Art of Cool Festival 2017: Day One

Posted on 29 April 2017

The art of cool is only mastered through participation so the Runaway media team (Sammy Feldblum, Holland Gallagher, Justin Laidlaw, Ryan Cocca) jumped in head first.

Before you take on day two, here's a rundown from the crew of day one's activities.


Q: Was it good for you?

Holland: I started the night at Motorco around sundown for Nance and had to come back for seconds (Zoocru), and thirds (Masego), and fourths (Goldlink). Nance opened with EDM-infused raps and Zoocru’s spacey, free-form stylings set the table for the deeper night. Occupying the middle sector of AOC’s Hip-Hop/Jazz Venn Diagram, Masego wasn’t shy to reach for his sax or even a coordinated dance with DJ Anthony Alston mid-set. Goldlink, headlining, made an early appearance to rock out to Masego’s set on the sideline. Artists showing artists love, fans showing artists love, artists giving it back, it was a love triangle.

Sammy: *Drags cigarette*, it was. Last year I followed more of the festival’s tack toward hip-hop, so I hung last night at the Carolina Theater for the brassier programming. New Orleans’s Christian Scott took his trumpet out for a loopy jaunt through the clouds, and included basically an entire spinoff show of anecdotes about his bandmates, with a paean to building community through love as a closer. Igmar Thomas’s Revive Big Band ambled through the history of Black American music (although not so much to its female half), starting with a haunting solo rendition of “Sitting on Top of the World” on slide guitar and moving through special guest Pharoahe Monch performing, well, Pharoahe Monch. Got capacity’ed out of Goldlink, who seems to have the most festival buzz, but caught Rakim chopping his crisp bars up. His old-school style couldn’t have sounded less like what’s going now, but the man can rock a show, and the bars hold up. It’s amazing how many stock hip-hop phrases originated with him.

Justin: I only caught one show; The God MC himself. A special moment in Durham music history for a few reasons, one of which is the fact that surging Durham groove machine Zoocru served as the backing band for one of hip-hop’s most legendary spitters. Speaking of North Carolina hip-hop, a potentially foreshadowing dap exchanged between Fayettenam’s own and 9th Wonder has this writer asking a lot of questions. Is there a DUCKWORTH. in the works for J. Cole’s next project?

Ryan: Night One of Art of Cool was special. I didn’t see the aforementioned dap between 9th and Cole, but spotting Jermaine just hanging out by the bar at MotorCo for GoldLink’s set was all the validation I needed that 1) Art of Cool’s music industry legitimacy is reaching a fever pitch, and 2) the recent New York Times piece about J Cole’s extraordinarily relaxed, non-pretentious lifestyle hit the nail on the head. Of course, his international superstardom still provokes excited whispers of “Yo, look, J Cole is over there!” between groups of friends when he pops up, but if you live around Raleigh and go to major events like Hopscotch or Art of Cool (or even non-major events like adult rec league basketball), it’s not abnormal to have seen him on more than one occasion. It’s pretty cool to have a global icon for our state so comfortable hanging with the people, and I hope fans don’t take for granted — it may not last forever.

Elsewhere in downtown Durham, I felt the impressive breadth of AOC’s booking on full display: I bounced from a more traditional (but still fiercely energetic) jazz set from trumpeter Marquis Hill and his band at PSI Theatre to an off-the-walls hip-hop show at the Pinhook from Kooley High, to packing in shoulder-to-shoulder at Beyu Caffé to see Alex Isley — daughter of Ernie Isley, of the Isley Brothers — perform her breezy R&B love songs for one of the most adoring audiences I’ve ever seen in my life (each announcement by Isley of which song she was playing next was met with high-fives and shouts of “Yes!” at the tables surrounding the stage). As is the case with most writers in this group, my tastes from the Art of Cool offerings bend towards hip-hop, but even the most narrowly focused music fan would need their eyes (and ears) closed shut to not appreciate the way AOC has cultivated a festival that feels both far-reaching and cohesive at the same time.


Q: What are you looking forward to during day 2?

Holland: I’m ready for the Beats and Bars day party in the plaza to kick it off. Later I’ll be posted at the Pinhook to catch the local rap. Just Blaze tonight!

