Hip-Hop’s Stars Align, Past and Present, for Freestyle Fest 2017

The Freestyle Festival has, over the past three years, become a staple of the Long Beach summer experience. Taking place at the Queen Mary, a location that has become synonymous with strong, nostalgia-based mini-festivals, Freestyle Fest focuses on 1980s and ‘90s hip-hop and R&B, though there is some wiggle-room. As a result, previous years have seen performers such as Salt-N-Pepa, Slick Rick, Vanilla Ice, Tone Loc and Young MC, but also Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and the C&C Music Factory.

This year is very similar. Top-billed artists Bell Biv Devoe, House of Pain, Arrested Development and Naughty by Nature, all with bonafide classic albums in their arsenal, sit alongside Mark “Return of the Mack” Morrison, Stevie B., and The English Beat. The latter seems the most out of place; ska band The English Beat had hits in that era, such as “Mirror in the Bathroom,” but they can usually be found on punk bills. Mainman Dave Wakeling is confident they can make it work.

“I do feel honored to make it into a dance-oriented market,” he says. “I’ve crossed over from pop and ska to dance now. We’ve got the ability with our catalog of songs to play a punky show, which we did on the Flogging Molly cruise, or we can do a reggae thing, like opening for UB40, or an ‘80s pop theme. It’ll be a bit more of a challenge this time, but I imagine that pop-to-rock stuff like ‘Too Nice to Talk To’ and ‘Tenderness will do well. ‘Tenderness’ has been used a million times in rap and hip-hop anyway.”

For some of the more successful artists on the bill, the decision to perform at a nostalgia event doesn’t come easy, but Wakeling says it’s a balance, cheering himself up by releasing new music, even if it doesn’t sell in the same numbers as it used to.

“You don’t even like to think of yourself as growing old,” he says. “But it’s better that people still enjoy what you did 20 or 30 years ago rather than have forgot about it. You count your blessings. The new songs that we played last year are going down really well, and that makes me feel current-ish.”

The concept is a little more challenging to Arrested Development’s MC, Speech. The frontman says that he’s a fan of many of the acts on the Freestyle Fest bill, but he generally tries to avoid nostalgia events. After all, the band released two full albums of new material last year (Changing the Narrative available for free on the group’s website, This Was Never Home for purchase), and Speech has every right to feel fresh and relevant.

“I’m just not in a place of wanting to do nostalgia shows too much,” he says. “We love the fact that people are aware of our recent stuff. We’re not looked at as a ‘90s band, so we try to stay away from that energy. But to be honest, it was because of the acts that was on this lineup and how much respect we have for all of them. We were like, ‘Let’s just do it — let’s have fun.’”

Vin Rock of Naughty by Nature isn’t quite as concerned. The co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning trio is simply delighted to get up in front of a crowd that wants to get down with OPP, and bring the party. Rock insists that the crowds at these events feature a large mix of ages, with plenty of young people excited to witness ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop groups in the flesh. He’s also reluctant to criticize the new breed of rappers.

“Music is supposed to evolve,” Rock says. “Personally, I don’t want it sounding the way it did in the 1990s, and I don’t want it sounding the way it did in the ‘70s. The beauty of it is that the next generation always takes it to another level. I just believe that there’s always been good hip-hop and bad hip-hop. To me, hip-hop, is alive, well, and kicking. Now, you have different eras of hip-hop, and you have different styles. To me, that only adds to the tentacles of the culture.”

Arrested Development’s Speech isn’t convinced, claiming that hip-hop has become disconnected from its roots. He also believes that there’s a lack of diversity with the sound in the modern age, and that’s hurting the scene.

“Put it this way — when we came out, being different and being an individual was celebrated,” Speech says. “Right now, most artists are very much trying to fit in with the sound as opposed to deviate from it. Another difference is that even the goal of the music has changed drastically. When we were making hip-hop, the goal was to advance hip-hop music, it was to make people realize that this was an art. The goal today is to sell a lot of records and make a lot of money.”

Arrested Development and Naughty By Nature are still prestigious names in rap, but there are other performers at Freestyle Fest who would gladly admit that their days of big singles and wide radio play are well behind them. R&B singer Stevie B., perhaps best known for the “Party Your Body” single, says that he pretty much considers himself out of the industry game completely now.

“In a real sense, to be competing in the day-to-day top 40 music, in that particular part of the business, I don’t do that anymore,” he says. “But to have new music because I get to be creative, go in the studio, and just express myself — I put it out to those fans who are interested in something new. Those of us that have had hit record in the late 1980s/early ‘90s, it’s tough for us to break our fans out of those old hits. But we try our best.”

Debbie Deb, who had a hit with “When I Hear Music,” makes a career out of shows like these at this point in her life. She goes as far to concede that she can’t play a full set by herself because she simply doesn’t have enough songs. So performing alongside bigger acts in front of a large crowd is her best option, and she’s delighted to do it.

“You can’t fight the industry,” she says. “It’s a losing battle. You can’t fight what the people want. You’ll end up getting hurt and disappointed every time. I go with the flow. A lot of us only had two or three big songs out, so we really can’t make for a whole concert alone. But together, we can put together a banging show.”

Essentially, that’s what it’s all about. It is possible for artists and groups that emerged in the 1980s and ‘90s to keep producing fresh and exciting material while simultaneously appealing to the nostalgia crowd. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. Meanwhile, these events offer a performing outlet to those whose more creative days are behind them, and that’s ok too.

2017’s Freestyle Fest offers all of these things, and it’s best not to take it too seriously. Go in to reminisce, and enjoy the party. As Naughty by Nature’s Vin Rock says, throw your hands in the air. When he says, “Hey,” you say, “Ho.” You know the drill.

Freestyle Fest takes place on Saturday, April 22 at the Queen Mary; 1126 Queens Highway.

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