Beats & Bars Festival 2017:
Runaway Roundtable Review
Posted on 28 September 2017
Beats & Bars Festival returned to downtown Durham and the RUNAWAY team jumped in head first with a lil' review for the people. Big up!
Have thoughts of your own? Share with the crew on Twitter:
Justin - @buddyruski
Ryan - @youaintryan
Alex - @alex_yllanes
RUNAWAY - @runawayclothes.
How did Beats & Bars 2017 compare to last year?
Much better for me, certainly, since I couldn’t make last year’s event. Very glad to now be on board this train, though.
Seeing as I was absent from BnB 2016, I don’t really have any firsthand comparisons, but I was really impressed with the way this year came together. Pulling up downtown on Friday night and seeing the crowds at AU and The Pinhook really excited me and gave me hope this was going to blow the secondhand stories of year one out of the water. The biggest surprise to me was the transformation that took place at “Lot 20”, a major step up for the festival this year, with a stage setup fit for big local and national headlining acts.
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an event that leveled up between years one and two in a more dramatic fashion than BnB just did. There’s still a long way to go for this to become the local staple that it deserves to be, and I’m sure we’ll get into the critiquing later. But just thinking back to the downtown takeover Beats N Bars staged this weekend — Friday night crowds both in the American Underground basement and on the rooftop at the same time (while a cypher was also taking place in CCB Plaza), Saturday night’s outdoor shows in the creatively re-purposed “Lot 20” while live sets were simultaneously taking place inside The Pinhook — it feels entirely unrelated to the 10-person Well$ concert we saw a year ago under the same “Beats N Bars” name. That memory shouldn’t serve to disparage or diminish founder Crystal Taylor in any way; what she was attempting then, as now (a downtown Durham, hip-hop-only music festival), is an uphill climb. Rather than get discouraged by the relatively lukewarm reception to BnB 1, Taylor & Co. put their noses to the grindstone, launching a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign, bringing in national headlining acts, wrangling major corporate sponsors, and bringing in the obligatory outdoor stage and food/drink booths that makes a music festival feel like a serious, professional endeavor rather than a collection of disparate concerts at different venues. The result was an event that showed it had the ambition and execution to become a mainstay of the area festival cycle, on the radar of all Triangle residents, not just hip-hop heads.
Since Ryan hogged all the good takes, I’ll keep it brief. A MAJOR difference from last year. I was one of the 10 aforementioned Well$ show attendees. Walking away from that show left me wondering whether or not this area, specifically Durham, could support local hip-hop with enough fervor to garner a standalone festival. This year was a giant leap in the right direction.
Takeaways from this year’s festival?
Durham’s carrying capacity for music just keeps growing. I want to second Alex, the main stage in the parking lot behind the Pinhook was hella cool: a crosstown echo of the Motorco parking lot that Moog uses but with even more Durm’ed out scenery, as G Yamazawa pointed out—the light-up bulls, the brick warehouses, the DPAC. The festival had more of a local feel, lots of heads from around the city, and plenty of local talent as well. The beats portion of the programming, at the end of Saturday night, was dope as hell and hardly even dipped into the roster of beatmakers peddling their wares in the Triangle. That particular creative wellspring runs deep.
Also, the dude painting portraits of the mainstage rappers in real time was incredible.
Durham really came out to support a homegrown festival full of local acts from across the triangle and state. It was great seeing The Pinhook consistently full of people out to support throughout the festival, and even better seeing the crowds move in at “Lot 20” as the heat started to die down. I think one of my favorite parts of the festival as a whole was the variety of hosts throughout. Most festivals don’t have much interaction between acts, with some house music coming on while the stage setups change, so it was nice to have a much more engaging presence between acts. Additionally, given that the festival was entirely within a block and a half, it felt more connected spatially than most others, giving it a more communal sense.
Like Sammy said the beats portion was not at all ignored with a crazy lineup in The Pinhook following the headliners outside. Topping that off was the beat battle that took place inside earlier that day.
Durham — specifically downtown Durham— continues to be the most difficult place in the world to understand, at least from a nightlife/music culture standpoint. It was great to see such a large (particularly Friday night and early Saturday) and diverse group of attendees to the festival, including more than a few older white folks, others who could be pegged as young professionals who live and/or work in the downtown area, and a sizable 35+, mostly black, crowd as well. What BnB severely lacked, however, reminiscent of most major music festivals, was young kids, particularly of color (note: there were many young POC there, but most were working the festival in some way: performers, photographers, organizers; not “attendees”).
The first whispers of this idea entered my mind as G Yamazawa was performing “North Cack,” his hit song that has been on local hip-hop radio all summer. The crowd was engaged to be sure, probably as electric as it got the entire evening (including for CyHi), but it didn’t meet the insane expectations I had set in my head. “Lot 20” wasn’t totally overtaken by the sounds of the whole crowd chanting the chorus in unison, as I thought might happen. J. Gunn held the mic out for fans to complete his lyrics on two occasions, both times creating an awkward silence as his hometown crowd failed to respond to the cue. This was a song that had been viewed MILLIONS of times on Facebook, with another half a milli on YouTube. The crowd showed G major love overall, but I expected to peel the paint off some nearby buildings on “North Cack,” and that didn’t happen.
