When former concert promoter and New York City native Wes Jackson founded the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival in 2005, Kanye hadn’t yet interrupted Taylor Swift, Frank Ocean and Tyler, The Creator were a few years out from collaborating and Jay-Z was still just a rapper. Times have changed and hip-hop–and Brooklyn–have, too.
Now in its ninth year, the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival still manages to draw iconic talent–recent festivals saw Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip grace the stage–while nurturing emerging artists. This spring a series of battle-of-the-band-style showcases offered fresh talent the opportunity to compete for a chance to open the main event on July 13 at Pier 5 at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
We caught up with Wes Jackson to talk about jazz, keeping the festival fresh and his Jay-Z dreams.
Brooklyn Based: What inspired you to start this festival?
Wes Jackson: The starting of the festival was really inspired by going to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. When I went there to visit it, it encapsulated not only the music, but the culture and the food and the people. It was like they picked up New Orleans and dropped it into this fairground. I said to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that with hip-hop in Brooklyn?’
And it was also because I’m an academic and a student of music and my father grew up on Monk and Coltrane and Miles. My son’s name is Miles, and I’m named after Wes Montgomery. I’ve followed the evolution of jazz, and I always found it interesting that jazz in its early days was also vilified much as hip-hop has been. Being filled with dangerous black men who are on drugs and after your white women and that it’s going to harm your soul–all of these things people said about jazz. Fast forward to 2000, and nobody’s saying that anymore. There were magazines like Downbeat, or people like Miles, who literally just said ‘No, you’re wrong. I’m going to change the perception of this music,’ and I felt that it was time for hip-hop to grow up. We gotta clean up our act. We can’t be in the clubs at three in the morning. We need to have this outdoor festival where we can attract more people, younger people, and put on a more diverse space.
BB: In the nine years since the festival started we’ve seen hip-hop evolve. Even in the past few years, from Watch the Throne to Odd Future to Auto-Tune. How has the festival stayed current and adapted?
WJ: Our mission was always to put on the best, the classics, the veterans and put them on the same stage as the new and up-and-comers and to get those two audiences to comingle.
It’s difficult, especially as I get older. Sometimes you feel like you’re turning into that crotchety old man, like, ‘back in my days, you know, when hip-hop was real,’ and sometimes you realize that you’re not giving those young kids a voice and a chance. And they said the same things about us. People don’t realize that Run-D.M.C was sort of the A$AP Rocky of the time in terms of perception. They were sort of dangerous–the establishment hated Run-D.M.C, and they loved it. They were the original rebels…so you have to keep the doors open or you’re just going to strangle yourself because this is the good old days to somebody else.
BB: Brooklyn has also changed in the past nine years, and what it means to be from Brooklyn or to live in Brooklyn might be different now than it was. How do you balance the changes in the music with the changes in the borough?
Keep reading for Jackson’s thoughts on the new generation of hip-hip up-and-comers and a festival-inspired playlist.
WJ: We always sort of attracted, I guess what some people say is, the old Brooklyn and the new Brooklyn…and let’s be honest: that’s sort of a code word for black people and white people. We’ve always been pretty diverse. That kid that grew up and went to Brooklyn Tech, or something like that, plus, you know, the white cat from Ohio who came here to intern for GQ, or whatever it is. We’ve always been open to that because I think just philosophically we have an open platform.
We’ve always had about a 60/40 split male-to-female, which for a hip-hop show is like heaven…we see more of that; we look after that crowd. I’m seeing more black faces next to white faces next to brown faces next to Asian next to Indian, and it’s expanding. We’re still getting more kids from Farragut projects in Fort Greene and from Bed-Stuy. I feel like the brand is still very much true to its roots, and we’ve just grown.
A festival-inspired playlist to get you fired up for next weekend.
BB: Who would you like to see play the festival who hasn’t come across the stage yet?
WJ: Jay-Z. He needs to play the festival. We’ve been saying it for years. It makes too much sense. He’s done so much for the borough. He’s a little more of a capitalist than I am; I’m more socialist in my views, but I think, in terms of the self-determination and the entrepreneurial spirit, he does manifest a lot of our mission.
