Once upon a Low Profile rhyme, Paid Dues was conceived as the subterranean sibling to the old school-rooted Rock the Bells. With its initial focus on the Def Jux/Rhymesayers wing of the rap underground, Paid Dues first dilated in 2006 — amidst a period of existential crisis. Not only were underground rappers bemoaning the state of the game, but Nas, the would-be rap messiah, pronounced hip hop dead, thus fulfilling the prophecy that he had ordained on “Life’s a Bitch.”
But a funky thing happened on the way to the funeral home. Nas is nasty again. New York is back. L.A. is back. Chicago is back. Tupac is back. Or something. Young rappers are figuring out new ways to say new things and more often, sell new things. Old rappers are enjoying life spans alien to the previous generation. The genre is enjoying a renaissance, thus fulfilling the prophecy that another legend had foreseen.
Paid Dues, which took place April 7 this year, has expanded its parameters to reflect the times. Over the course of an evening, Three Six Mafia, Mac Miller, Brother Ali all shared one Monster Energy-sponsored stage. There were two other stages and more than two dozen more performers gathered at the NOS Orange Center in San Bernardino — once and forever the domain of biker gangs and Meth labs. But on Saturday, roughly 18,000 people broiled on the Inland Empire asphalt, watching rappers culled from rappers of all age, geographical, and ideological design. Odd Future. Dipset. DJ Quik. Kendrick Lamar. Etc. etc.
The Paid Dues narrative is that there is no longer a central narrative — the aesthetic wanders somewhere between DIY and DITC. The crowd was diverse to the point of looking like a prediction of “The Future” from a ‘90s B movie. Most were under 25 years old and had less than 25 tattoos. In honor of the festival’s roots, VIP attendees received a commemorative backpack. So to nod towards that iconic underground staple, these are the Golden Backpack Awards for Paid Dues, circa 2012.
“During Mac Miller’s set, he brought out a 12-year-old named Scumbag, who told the ululating audience that he likes to ‘fuck bitches.’”
Best Where’s Waldo?
Watching Wu-Tang has always been like playing Where’s Waldo?: There will be over a dozen people on-stage and someone will always be missing. At Paid Dues, it was the GZA, who had his parts regularly rapped by Masta Killa. This is rather like staging a reenactment of Scarface with Tony Montana played by Andy Garcia. No matter. Wu-Tang will be Wu-Tang. Despite the inherent genius of Juicy J’s “We Trippy Mayne” t-shirts and the Odd Future skate schmata onslaught, the Wu-Tang “W” was the most common t-shirt spotted on Saturday. They are forever.
Wu-Tang is also like seeing Bruce Springsteen. They might not bore you with the new songs, but they no longer possess the youthful magic of their heyday. And even if they did, it would be impossible to recreate the Up from the 36 Chambers-Effect in the sweltering 4 p.m. San Bernardino sun. But during every one of their live shows, there will be a few moments where you find yourself rapping along to every word to and so is every one else in the crowd. There is never a bad time to hear “Criminology” or “Mystery of Chessboxing” or “4th Chamber.” They have transcended generations and genre. They are the only analogue that rap has to the Beatles. Except that they aren’t like the Beatles, because they’re like Wu-Tang.
The WAC (weird, awkward, creepy) Award
The guy in the “Make Cupcakes, not War” shirt — easily the most brave sartorial choice since Homer Simpson wore a pink shirt to work at a nuclear power plant. However, Simpson’s sartorial choice was Cam’ron approved.
Best Stock Tip
Invest in Supreme clothing. Thanks to Tyler the Creator, the apparel line has become the de facto uniform for the skate-rap crowd. Other than the “W,” this was the most commonly spotted logo.
Best Rap Van Wilder
You have to see a modern Three Six Mafia performance, specifically a Juicy J performance, to grasp its bizarre awesomeness. A decade and a half ago, Three Six Mafia worshipped the devil, squabbled with Bone Thugs N’ Harmony and screamed about tearing the club up with proto-crunk ferocity. Eventually they won an Oscar, made a Kardashian-caliber reality show, and Lord Infamous was beset by severe health problems. Its current iteration is Juicy J and DJ Paul, who have morphed into collar-popping, weed-smoking, molly-eating dorm-room rappers. Lex Luger and Wiz Khalifa decided that Juicy J was their spirit animal and re-introduced him to college kids already familiar with “Poppin’ My Collar’ and “Stay Fly” from middle-school dances. The rest can be summarized by the mantra: “You Say No to Drugs, Juicy J Can’t.”
Perhaps the most rapturous and rowdy moment of the night came during the Three Six set. Juicy J just celebrated his 37th birthday, but judging from the reception, you would have thought that he was just turning 21. Thus increasing suspicions that he really was doing deals while bong ripping with Beelzebub.