It got me thinking: who are the buck-wild, jump-around, yell the lyrics with their friends people at concerts? Kids. Who doesn’t have life shit in the morning? Kids. Who makes rap shows feel epic and energetic and rambunctious? Kids. And from the side-view of Lot 20 as CyHi wrapped up his set around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, there weren’t too many of them out there. Typically at a music festival, I’d expect ticket prices of more than $100-200 to be the culprit in locking this group out, a crew that often helps make Ritz or Cat’s Cradle shows feel larger than life. But with BnB17 festival ticket prices at $45-65, it’s hard to blame the phenomenon on sticker shock. Which brings me to our next question: the headliners.
The festival, possibly by design, felt one-dimensional in its offerings. I’ll be the first to defend Golden Era, boom bap hip-hop music. There is nobility in trying to preserve “the culture” but I wonder if, to Ryan’s point, the younger audience isn’t showing up in droves because the sound they're hearing at BnB is a foreign language that is ubiquitous throughout the festival.
The follow-up: is there a large enough pool of local-ish artists to pick from to diversify the festival and keep the quality high?
What did you think of the out-of-town headlining acts — Nitty Scott, Nick Grant, and CyHi The Prynce?
OK, I’ll start. CyHi — now with the festival in the rearview — remains a bit of an odd headliner. For all the fanfare surrounding him as (from what we can tell/what he says) a crucial member of Kanye’s creative inner circle over the past 7+ years, it’s easy to forget that, at 33 years old, seven years removed from being an XXL Freshman and eight years removed from his breakout role in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he’s just now releasing his debut album. His two most popular songs on Spotify are posse cuts (i.e. not really his songs) from a label compilation album that was released five years ago. I hate to be too on-the-nose here, but I think you see what I’m getting at: even if people wanted to sing along to a CyHi The Prynce song, there’s just not that many to sing along to.
That being said, CyHi (and Nitty for that matter) mostly did their job as headliners simply by having their names on the poster and showing up. Before big sponsors like Moog, Toyota and Yelp were rolled out, the procurement of Nitty Scott and CyHi immediately gave a sense — from name recognition alone — of the aspirations Crystal and her team had for the event: that they were going for something bigger than Durham, bigger than the Triangle. I would hazard a guess that CyHi’s name alone sold a lot of tickets to this festival, even to people who ended up not seeing his set. Such is the influence of a well-known G.O.O.D. music affiliate and Kanye West collaborator — without knowing the name of a single one of his songs, he serves as a stamp of credibility.
Female emcees are a hot topic in my life as of late, thanks to Rapsody’s phenomenal release Laila’s Wisdom, and the album review I have to write of Lil Kim’s 1996 debut Hard Core for 9th Wonder’s History of Hip-Hop course at NC Central. Nitty Scott is a healthy balance of bars and boujee behavior, bouncing between Black Lives Matter and “Boy, Bye!” styles effortlessly. I was glad to see a woman shine in a male-dominated environment.
The other two headliners I was less enthusiastic about. Neither brought a unique style or narrative to the stage. Granted, I’m a hard fan to please when it comes to hip-hop. If your whole thing is you do the “money, cars, clothes” schtick worse than other available artists, I’m likely to turn away. To be fair, Grant and Prynce infused some “conscious” bars throughout their respective sets, but it still left me feeling Nosetalgic for super-versions of the headliners Pusha T and/or J. Cole.
CyHi killed it. At his worst, he was a professional going through the motions and nailing his cues. At his best, he brought the noise and a ton of energy—”Nelson Mandela” and “Nu Africa” both slapped. He was the only act I saw to acknowledge that the county jail sat behind the stage, and shouted out the folks inside for one of his jams. He had some extra juice just by dint of being on GOOD Music, as a little mash-up of some of their GOOD Fridays work from a few years ago had the crowd grooving, but I do wish he’d done his verse from “The Morning.” Also, the crowd had thinned a little by the time he went on, which was a damn shame. Still, he did his thing.
Nick Grant had more room to grow, I’d say. He’s a solid performer and has solid bars, but right now, I’m not so sure what separates him from any other given rapper. But he’s young, so he’ll keep improving, and he’s from the Carolinas, so I’m rooting for him to do it.
The headliners for the festival were really solid, and like Ryan said, the name recognition on its own was a good view into the vision of the festival. Couldn’t catch Nitty Scott’s performance Friday night, but all the media I saw from that set looked like she rocked it and had the crowd going wild.
Nick Grant came in like a pro and gave a dope set, and seemed to really pick it up as his set went on. He’s definitely got some bars but I agree with Sammy that there’s room to grow with his performance. That said, he was a really great lead-in to the headlining act of Saturday.
