Before he jumped onstage Saturday night with Public Enemy, bringing the noise to some 5,000 fans at the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, rapper Chuck D sat on a panel of writers, academics and fellow musicians including NC hip-hop producer 9th Wonder, preaching the gospels of DIY, live music and supporting local scenes.
Contrasting the live experience with watching music on computers and iPhones, the veteran hip-hop firebrand told the audience that music's future depends on nurturing strong and vibrant local scenes through adventurous grassroots festivals like Hopscotch. The festival presented the comparatively big-name acts Broken Social Scene and Public Enemy alongside local indie luminaries like the Love Language, Rosebuds, and the rappers of 9th Wonder's It's a Wonderful World Music group. "This is something that's in front of your face," said Chuck D of the Hopscotch concept. "And when it's done well, it makes people say, 'Shit, maybe this is what it's about anyway."
In Raleigh Thursday through Saturday, it was all about an extraordinarily cool roster of bands. With streets cordoned off throughout the downtown area, thousands of people — fans who bought $120 VIP passes and $85 all-venue wristbands down to those who paid $30 for just the headliners — wandered among ten participating music venues, creating a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere. They packed the outdoor city square on Friday to see headliners Broken Social Scene and Panda Bear, and in the rain on Saturday for P.E. and the Atlanta/Charlotte rap trio Crew Grrl Order. Smaller venues showcased a who's who of local, regional and national indie acts, from rappers Big Remo and Rapsody to former Whiskeytown singer Caitlin Cary to local indie rockers Megafaun and hardcore band Harvey Milk.
"We've had a scene in North Carolina for a very long time," said 9th Wonder, taking a breather between events in his hotel room on Saturday. He's referring not just to NC's hip-hop scene, but also its indie-rock bands, centered around Chapel Hill's Merge label for the past two decades. "There's been ups and there's been downs, from the hip-hop side to the rock side, but Hopscotch brings it all together and brings validity to it," he said. "That's what South By Southwest does, that's what the Winter Music Conference does, and now Hopscotch is going to be added to that list." One of the top attractions on Friday was a late-night appearance at 9th Wonder's Lincoln Theater showcase by Wu-Tang rapper Raekwon. Arriving onstage at about 1:30 a.m. — a good hour and a half after his scheduled time slot — Raekwon hit the packed theater like a sledgehammer, running through solo material as well as a few Wu tunes, including a touching tribute to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard and cover of ODB's gritty "Shimmy Shimmy Ya." On the main outdoor stage the following night, Public Enemy performed what amounted to a greatest-hits show, running through "911 Is a Joke," "Bring the Noise" and "Don't Believe the Hype" as young fans rapped along to almost every word.
In the two decades since their heyday, P.E. has lost original DJ Terminator X (who retired to the North Carolina mountains) but picked up a solid replacement turntablist in DJ Lord. With an added guitarist, bassist and drummer, the current P.E. lineup performs as much like a hard rock band as a rap group. At one point, a clock-wearing Flavor Flav even stepped behind the drum kit to prove his own instrumental mettle. At the end of the set, Flav was proselytizing as passionately as Chuck D, criticizing the recent Koran-burning controversy and pleading for racial, religious and cultural tolerance. Leading the crowd in a group-shout of "Fuck racism, fuck separatism," Flav ended the group's set with the almost Hallmark-like sentiment: "At the end of the day, we're all God's children."
Organizers hope that Hopscotch, which included a total of 130 acts, will grow to become a sort of South By Southwest without the big music-industry presence. Instead of a trade show and panels on business and legal issues in the recording industry, the daytime events at Hopscotch included panels geared to fans, like Chuck's D.'s discussion of hip-hop and politics and a Friday poetry reading featuring guitarist Andrew Whiteman of Broken Social Scene.