Summerfest 2016 – First Weekend Rap-Up

  • Post Author
    by Web manager
  • Post Date
    Tue Jul 12 2016

Despite being one of the world's largest music genres, hip-hop has never quite found a happy home at Milwaukee's Summerfest, the World's Largest Music Festival. While the rest of the “music festival” scene in America increasingly features huge-name EDM DJs and rappers dú jour such as Future and Kendrick Lamar, Summerfest has maintained its traditionally rock and country focused approach to creating a crowd-pleasing lineup that doesn't always quite get at “what the kids are listening to.” Wiz Khalifa's 2011 show at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse, legendary amongst my generation of Milwaukee kids, was a glaring example of why Summerfest takes this approach: The massive crowd at the show filled up what felt like a square mile in front of the stage, which created an unpleasant viewing experience for everyone who wasn't there waiting at 5 PM for a bleacher seat, and set up a push-or-be-pushed situation that inevitably boiled over a few times throughout the evening. While this has become the norm for festival crowds at massive events like Lollapalooza, Summerfest doesn't seem to be prepared, equipped, or willing to deal with crowds like this (see also: Imagine Dragons' 2014 ground-stage showing, which forced Summerfest to temporarily close its doors to handle the sheer numbers that showed up).


Photo Credit to Sam Caravana

These experiences have led Summerfest to seemingly create a “glass ceiling” of relevancy for the artists it books, hoping to keep crowds somewhat small and somewhat over-21 by getting artists that are either just past their prime or have already achieved “classic” status. This is a double-edged sword for hip-hop, as booking an older artist makes Summerfest look out-of-touch in a genre with a fanbase that tends young and is always evolving, but booking a rapper with mainstream hype like Wiz leads to the exact situation they are trying to avoid (and the first option doesn't always work out in Summerfest's favor anyway, as artists like Summerfest 2014 performer Ludacris still have enough name recognition to draw out the starved pop-rap fans of Milwaukee for at least one crazy, jam-packed night). With all this in mind, I was curious what was in store for Summerfest's first weekend, highlighted (for me at least) by performances by 2000s top 40 radio legend Nelly, the buzzing and eclectic local hip-hop and soul collective New Age Narcissism, and America's favorite talk show backing band, the Legendary Roots Crew.

Saturday, July 2nd, Harley Davidson Roadhouse, 9:45 PM – Nelly

Much like the aforementioned Ludacris performance in 2014, seeing St. Louis legend Nelly in this day and age is an exercise in admiring just how many ubiquitous hits he created in the previous decade. Even my typically rap-averse mom had to admit she was aware of 2002 number-one single “Hot in Herre” after I swallowed my pride and rapped the chorus to her after she claimed she had “never heard a Nelly song” (It turned out she had). Despite being more than a decade removed from the peak of his career, Nelly came out on Saturday night with the presence and swagger of a true rap rock-star. His microphone of choice was gold-plated to match his chain, and he moved and rapped in an assertive and sharp manner that less-experienced rappers often struggle to achieve. While he's no “lyrical miracle” like 2015 performer Lupe Fiasco, he more than makes up for it with a classic southern-rap flow that comes off as confident and commanding, which he highlighted with a couple of moments where he ended songs without the instrumental playing. It's a quality that worked well with a crowd so large listening to music they're straining to remember, as his cadences were strong enough that if you couldn't hear the words in the verse, you would easily recognize the flow of the chorus and be able to sing along. The audience picked up on nearly every one of his big hits, even in the tragically cut-off section next to the bleachers I was standing in, where everyone was still excitedly rapping along to opener “E.I.”, crowd-pleaser “Country Grammar,” and the menacing stomp of “Air Force Ones”. Even the closing track “Just A Dream,” from his 2010 return 5.0, was well-received by the crowd, despite coming from a time long past Nelly's initial string of hits.


Photo Credit to Sam Caravana

While it was clear that Nelly had not lost his step as an entertainer, his interest in keeping the crowd going also led to some of the more musically disappointing moments of the show. After all, when your career is built on Top 40 hits, how do you keep the crowd entertained when you run out of songs the crowd might know? You play more Top 40 hits… that aren't necessarily yours. For example, I'm not sure the crowd even noticed that the last verse of “Country Grammar” was rapped over the beat to Bobby Shmurda's 2014 trap-rap banger “Hot N****”, but it happened, and it was a weird move that felt like it was trying and failing to pander to the younger members of the crowd. But that wasn't quite as obvious as his other appeals to more modern music, which came in the form of Nelly's DJ simply dropping a few of the top-40 rap hits of the past few years, such as DJ Snake's “Turn Down for What” and current favorite “Work” by Rihanna and Drake. And, while Nelly does in fact have a verse in the remix of bro-country phenomenon Florida Georgia Line's “Cruise”, it was disappointing that that song seemed to be the first time the entire crowd was into the show. However, the alternative wasn't much better – Nelly tried to draw some showmanship into 3 of his own lesser-known songs by bringing up 3 women from the audience to dance with him, but as his attention turned to them instead of the crowd, so too did the crowd decide to tune out Nelly; It took the long-awaited drop of “Hot in Herre” to draw them back in. After a successful run through most of his bigger hits in the first half of the show, the second half of the show showed the problem with booking post-prime pop-rap acts like Nelly: Once you get past the few songs that have stuck around in popularity, its incredibly hard to keep the audience's attention on the strength of their musical talent alone. Nelly showed he still has the presence to own a stage when the song is right, but also showed that the shallow depth of his catalogue makes for a lot of non-Nelly moments in a Nelly show.

