Tie dye is no longer the preferred shade of nostalgia. If you want to reminisce on simpler days, you wear the Wu-Tang logo. So the empirical evidence from the 2013 Paid Dues Festival would suggest that album sales might be fickle, but Wu Wear is forever.
The rap festival, now in its eighth year, is held every spring somewhere in San Bernardino, an Inland Empire off-ramp with 200,000 people -- a place previously only known for its Hells Angels chapter, meth mills, and Renaissance Faires. It’s home to the San Manuel Amphiteatre, the largest outdoor concert venue in America. Capacity is 65,000 and during Paid Dues you might think that 36 percent sported the “W.” And this was during a year in which the Clan opted instead for Coachella.
But necks were also protected by “93 Till Infinity” tees. 2Pacalypse Now was very real and 100% cotton in the “Thug Life” shirts worn by bleached blondes with badly exposed roots. These were not ornery backpackers trying to reignite a dying torch, these were young rap fans of all races and ethnicities, who may been consummated to the “Humpty Dance.” To even out the Clinton-era atmosphere, there were “COMME des FUCKDOWN” beanies and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” tanktops. Somewhere in the middle was Joey Bada$$, who wears skinny jeans but raps like evolution stopped at MF Doom.
The blend of popular catchphrase, current great and older cousin-cool was all over Paid Dues. There was Juicy J, Scarface, Killer Mike, and Suga Free, all legends north of 35, who remain some of the most interesting and innovative in rap. There was the best crew out, Black Hippy (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock), the #1 pop rapper (Macklemore), and the gilded meme, Trinidad James.
Think of it a rap carnival and like any carnival, there were winners, losers, and giant corndogs. These were a few:
The Craig Mack “Won’t Be Around Next Year” Award: Trinidad James
There are a lot of things to like about Trinidad James. He’s got a solid jumper, he may be the son of Jerome from “Martin,” and he obviously likes holding puppies. But he might be the least original artist to blow up in recent memory.
“All Gold Everything” is basically a Lil B song built for strip clubs. His stage show disguises his lack of anthems by leading people in chants. There was a “turn up” chant, a “drop your panties” chant, a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” chant, and of course, a “pop a molly, I’m sweating” chant.
Trinidad James is what your dad thinks hip hop is like, or maybe your grandfather. He’s the Manchurian Candidate of swag rap, a flamboyantly dressed hustler who beat the system. He’s impossible to truly hate. The guy didn’t even rap on his own remix and took a break to throw t-shirts into the crowd. He’s enjoying his moment and trying to prolong it as long as possible. But at one point, he insisted that his DJ lead the crowd in the “Harlem Shake” and Baauer’s hit blared and James whooped across the stage and a meme stared eye-to-eye with a meme and may have torn a hole in the space-time continuum.
The Ice Storm Award
During a performance of “Reagan,” Killer Mike and his DJ, Trackstar, donned masks of the titular president, while unleashing a savage indictment of his policy. Not only was Mike’s set the festival’s most powerful, it was easily the eeriest use of a presidential mask since The Ice Storm, when Christina Ricci sexed Elijah Wood while disguised as Richard Nixon.
Most Valuable Accessory: The Vaporizer Pen
Whether “G-Pen” or “Trippy Stick,” the THC-vaporizing USB-charged pens were as ubiquitous as “W” shirts.
Best Dressed: Freddie Gibbs
Freddie Gibbs rarely goes a song without letting you know he’s from Gary, Indiana. But he’s lived in L.A. for the last half decade and has adapted to the City of Angels with ease. When he hit the stage with Madlib, the crowd treated them like local heroes. It didn’t hurt that Gibbs rapped with steroidal power in a Polyester Steve Garvey Dodgers throwback. No word if Garvey has heard Gibbs’ music, but I’m sure he could identify with its themes.
Favorite Cliché: Turn Up
It seemed like half the rappers were telling the crowd to “turn up.” The phrase is becoming as played out as “getting crunk” circa 2004. I hope it disappears faster than you can say Ying Yang Twins.