Sammy: Planning on nerding out and shattering some souls at the “Who Sampled” jeopardy competition, and catching some super organic rhymes at the Cypher. Far as acts, looking forward to Terrace Martin playing after his speaking gig here last year, and George Clinton reminding me just how strange the cosmos are. Excited to see what kind of bars Reverend Barber has when he opens for Common. And local acts Ace Henderson, Wade Banner (opening for Just Blaaaaze!), and Rapsody (opening for the Reverend)... I’m geeked.

Justin: Actually seeing more than one show would be helpful. Honestly, I’m looking to dive into the daytime programming. Art of Cool has curated a dynamic roster of speakers and guests to build context and depth to the musical themes. Plus, it’s great to see them working with sister festival Beats & Bars to bring hip-hop culture back to the public square.

Ryan: This piece is hitting the presses too late for me to hit the daytime programming. That’s especially a good thing in regards to the cypher, where my bars could potentially set nearby Unscripted Hotel — set to open its doors in June — ablaze, setting downtown development back a couple years.

Tonight is really when AOC gets too good (kinda ridiculous that I’m saying that the day after Rakim, Goldlink, Masego, Pharoahe Monch and Christian Scott blessed the stage), and the truly painful decisions have to be made. Stay at Pinhook and #supportlocal for all of Danny Blaze and Ace Henderson’s sets at the Pinhook, or catch Terrace Martin at Carolina Theatre? Sink into Butcher Brown’s mellow, BADBADNOTGOOD-esque vibes after Ace, or see a rousing socio-political speech (or rap?) by Reverend William Barber II before Common?  Last time I saw Rapsody at DPAC, she was performing to a crowd that bought tickets to see Rich Homie Quan and Big Sean. Needless to say, they didn’t find her deft lyrical skills and boom-bap roots particularly interesting. I’m excited to see her opening for a headliner more suited to her style, like Common. I’ll play it by ear, but it’s good to know that I probably can’t make a bad decision, no matter what I do.


Q: Favorite act from day 1?

Holland: Wearing a sharp, creased black pant and his trademark bandana, Goldlink closed Motorco’s Friday lineup to the delight of an overflowing venue of adoring fans. Me, included. It was dope.

Sammy: Probably Christian Scott, who noodled out his virtuosity but kept a bouncy backbeat thumping throughout. Scott’s opening song could definitely have been a backbeat for a rapper, and he even dipped into jazztrap—while that may sound weird, I say it worked. He and his bandmates seemed thick as thieves; he put on hard for New Orleans heritage. And the music was fresh and open: he introduced his second song as “a brand new song we wrote a couple days ago, so we don’t really know how the motherfucker goes.” But, believe it or not, they did end up knowing how it goes.

Justin: Rakim. The performance wasn’t overwhelming but he did all the classics and, as Sammy pointed out during the show, he laid the groundwork for a genre that has taken over popular culture. Put some respect on that man’s name.

Ryan: Masego, with the slight disclaimer that it was the only set I saw from start to finish. From his DJ getting crowd involved early with a playful dance routine, to debuting a new, outrageous song about wanting to be in a relationship with an elderly woman, Masego had the crowd in the palm of his hand all night — from the front few rows of screaming young women, to Goldlink jamming out on the sidelines.


Q: What stuck out so far?

Holland: The turnout. By the eye test, is seems like Durham is fuller than ever at this year’s AOC. Zoocru, during a song intermission, polled the crowd. “Anyone here from out of the state?” Applause. “Anyone here from North Carolina?” Applause. “Anyone here from Durham?” Applause. Looks like AOC has recruited festival goers from in and out of town. Kudos!

Sammy: Getting to Rakim’s late-night armory show, I walked inside to the sight of J Cole and (Goddamn how fresh is Duckworth!) 9th Wonder giving one another a beefy dap, sending a ripple through the fabric of NC hip-hop’s spacetime. What if those dudes collaborated; c’mon, son!

Earlier in the day, J Gunn came to his press conference with his infant daughter baby-bjorned onto his chest, taking a page out of Steph Curry’s book. His take on streaming: “Hip-hop has changed so much, and streaming has taken all the money from independent artists… Streaming is the worst thing in the world.” He brought up the stat that Pharrell made a huge $2700 off Pandora streams of Happy (think about how often that was getting fucking streamed, my God)—“What do you think that means for someone like me?”

