"OK: Backpacks. No: Grills." You could find these statements on the "Permissible Items" list outside the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino, but if you consider the alternate meaning of the latter term, it could just as easily double as the philosophy of the Paid Dues Independent Hip-Hop Festival. While both mainstream and independent hip-hop have increasingly become louder and more ostentatious over the past decade, Paid Dues could be relied upon for a vision of underground rap fashioned in the image of its creator, Murs – hardworking, humble, "values-based" in a way that can be seen as reactionary to any pop trend that runs counter to espousing skills and struggle.
At least until this year. This past Saturday, a ticketholder could spend four solid hours with the following as a viewing itinerary: Three 6 Mafia, Odd Future, DipSet, Mac Miller. Safe to say this isn’t your college RA’s version of Paid Dues. If you're cynical, you might see this as a desperate move in the manner of Murs’ brief and ill-fated major label sojourn – but it could just be a wise man being practical in 2012. Picking your neighbors is a luxury only afforded to the very wealthy, and hip-hop’s cratered economy has drawn everyone closer into a crowded underground.
And yet, for all the wow factor of the lineup, Paid Dues may have just proven once again that barriers constructed in message boards and on Twitter don’t really stand up to real life circumstances, and that a common love of Miller High Life 40s and marijuana can overcome artistic differences. For example, here’s a Q&A that took place at one of the indoor stages between sets:
"Who’s here to see Three 6 Mafia?" [loud cheer]
"Who’s here for Brother Ali? Come on, y’all!" [somewhat quieter cheer]
"Yo, how many of y’all are excited for Mac Miller?" [crowd goes nuts]
Point being that even though those three could not be more different, the room never cleared out when the next act took the stage. To this day, plenty of kids want to go to a hip-hop festival because it’s hip-hop, regardless of who’s actually performing. And for the most part, there was something comforting in how little has changed about these kinds of events in the past decade. The DJ still wants to know if you can make some noise, rappers go back to Cali strictly for the weather, women and the weed, and playing "Ante Up" between sets is always a good idea.
The NOS Events Center is a versatile venue, but its various stages created a jarring effect. On the Paid Dues Stage (not to be confused with the smaller Dues Paid Stage), you could catch acts like Doomtree, Hieroglyphics, Boot Camp Clik and other hardcore acts of murky, aggressive music that clashed with the perfect weather in the scorching concrete fairground. Or you could check out the Monster Energy Stage, which has the ambience of a casino stuck inside an airplane hangar – choked with cigarette and weed smoke, a vast and windowless expanse in which you can watch the Grind Time Rap Battles, which have refused to update their ground rules. Not a single hashtag was employed, everyone was taking it very seriously and the word "diabolical" could be heard 500% more often than in regular life. A particularly memorable line – "you hang like Jesus on my nuts, that’s sacrilege." It was Easter weekend, after all.
Those who arrived for the star power likely had mixed feelings, since the wildly divergent headliners were playing against each other at the same time. Wu-Tang Clan were an exception, and you could be forgiven for having low expectations. It’s been a dire stretch for the Clan artistically and they managed to make a few headlines in recent weeks due to GZA’s defeated take on their inner relations and the altogether sad affair of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard movie. Plus they had a 4 p.m. set time – highly unusual for such a popular act, and perhaps an indication that they just wanted to get their check and bounce. But it was actually one of their best performances I’ve seen in years, very much aware of what the crowd wanted. Of course they didn’t play anything that came out after 2000 with the exception of "Gravel Pit," which continues to defy explanation.
Three 6 Mafia put on the best show of the night, if you don’t mind that with only Juicy J and DJ Paul left from their glory years, classics like "Slob On My Knob," "Tear Da Club Up" and "Who Run It" can only be played for about a minute each. The final acts on each of the three stages were almost wholly complementary but excelled in their own way: DipSet reliving their pink and purple reign from 2003 with classics like "I’m Ready," Los Angeles phenom Kendrick Lamar spurred by the homefield advantage and, of course, Mac Miller.
What’s really striking and perhaps informative is how the acts that received the warmest reception – Odd Future and Mac Miller – most closely resemble the people in the crowd. Kids in their early twenties, into easily accessible intoxicants, heavily into hip-hop as music as much as a branding tool. (Odd Future’s inverted cross logo dominated the festival – Happy Easter!) Paid Dues had become something of a flagging franchise in recent years. While Murs and Guerrilla Union could certainly thank a long weekend and the extremely cooperative San Bernardino weather for spurring walkup sales, the attendance was rumored to be at sellout capacity (approximately 18,000) whereas last year, the estimation was about 7,000. Accuse Paid Dues of compromising, but it worked. Murs paid his dues. He’s still gotta pay the rent.