to their time slots early on the bill.
Festival organizers Guerilla Union and Murs 3:16 deserve praise for their preservationist instincts and tireless work to keep the torch of independent rap lighted. But conversely, there was something overly familiar about the affair, as though it occurred in an alternate 1999 time warp.
For independent rap to sustain its relevance beyond this generation, evolution is necessary. Too much time was spent on insecure boasts decrying corporate bogeymen, or self-aggrandizing claims about being “that real hip-hop.”
The first tenet of the culture is staying fresh and maintaining that wild style. The only thing as important as paying your dues is continuing to push things forward.