I would love to do an Outkast reunion to bring sort of non-New York things that all the New York kids love. Or bring maybe Dr. Dre out here. But Jay would be my number one wish.
BB: What’s the state of Brooklyn hip-hop right now?
WJ: I think Brooklyn is sort of a mythical place…because you have, going back from Biggie to Jay to Mos and Kweli, to even a Big Daddy Kane, some of the most iconic figures in all of hip-hop, but it’s been gone. It went to L.A.; then it went down to Atlanta. But now what you’re getting are the children of Jay, the children of Biggie, who grew up, who never have seen Biggie alive.
These young MCs, to bring it back to the jazz metaphor, they realize this is where it’s at; and ‘I am a descendant of that;’ and I think they take it more seriously as a craft. That’s the best part about these young MCs, like a Joey Bada$$. He understands the mantle that he carries in ways that you could not have appreciated a generation before because he’s watching his father toil in the field but also has his own gumption to say, ‘I’m gonna take it further.’
I thought Chicago had the crown for a long time with Kanye and Common, but I think it is coming back to Brooklyn. There are some very, very exciting sort of crews, young guys, 18- and 19-year-old cats who are bringing it back.
BB: Like Phony Ppl? As part of the next generation of young, talented, thoughtful artists?
WJ: Yeah. And we have Dyme-A-Duzin, who’s the front man for Phony Ppl, performing this year. I actually interviewed him for our site, and he’s in here and he’s like, ‘the drummer for Phony Ppl is Jazzy Jay’s son,’ and Jazzy Jay is one of the original hip-hop guys, and he’s like, ‘He lets Phony Ppl rehearse in his house.’ So even a simple thing like that…for these young kids, they feel empowered. That’s what it is. They’re walking into hip-hop and they’re like ‘Dad, you know what I want to do? I want to be a hip-hop artist.’ And he’ll be like ‘Oh great, like Uncle Sean? He’ll show you how to do it.’ So they start with an advantage that the previous generation just did not have.
BB: We talked about the balance between putting iconic artists on the stage while supporting emerging talent. Why do you think it’s important to strike that balance between the icons and those coming up through the ranks? Why not just have a bunch of superstars?
WJ: Some of these big festivals, you see hip-hop is being pimped. It’s being sort of pimped to sell tickets, but people have no love for the culture, no appreciation for the culture. They’re letting some agency put these people on the stage.
The superstars out here, that’s cool, and I give those brothers all the praise they’re due, but they’ve got enough places to shine. They’ve got Hot 97; they’ve got BET; they’ve got MTV. I feel like it’s my duty to balance the equation. You can go see Kendrick at all these other places. I’m going to put Kendrick on before he blows up.
But from a philosophical, academic perspective, it’s my responsibility to do that. It’s my responsibility as a lover of hip-hop culture to make sure that people do not forget about EPMD or Redman or Big Daddy Kane or KRS-One or Ghostface Killah and think that the world started with Eminem and A$AP Rocky. I have a bit of a higher purpose to make sure that those brothers don’t wind up like some old blues legend, who’s sweeping floors in some club because he got hustled out of his own money and Led Zeppelin stole the song.
BB: As a hip-hop fan, what are you most looking forward to this year?
WJ: As a fan, I’m looking forward to EPMD performing So Wat Cha Sayin’, off the second album Unfinished Business, so I can be in the back when they’re on stage doing the EPMD dance, which I’ve been doing with my boys for 25 years. I’m ready for that. I want EPMD to do one particular song that I’ve been geeking out about for all these years, and as a fan I’ll be happy to get out there with my family and my people and we can do the things we used to do when we were thirteen years old…I’m gonna be up on stage acting like EPMD’s backup dancer for at least like five seconds.
The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival runs from July 10-13. The main event is an all-ages block party from noon to 3pm on Saturday, July 13, before an evening of performances at Brooklyn Bridge Park from artists including EPMD, The Clipse’s Pusha T and Wu-Tang’s Redman, and young guns like Dizzy Wright and Danse Daimons from BKLYN STICKUP. Tickets start at $20.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length, style and clarity.