The Lifetime Achievement Award
Juicy J is an American hero. At 37-years-old, he managed to land a gold single after being ice-cold since winning an Academy Award. He’s probably the most influential rapper ever from Memphis and has managed to somehow get more popular with age.
Paid Dues booked him at the same time as Scarface and the former Three Six Mafia mastermind drew four times the crowd. Any other rapper his age trying to pull off call and response chants of “hey, who wants some molly,” or “who on some blue dream,” would seem sad and pathetic. When Juicy did it, the crowd went berserk. When he asked for girls to dance on-stage, his command was Pied Pipered. Suddenly, everything looked like a deleted scene from Spring Breakers. He played “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” “Stay Fly,” “Zip and a Double Cup.” It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do.
The Wardrobe Consigliere Wanted Award
Scarface is one of the 10 greatest rappers of all-time, if not top five. Not only does his voice boom a wrathful God, he writes songs as thematically rich as any testament. He’s written some of the coldest verses ever, which is why he should never wear a t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts on-stage. I understand that might get hot, but the man needs to perform while dressed in some dapper outfit reminiscent of the cover of TheUntouchable. No one wants to hear “Never Seen a Man Die” while being reminded of Superbad jokes about handjobs and Vietnam.
The Craft Master Award
Joey Bada$$ can rap well, but he applies all the originality of a paint-by-numbers kit. When spied from a distance, his set seemed like any other from a slightly above-average New York underground rapper from 1997. At best, he’s the Brian Jonestown Massacre of his generation. At worst, he’s the Dandy Warhols.
[caption id="attachment_71374" align="alignleft" width="640"] Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul of Black Hippy perform at the Paid Dues Festival, San Bernadino, Calif. Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images[/caption]
The Sharks and Lasers Needed Award
Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne tour was easily the most conceptually ambitious in rap history. It was as absurd and bombastic as a villain in an Austin Powers film, but your attention never lagged.
Black Hippy is the best crew in rap. Its members who make music as original, heartfelt, fun, and intelligent as anyone and their performance at Paid Dues was mostly excellent. But if they’re going to play before 50,000-plus, having four guys in hoodies and a banner that says “TDE” isn’t going to cut it. They might not be making Maybach-smashing money yet, but they need a stage show to match their musical creativity.
The Rap Game Billy Elliot Award
Someone needs to mark Macklemore for death. I don’t care if it’s an obsessed Atmosphere fan or Lester Bangs’ ghost. His set combined all the charm of a Dane Cook routine, a midnight AA meeting, and a Marky Mark video.
I’m sure Macklemore is a really good bro who leaves tips at Starbucks that make all the baristas say “That guy’s a real sport.” He hosts fan appreciation pizza parties. He writes tribute songs for gay rights and dead Mariners announcers. He’s painfully optimistic and is living his dream by making honky-rap about dressing up like your grandfather. He has legitimately paid his dues and you have to respect that.
But my grandfather would insist that Macklemore is a turkey. For one, the Seattle rapper needs to tithe 10% of his income to Atmosphere. There’s a difference between homage and outright heist and on-stage, Macklemore lifts every one of Slug’s vocal tics and cadences. Close your eyes and you can scarcely tell the difference. He is Atmosphere if God loves Sucking.
His stage presence consists of jazz hands gestures while flouncing on-stage in the fashion of a British boy ballet maestro. While wearing a black tanktop, Macklemore expressed his dissatisfaction towards driving his mom’s Prius when he really wanted a Cadillac Roth. It was the most aggressively mayonnaise thing I’ve ever heard at a hip-hop show (to be fair, I never saw Paul Barman or Joey Lawrence live).
Every one of his songs seemed accompanied by a syrupy choir or some sort of fortune cookie optimism. He told the crowd that they “will only get one tonight.” He coaxed them to make noise because they were competing with every other festival in the world at that moment. He roared “Are You Ready” with the corniness of a boxing ring announcer. He sang a song about Irish pride. He brought out a singer in all white who looked like a milkman.
Then he crawled on his hands and knees and surfed out into the adoring mob and you couldn’t help but wish that he disappeared, but understood that he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.