Justin: The aforementioned exchange with 9th Wonder and J. Cole. That’s North Carolina hip-hop royalty. The thought of them working on a project together sounds like something that should have happened years ago. Now is as good a time as any.

Ryan: The lack of a proper venue between MotorCo and the Pinhook stuck out to me. To ever become the city that music festival dreams are truly made of, Durham will need to do something about the yawning expanse of parking spaces and tumbleweeds currently residing between Riggsbee and Main. At best, the 15-minute walk (or 30-minute round trip between the two) is an annoying deterrent for music fans who want to maximize their time at a festival like AOC. And at worst, it creates a pathway — long stretches of which are desolate and poorly lit after dark — that is a legitimate safety concern to festivalgoers walking alone, particularly women.


Q: Who surprised you?

Holland: Only seeing Zoocru once before (on Market Street during Blackspace’s fundraising event) I didn’t have the luxury of venue-level speakers amplifying their sound. The louder the better for the transformative Durham five-piece.

Sammy: Revive’s walk through Black music history included two joints by Howlin’ Wolf: Smokestack Lightnin’ and How Many More Years. His songs performed by a umpteen-piece band couldn’t have been more thrilling; kudos to Thomas, too, for the arrangement.

Justin: I was firmly cemented in the RUNAWAY store for most of the afternoon yesterday, but I had the pleasure of speaking with festival goers who stopped through. Even though I knew this in the back of my mind, I’m always still surprised at how far reaching the fanbase is for Art of Cool. Folks from Bmore, ATL, OH10, all coming to experience Black music in Durham, North Carolina. It’s a special feeling as a native of the Bull.

Ryan: I think I have to echo Holboy’s sentiment with Zoocru. Walking into MotorCo completely blind (I had never seen them perform, nor did I know the show I was walking into was theirs) I had the benefit zero pre-conceived notions, whether that be about them being “local,” being jazz, or anything else. The result? For the first 10 minutes I seriously thought I was watching a famous group out of Los Angeles. Nope, just another legendary Durham group in the making.


Q: A hypothetical track made by artists that you saw yesterday.

Holland: A smooth Goldlink record where Masego opens with a verse and hook, which is met the same from Goldlink building to a big synthy chorus about the pleasures of late night texting. Oh, nope, that’s real. (Late Night)

Sammy: A walking bassline by Christian Scott bassist Luques Curtis comes in like funk from the ether, unaccompanied. Dr. Lonnie Smith—in full Confucius garb, as when he played with Revive—comes in with a tidal wave of sound, then softens into a more whimsical melody. We find out that he’s in fact on a vocoder, and he starts singing hymns through his voc-organ. Scott and Al Strong (who played with Zoocru and Rakim) hop in for a dueling trumpet piece.

The original is smooth, but then 9th Wonder chops it up into a soulful track with Scott’s and Strong’s yelling at each other during their solos sped up into chipmunk vocals. Rakim hops on top and scolds whack young rappers.

The song is called “What the Fuck is a Flugelhorn?”, and brings lyricism back into the mainstream.

Justin: Give me a posse cut with Rakim, Pharoahe Monch, Tab-One, Durham’s own J Gunn. Can we throw in J. Cole? Sweet, thanks. Produced by 9th Wonder with a B-Side remix from Sinopsis.

All the artists represented on the track can rap their ass off. It pits legacy up next to hometown heroes, blending history with the new wave.

Ryan: Sammy, that track sounds amazing, but I’m pretty sure with K Dot topping charts that lyricism is very much in the mainstream.

I want a track where Charlie Smarts (of Kooley High) finds his bawdy, oddball charm repeatedly rejected by a silky smooth Alex Isley. He wants a girl who likes Mac ‘N’ Cheese after sex (and somehow works this into a bar, like: “Bring the Kraft macaroni, her pasta is lasagna/had a scoop of noodles then it’s hasta mañana”) but she only dates men who don’t have weird cheese and sex preferences. Their tension is our entertainment in this quirky anti-love rap song.


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