Photo Credit: Richard Saethang
Nestled along Figueroa Street in a narrow valley between the Southwest Museum and Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, Sycamore Grove Park may be an unlikely venue to host even a miniature music festival. But on the fifth night of Red Bull Sound Select Presents 30 Days in L.A. the park proved to be the perfect locale for the laid-back, free, all-ages quasi-festival that known as Stones Throw Superfest. Its small permanent stage provided ample viewing spaces and offered a more intimate environment than the standard music festival. Held in honor of the seminal independent music label’s 20th anniversary, the festival included big names like Common, J Rocc and Dâm-Funk as well as rising stars like Mild High Club and Homeboy Sandman, plus acts like Iman Omari, Sudan Archives, Koreatown Oddity, Chrome Canyon, Gabriel Garzón-Montano, Mndsgn and Karriem Riggins.
After a DJ set by Karriem Riggins Queens, NYC rapper Homeboy Sandman offered up a quick sampling of his acclaimed and eclectic hip-hop. Fresh off of the release of his latest studio album Kindness for Weakness, the rapper brought plenty of energy to his charged set.
After a brief delay, Damon Garrett Riddick, also known as Dâm-Funk, took the stage along with two bandmates, providing a live-band version of his electronic-influenced funk. A product of Pasadena, just a few miles away from Highland Park, Dâm-Funk gave plenty of knowing shout-outs to the local neighborhood during his set. Early highlights of his performance included the G-funk re-invigoration of “Hood Pass Intact” and perfect funk-pop of “Mirrors.” Adding to already expertly-crafted songs, the structures of both songs were deftly manipulated and extended well past that of the recorded versions. As is typically the case with music of this genre, the fact that there was a live drummer and keyboardist made a huge difference in the pleasantly organic sound the three piece conjured. Riddick then guided his band into the infectious funk-house of “O.B.E.” from his wonderful 2015 album Invite The Light.
Those that follow Dâm-Funk closely will know of his recent project with buzzworthy electro-pop artist Nite Jewel. Fans of that offshoot and its five-song EP from this year at the festival were treated to a song with Nite Jewel. With Ramona Gonzalez of Nite Jewel adding her 90s dance-pop worthy vocals to a impeccably retro synth beat from the three-member backing band, the group nailed a version of the Nite Funk song “Let Me Be Me.” Gonzalez stayed up on stage as the band concluded their too-short set with another Invite the Light standout “We Continue.”
This brings us to the one issue that did plague Stones Throw Superfest – the sound quality. For whatever reason, occasionally through Dâm-Funk’s set the audio could be heard “popping” or “crackling.” During his set, it never amounted to much and seemed to go away after the first song. However, the issue returned in an ugly and unfortunate way during the next set of the night, Stone Throw head-honcho Peanut Butter Wolf’s DJ set with turntablist and Beat Junkies founder J Rocc. The two laid out a fascinating run of hip-hop, funk and electronica songs and several times paid tribute to deceased Stones Throw luminary J Dilla. Unfortunately, the bizarre sound issues were too distracting for the crowd to truly get into Donuts’ entrancing “Lightworks,” and before you knew it they were onto another killer beat. The frustration was visible on the performer’s faces, but you have to hand it to them for sticking through the rough patches and delivering like professionals. By persevering, the audio issues were resolved by the end of their set and they finished strong, prepping the audience for the main draw of this event.
Chicago’s Common has steadily grown in stature in both the hip-hop and general pop culture world. Many who are unfamiliar with his intellectual take on hip-hop will recognize him from acting roles in films like Selma. He released his eleventh studio album on Friday, November 4th, Black America Again, an obvious response to our racially, socially, politically tumultuous and contentious times by one of the rap world’s most skilled lyricists. While the set drew heavily from Common’s back catalog, he treated the audience to some morsels of his latest material.
Common opened his set along with a drummer and keyboardist, performing pair of songs from his acclaimed sixth album Be. They started with “The Corner” and moved into “The Food” (so famous for its live feature on an episode of Chappelle Show with a young Kanye West), the latter a fitting way to warm the crowd up with plenty of opportunities to loudly sing along with the lines of “Po-Po, Po-Po, Po-Po!” Between the two songs Common enthusiastically declared that even after 11 albums he’s still hungry for more.
Some of that hunger has to be influenced by these divisive times – and the title track from his new album is proof positive. The rapper, just a few feet from the first row of audience members, performed a powerful a cappella version of “Black America Again,” with unfortunately still very-relevant lines like “Now we slave to the blocks, on ‘em we spray shots / Leaving our own to lay in a box / Black mother’s stomachs stay in a knot,” “These are the things we gotta discuss / The new plantation, mass incarceration / Instead of educate, they’d rather convict the kids” and “As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is / Is it a felony or a misdemeanor / Maria Sharapova making more than Serena.” It’s hard to imagine a time when the socially-conscious lyricist could be more culturally important.
He followed up a powerful moment with a more lighthearted one as the DJ kicked into the infectious beat from “Get ‘Em High,” a cut from Kanye West’s College Dropout. After the song Common touched on the influence and importance of Stones Throw, particularly in providing an outlet for the legendary producer J Dilla to release his inimitable production work. With that he transitioned into one of the best songs from his breakthrough album Like Water For Chocolate, the J Dilla-produced “Naga Champa.”
Besides the Kanye track, other artists’ songs were touched on during Common’s set, including Slum Village’s “Thelonius.” He introduced his rendition of Black Star’s “Respiration” by giving a shout-out to the group’s two members, Talib Kweli and Mos Def (Yasiin Bey). Lastly, he performed The Roots’ “Act Too (Love of My Life),” commanding the audience to sing along with the song’s signature line: “Hip-hop you’re the love of my life,” to which the audience enthusiastically obeyed.
Common concluded the set proper first with one of his oldest songs and then with one of his newest. First up was “I Used to Love H.E.R.” from the rapper’s 1994 sophomore album Resurrection – back when he was still known as Common Sense. Next was “Pyramids,” another new song from Black America Again. The two songs provided a nice juxtaposition of where the rap legend came from and where he is headed, having pretty much reached the pinnacle of commercial and critical hip-hop success. Between the two songs he treated the audience to a clever freestyle about a girl sitting in the front row, and when he dropped some references to Glendale, The 5 and Stones Throw, the crowd went bonkers.
Because of the generally-delayed schedule of the Superfest, Common wrapped his set up around 7:15, a quarter of an hour past the festival’s scheduled 7PM conclusion. Due to the festival’s location in a dense residential neighorhood (hence the early finale), most in the audience assumed there would be no encore. In fact, nearly the entire audience had departed from the viewing area when a burst of applause erupted from the front of the stage: Common and his backing band were coming back out. They regaled the audience with one of the Chicago rapper’s most famous songs, “The Light,” changing the tempo and obscuring the iconic hook sample by relying on the audience to sing it. A massive day of hip-hop, DJ music and funk concluded with the audience’s hands in the air singing “There are times / When you’ll need someone / I will be by your side / There is a light that shines / Special for you and me.”
Black America Again
Get ‘Em High (Kanye West)
Thelonius (Slum Village)
Naga Champa (Afrodisiac for the World)
Act Too (Love of My Life)
I Used to Love H.E.R.