CyHi came on stage ready to tear the place down with energy. Can’t help but repeating Sammy here again because “Nelson Mandela” and “Nu Africa” were both standout performances in a set that was consistently engaging. It is somewhat odd to have a headliner likely more well known for the “posse cuts” on GOOD Music releases than his own catalog. But, he came out and commanded attention from the crowd his entire set, really putting a bow on the lineup that hit the main stage that night.
I mean who here isn’t gonna say G Yamazawa? The dude is a hometown hero coming fully into his own, and his show was crisp at every turn. He started by barring out over a mash-up of great beats from hip-hop history, then got into some highlights of Shouts of Durham, starting with “1990” and ending, too much adulation, with “North Cack,” the best song you could’ve put on at a Southern cookout this summer. Along the way, he gave love to the crowd at every turn, brought J. Gunn and Defacto Thezpian onstage, and rapped a tribute to Little Brother (which served as a reminder, as always, that Phonte is one of the greatest to ever do it). Mr. Yamazams’s bars are fire, and he’s hitting all the right notes. His insta-portrait was one of the illest, as well—the samurai bun is good for the profile.
I’m hoping Alex swings in here with a vote for TheDeeepEnd, since I missed his show, and I think I would have voted for it if I had seen it, even though I have no idea how it went. Put me down as another vote for G. As a spoken word poet, he has the stage presence, the confidence, the comedic timing that many rappers are duped into never developing thanks to the crutch of having background music. Now, with thumping beats behind him, he’s an entirely different animal. He performed like someone who should be headlining a much bigger Durham venue in the not-too-distant future.
My highlight: “I went to Githens Middle School… anybody from Githens here? Word, word… then I went to Jordan High … anybody else go to Jordan? Cool… then I got kicked out and had to go to Lakeview and shit… yeah… not as much applause for that one…”
The easy answer here would be another vote for G; so in favor of variety, I’ll stray from that very worthy choice. Thank me later, Ryan, because I’m giving TheDeeepEnd my vote. Not only does he bring great energy to his set, he is great at engaging the crowd, having them participate in call and response here and there. What really puts this one over the edge for me was his ability to overcome a few hiccups from the DJ. Naturally, with a house DJ, all the cues won’t be as seamless as they could be, but catching your DJ texting mid-set might leave other acts fuming and throw them off. It only seemed to fuel TheDeeepEnd more, as he couldn’t always count on his cues to be on point. This led to even more crowd interaction, with one of his tracks becoming an impromptu acapella while we all rapped/sang along. I would have loved for him to have a set free of any issues but he really embodied his own words: “When life gives you lemons, you should paint them shits gold”.
Of course, G, but...
A part of the festival that felt overlooked was the all-star lineup of beatsmiths who closed out The Pinhook Saturday night. Tony G, Trandle, and Oak City Slums are artists I’m familiar with and huge fans of, especially Trandle. Sammy and I reminisced about Trandle’s 2016 Moogfest set with jubilation. The young Padawan learner from a year ago is now a full-fledged Jedi.
The surprise of the evening was Sarah the !llstrumentalist, who I wasn’t familiar with before Saturday but had been given the stamp of approval by trusted sources. I’m always impressed by how creative each artist is even when using most, if not all, of the same equipment. Where Trandle was grungy, raw and high energy, Sarah brought grooves and melodies that captured my musical soul and my attention for future shows of hers.
What’s got you feeling juiced about life?
I was only in town for a week, which just happened to coincide with Beats and Bars. But it gave me the sense that you trip and fall down into some dope shit at this point—a stage in a new space, a newer fest on its way up, downtown buzzing. Also, late night in the Pinhook, while Trandle and Sarah the Illstrumentalist both fucking killed it, people got down on the dancefloor. That always puts some wind in your boy’s sails.
BnB, in general, has me juiced honestly. Having it located within view of the Old Bull sign, DPAC, and ATC really gave it a uniquely Durham feel while reaching far beyond with its lineup. I’m with Ryan because the whole BnB team deserves all the recognition for bringing this event together, and the prospect of year three already has me pumped.
I’m juiced about people like festival organizers Crystal Taylor and John Laww (and Kyesha Jennings, who I don’t know). I don’t know how they do it, and frankly, I don’t think I want to know because it’ll put me to shame. Beats N Bars is a great thing, and I’m encouraged that we have it here in Durham, but I’m more encouraged by the people behind it, who can envision something like this and are willing to break through barriers to make it happen. It’s easy to sit here and write about how this or that little thing didn’t go as I expected — it’s a lot harder to put the pieces together and orchestrate an event of this magnitude. All the kudos in the world to the BnB team, who deserve a week or two of rest, at least.
Durham has another festival worthy of our time and energy which can only be a good thing for the culture. I'm excited to see what they do next year to level up once more. Can we get an NC headliner next year? I'm looking at you, Professor. You owe me for doing this Lil Kim album review.