Sunday, July 3rd, Miller Lite Oasis, 8:00 PM – New Age Narcissism

In recent years, Milwaukee as a city has offered an interesting solution to the problems with Summerfest hip-hop that I outlined above. Perhaps more than any time in recent history, there is a buzz around the city's hip-hop scene, and there are a few artists that seem poised to see a bigger stage in the near future. The members of New Age Narcissism, a collective featuring artists across multiple genres, have played a large part in creating this excitement around local music, keeping a steady presence at gigs all around the city and state. With an established fanbase in Milwaukee and the surrounding areas, NAN brought out a crowd that was excited to see new local talent shine on the big stage. The timing of their performance may have also exposed the group to a larger audience of people who already had a taste for hip-hop with live instrumentation, as there were sure to be some who had come to see the Roots perform at 9:45. They wasted no time in showing they meant business by opening with a surprise instrumental cover of The White Stripes' “Icky Thump,” proving right away that the rhythm section of NAN (bassist Bo Triplex, digital producer Q the Sun, saxophonist Jay Anderson, and drum pad player/incredibly flexible person Chris G) is not just another superfluous hip-hop backing band. They were there to impress, have fun, and rock out.

Photo Credit to Sam Caravana

Photo Credit to Sam Caravana

Much like the way they release music, the collective took time to showcase the talents of each of their vocalists individually during the show, letting the concert serve as a sampler of the catalogue of solo and group work featured across their Bandcamp and Soundcloud pages. Never wasting a moment to represent the other local artists they work with, the band brought out local rapper Queen Tut to perform “Dominion” from her debut EP Psychedelic Traphouse to officially start the show. From there, Lord Fredd33 stormed the stage and hyped up the crowd to shout “Blow!” and “Danica Patrick!” along with his slow and methodical sing-song flow. However, his best performances came later in the night when he returned for raucous renditions of “SOS” and other cuts from his recently released Dead Man's View LP. Fredd33 was then joined by Beno Beetho for his cloud-rap inspired “Carson Wentz” (“Draft pick!”) just before Siren made her first appearance for the night. Siren kept her attention-grabbing, strong R&B sound consistent throughout each song she performed throughout the show, including “Medusa”, a crowd favorite and one of the only tracks that she has officially released. The funky style of singer Lex Allen proved to be a hit as well, keeping things light, fun, and danceable with 2016 release “Cream and Sugar” and a new song he debuted specifically for the occasion. NAN capped off the celebration of their success over the last year with the sole appearance of rapper WebsterX, who has shown potential to be a breakout star after gaining nationwide recognition for popular singles “Doomsday” and “Lonely”. While he didn't take up too much time (probably in deference from his chance to open for Lupe Fiasco as a solo artist last year), his energy and stage presence during the Siren-assisted “Doomsday” showed why he and NAN are getting people talking about Wisconsin hip-hop again. They haven't reached their full potential yet, but it's clear that they have the passion and talent to keep going up from here.

Sunday, July 3rd, Miller Lite Oasis, 9:45 PM – The Roots

The career trajectory of The Roots has to be one of the most improbable in music history. From toiling in the moderate Philadelphia rap scene with the cumbersome label “alternative” attached to them due to their inclination to use “real instruments”, the Roots moved up to legendary status through Grammy awards, critical acclaim, and even a chance to back Jay-Z in his momentous Fade to Black “farewell” concert and video. While they still release new material as a single unit, they've also gained a reputation as one of the premiere live bands in music for any featured vocalist or genre. This has led to collaboration albums with artists from John Legend all the way to Elvis Costello, and ultimately to their nightly position as Jimmy Fallon's house band on The Tonight Show. On Sunday night, they showed all the talent, teamwork, and downright showmanship that earned them that job, hitting a tight, danceable groove on every single song they played and never letting the energy down at any point. Although they didn't start until 30 minutes after their reported 9:45 start time, potentially due to the annual “Big Bang” July 3rd fireworks show going on right outside of Summerfest at Veteran's Park, the crowd immediately knew their wait was worth it as the band entered after a recorded vocal sample proclaimed “this is OUR music!” and Black Thought needlessly implored the already-roaring crowd to make some noise. The first part of the concert was a seemingly nonstop stream of fan favorites,  including “The Fire”, “Section”, and “Break You Off”. Black Thought's intense and always on point delivery, the steady rhythmic leadership of Questlove, and the tight-knit playing of the band as a whole made it impossible not to find something to enjoy in every song.

Photo Credit to Sam Caravana

Photo Credit to Sam Caravana

While their solo material is revered in its own right, the Roots' experience backing other artists has led them to be potentially the most fun cover band in the world. In the first half of the show, The Roots seamlessly transitioned their own songs in and out of other recognizable riffs, from Bobby Byrd's “I Know You Got Soul” to Desiigner's “Panda”, the latter of which I kind of predicted might get played given its current status as a massive hit. However, the band went almost all the way in the direction of their Late Night arsenal of songs after a somewhat bizarre but fascinating interlude from someone playing EDM-like productions on a sampling pad (I didn't catch his name – he's not a regular member of the band). Before the rest of the band returned to the stage, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas took over to briefly serenade the crowd with a crash course through the day's hits, giving bite-sized takes on “Hotline Bling”, the Weeknd's “The Hills”, Fetty Wap's “Trap Queen” and even the legendary horn riff from Outkast classic “Spottieottiedopalicious”. The band then rejoined the stage to jam to some of the most classic of classic rock, going from Guns N Roses to George Thorogood, and then into Led Zeppelin's “Immigrant Song” before diving headfirst into an uptempo rendition of The Roots' classic “The Seed 2.0”. The song's “If Mary drops my baby girl tonight, I would name her Rock n' Roll” refrain was clearly the payoff of this section of the show. These little touches of organization, creativity, and sheer fun are what make the Roots such an entertaining group to watch, and it's easy to see why they've been so successful for so long.