Before tens of thousands of attendees flooded the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday afternoon for two days of free concerts and endless celebrity-spotting as part of the 2014 BET Experience at L.A. Live, rehearsals were underway for the awards show the three-day festival is built upon.
Inside Nokia Theatre a set of impressively flexible female dancers contorted into a series of poses that made much of the staff present for Friday’s closed rehearsal blush — and applaud.
BET Awards executive producer Stephen Hill was posted at his usual spot: a makeshift control board in the middle of the theater.
Elsewhere, the typical chaos that comes with prepping for one of the network’s tentpole broadcasts was evident.
Crews were moving quickly to set up the stage for what will be one of the most buzzed-about moments on Sunday’s telecast next to the closing performance — the details of both are classified — as one chart-topper warmed up his vocals, and sneaked (numerous) peeks at the dancers. “Can I just stay here,” he joked.
But Friday afternoon, the show got an unexpected jolt with the news that soul legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bobby Womack had died.
The responsibility to address Womack’s passing during the biggest show dedicated to black music goes without question, and Hill, along with show producer Jesse Collins, was figuring out how.
“I had literally just gotten the news. How can we do it justice? We always want to pay respect,” said Hill, who also serves as president of music programming and specials for the network.
“This show to me is about paying respect,” Hill said. “Whether it’s to new artists coming up, established artists, mature artists with our Lifetime Achievement Award or people who have passed, we always want to be respectful.”
Since its inception in 2001, the BET Awards show has routinely been one of the network’s highest-rated programs. Last year’s broadcast — the first from Nokia Theatre — earned its highest ratings in four years.
Hill has packed this year’s show with performances from a host of stars that includes Nicki Minaj, Pharrell, Usher, T.I., Iggy Azalea, Robin Thicke and Lil Wayne.
There’s also plenty of surprises in store. Chris Brown’s first performance since being released from jail earlier this month will happen during Sunday’s show, as will the reunion of a trio of beloved ‘90s R&B groups, according to multiple sources.
“We want folks this year to feel like they can’t sit in their seat. They’re watching something every once in a while that makes them feel like they want to stand up,” Hill said. “We want people to be amazed.”
“Now that there are more [awards shows], it’s definitely a challenge to make our show unique,” Hill said. “That’s the challenge because there are so many people doing it. I would be lying if I said I don’t look at [other shows] and say, ‘We’ve gotta do that different.’ ”
But the telecast isn’t just an awards show. It now serves as the core of the network’s BET Experience — a three-day destination festival that takes over L.A. Live and its many venues.
Now in its second year, the multitiered festival that combines concerts, comedy shows, celebrity panels, a free fan expo, a film festival and the awards show telecast began to unfold early Friday afternoon.
Lined up outside Nokia Theatre, dozens of seat-fillers for Sunday’s telecast were trying to peek at the network’s long-running countdown show “106 & Park,” which broadcast the first of it’s award-themed shows from a set erected in L.A. Live’s courtyard.
They couldn’t see the action, but they reaped a few rewards for their patience. R&B singer Trey Songz walked over to them and took selfies as he headed for the show, and a team of BET production staffers handing out surplus tickets to the festival’s opening night made a beeline to them before going to the many spectators that walked around the busy courtyard.
Soul songstress Jill Scott offered the first highlight of Friday’s kickoff show when she transformed the massive Staples Center into an intimate jazz club. Scott’s glorious, groove-filled set turned hits like “A Long Walk” and “Golden” into extended jam sessions, and the audience got lost with her during a handful of sensual and fiery breaks.
And Maxwell only dialed up the heat with his closing performance that teased his comeback after four long years away from the spotlight. His set was a master class in showmanship that’s long been his hallmark.
Across the street at the smaller Club Nokia the party continued with Rico Love, DJ Khaled and Future. It was a jarring, almost detrimental shift in energy for those who took in the night’s earlier, seductive grooves.
Future, the Atlanta rapper who found stardom with auto-tuned warbling and sing-songy raps, led a packed club through a constant sing-along paired with raucous dancing as most bars reached last call.
The beats were punishing and there wasn’t a derriere in sight that wasn’t shaking to the barrage of ear-rattling jams, especially as Lil Wayne and Big Sean dropped in for guest verses.
It felt like a party, and it’s just the beginning.