Best Hipster Runoff Moment
The White Guy in Odd Future looking totally forlorn while selling OFGWKTA merchandise. Maybe it is difficult to sustain the enthusiasm for selling shirts with pictures of cats and “I Heart Miley Cyrus.”
Best Sign of the Changing Tides
Never did I think I would see the day that a rap festival would be selling Jamba Juice, but the time has come. Not like I would order that sort of thing, but if I did it would be a “Blue Gummy Bear” smoothie and I would defend it on the grounds that Juicy J endorsed it.
Best Second-Hand Anecdote:
“I could hear the chants of ‘Real Hip Hop’ from the El Pollo Loco across the street.”
Best White Rapper
Over the last several years, the number of white rappers has multiplied at exponential levels, topping even previous historical white rapper booms (see also: the post-Vanilla Ice era, the post-Eminem era). The Paid Dues Festival reflected the new translucence with everyone from the young (K Flay, Mac Miller, Macklemore) to veterans like Doomtree and Mac Lethal. The best was the oldest, R.A. the Rugged Man, venerable enough to have done a song with a pre-Ready to Die Biggie (NSFW unless you work in a brothel.)
The Rugged Man reflected the generational gap by maligning Lil Wayne (still?), but he also illustrated the old white rap model, where you had to be very good to be taken seriously. At one point, he also stripped to a vest, let his potbelly hang out and looked like Jodeci, had Jodeci been white and regularly frequented Long Island sports bars. Respect due.
Let those Boys Cook Award
You have to admire Odd Future. They spend a year saying “fuck the underground” and then they get invited to play a major set at the underground’s biggest festival. They brought out neither Frank Ocean nor Earl Sweatshirt. The remaining members have roughly a half-dozen really memorable songs, but they can manage to get kids riled up like an Onyx concert in ‘93 (maybe because Onyx never had more than a half dozen memorable songs either).
During the last 15 minutes of their set, they appeared more interested in DJ Quik’s performances on the Dues Paid stage. Their main stage prop was a grill featuring Left Brain cooking hamburgers. It didn’t matter. Kids love Odd Future, who have filled the void for adolescent anger better than any other act in rap music. And they sell insane amounts of merch. They understand what Kurt Cobain once murmured: teenage angst can pay off well.
Best Look Taken from an HBO Show
The guy walking around with Kenny Powers braids fashioned in crop circle designs.
Best Backstage Amenity
The bowl of weed in a Styrofoam cup available to anyone who stumbled into the dressing room of an underground rap crew whose name shall not be divulged for security reasons.
Best Social Networker
Christian rapper, Lecrae, possibly the first rapper to shout to a crowd to follow him on Instagram.
Best Child Labor Law Violation
During Mac Miller’s set, he brought out a 12-year old named Scumbag, who told the ululating audience that he likes to “fuck bitches.” Don’t leave your little cousin around him.
Best Show that Most People Missed
During DJ Quik’s set, the hangar housing the Dues Paid stage was so crowded that police on horseback blocked the entrance.
Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey Zeekey will never be known for their well-plotted out stage show. But during their headlining set on the main stage, it was obvious that their combination of smart-dumb gleeful ignorance might have been the most influential act of the festival. Wu-Tang may have the most long-lasting appeal and Three Six might be the most currently relevant, But Dipset quite clearly impacted everyone from Lil Wayne to Gucci Mane to Odd Future — whose trail of Tweets revealed the hero worship. And if you include the incarcerated affiliate Max B, you can even extend the Dips influence further.
The set found Cam’ron wearing pink pants and a Roy Lichtenstein-themed comic panel hoodie. Presumably, this was to justify the overheated pop art comparisons lavished upon him in the middle years of the last decade. It was followed by a mini-set from Jones and Juelz; then all four members mobbed on-stage playing classics like “Bout It Bout It” and “I Really Mean It.” They merged traditional lyricism with bizarre non-sequiturs, jerk-off humor, and knucklehead swagger. Cam’ron may have been the first to understand you didn’t really need to mean it to get puters putin.
Over the last 18 months, Kendrick Lamar has clawed up from being one of the most promising young L.A.-area rappers to being one of the paramount voices of his generation. The 24-year-old Compton native just dropped his Dr. Dre-aided single on Power 106 and has said that he will cameo during Dre and Snoop’s headlining set at Coachella.
At Paid Dues, he commanded a crowd of a few thousand with arguably more control than any of his peers. Think something like Q-Tip in “Stressed Out” mode, crossed with Kurupt when he frequented the earthy legendary L.A. open-mic night, The Good Life. Most fans knew every word, and when one shirtless teenaged Mexican kid named Falcon bounced on-stage to salute Lamar, he was asked to rap alongside him. The two then performed a tongue-twisting double-timed verse as though they had practiced for a decade. Afterwards, Lamar looked at Falcon and asked him to re-state his name for the crowd. But he was too awe-struck and yelled instead: “Your shit is going to go down in history, dawg.” And then he leaped off-stage into the churning roaring crowd.