In 1987, a vanguard Top 40 radio station in the Bay Area put on a concert called Summer Jam. KMEL 106, under program director Keith Naftaly, played pop next to hip-hop next to dance and R&B, an ethos evident in that first year's headliner, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. The next year, Pebbles played and LL Cool J took top billing. Naftaly booked like a champion, bringing together line-ups that today look miraculous. In 1992, the first year Summer Jam was a two-day festival, Ice Cube, Salt 'N' Pepa, Hi-Five, Too Short and Heavy D played. The next year, most of those acts came back, and the festival added Nice & Smooth, Mary J. Blige, Mint Condition, Das EFX and A Tribe Called Quest.
The point of KMEL's Summer Jam was to root the station in its listenership. Its tagline was "The People's Station," and booking the acts that people really wanted to hear — instead of telling them what's good — made the concert a huge success. The concept spread to Top 40, rhythmic and urban stations around the country, and took hold at one station in particular: New York City's Hot 97, where its Summer Jam went up for the first time in 1994. The station booked Wu-Tang, Nas, SWV, Queen Latifah and Gang Starr. Biggie and Blackstreet played the next year. Traditions formed, like starting or settling beef, or surprising the audience with special guests. In 2001, Jay-Z brought out Michael Jackson.
New York City is the birthplace of hip-hop and it's the biggest market in the country. Every year, there's a reason the rap community can't ignore New York, and every year, Hot 97 is involved somehow. If you listen to the radio in the Tri-State area, if cars drive down your street with the windows down and the volume up, if you talk to people in the businesses you frequent, you know this. The station is a little drunk with power, and it's flush with money. On June 2, Hot 97 hosted its 20th consecutive Summer Jam at the metropolitan area's largest concert venue, the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Because it's promoted as such, and because there's some truth to the station's posturing, Summer Jam feels like an annual referendum on hip-hop. Who's winning? What do we care about right now? How is hip-hop being performed? What's the future? What happened to our past?
It's not a squeaky clean business. Sponsorship is endemic at the concert, and the cheapest seats cost $60. Hot 97 has never booked local acts exclusively, or even directly off its playlists. The process by which songs are added to commercial radio remains fraught, and the flaky hosting on Sunday night reinforced a feeling of insecurity I often have listening to Hot 97 — maybe I've been hanging on too long.
On Sunday night I was in Section 333, the nosebleeds. When Angie Martinez took the stage (chewing gum, as she does), I felt like, finally, somebody I know. But she was rote and introduced Chris Brown, with his dead eyes and skeleton shoulders.
The rest of Section 333 was thrilled to see Chris Brown. "She Ain't You" is a really good derivative pop song. Girls were dancing all over the place. And when Brown finished up the verse about his dick on "Look At Me Now," the whole stadium held its breath — we thought Busta Rhymes was gonna slide in and lacerate us with that semi-automatic rejoinder he dropped on the studio version of the song. Instead, we got a backup dancer doing aerials.
Gymnastics are not why fans flock to Summer Jam. This is where the Hot 97 faithful go to see their favorite posse cuts brought to life. It's not a regular concert; the audience expects hits like the stage is a jukebox, like it's still listening to the radio. Legacy acts are not spared this thirst. For example, no one in Section 333 (or 334 for that matter, I triple-checked) knew the words, or was even shoulder-dancing, to Wu-Tang's first song, "Bring Da Ruckus," despite its placement on the Wu's ageless debut, despite ubiquity so deep that its opening lines make an appearance in a movie like Zero Dark Thirty. Some of the crowd had heard of "Method Man," but hysterical teenagers are louder than middle-aged wise men, and the Wu had no chance. Hip-hop is respectful of the past and remembers the good times fondly, but we keep it moving.
Summer Jam is choreographed to build. When it works, the announced acts perform a couple known anthems, drop the first strains of the track they made with prominent guests, the crowd squeals, boldface names materialize and original performers retreat, with each set lasting less than a half hour. Sometimes, like between Wale and Meek Mill, the handoff is graceful and humble — Wale accepted the crowd's vocal favor for Meek, he of the Jumbotron smile and breathless vigor, and turned tail. Sometimes it's a mess, like when Fabolous hauled out Lil Kim to mixed reaction, then got shut down by the concert's producers awkwardly and early.
And sometimes it's a beautiful mess. 2 Chainz loped onstage wearing a hat modeled on a Bismarck-era German military helmet and unleashed his "Mercy" verse. The crowd melted down. He was rapping over his own voice on the track, but his live vocal was more powerful, more present, right on top of the beat. His charisma cannot be contained. When he brought out Nicki Minaj, with a giant bedazzled microphone that didn't work, the crowd really lost it. How is hip-hop being performed right now? It's mostly highlights and mean-mugging. The performers often step back and let the crowd take the chorus, and the people know what to do. 2 Chainz took the time to grin out at us, though, and his set revivified Section 333.
When he tossed his mic high into the air after "No Lie," the crowd was still hoping Drake would stroll on for his verse. Instead, we got a DJ break and three attempts to introduce a late A$AP Rocky. Various of Hot 97's morning show hosts tried to vamp us through, but it didn't take. Luckily, A$AP is a gracious performer. He begged pardon for the delay, lavished praise on the crowd and then brought out Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to perform their first hit, "Thuggish Ruggish Bone." The song, like the Wu's "Bring Da Ruckus," is 20 years old, but its R&B undercurrent fits this moment much better. It was a smart move by A$AP, who ushered his elders off the stage and jack-knifed into a vertiginous, rude banger called "Work," headlined by his crew member A$AP Ferg. At that point, everyone in Section 333 knew exactly how the rest of this was going down. The "Work" remix includes Trinidad James and Schoolboy Q. They showed. It was fun. After that, the only posse cut left to A$AP was "F---in Problems," which guaranteed the return of 2 Chainz and the entrance of Kendrick Lamar (and opened the door to Drake yet again).
It started to rain, but way up high our seats were under cover. Section 333 and I were in full agreement and propriety went out the window. We danced our asses off. A$AP's DJ elided Drake's verse and there was Kendrick, in the flesh (stuck with a quiet mic, but it didn't matter). We all knew his verse by heart, and we wanted to hear his monotone growl, just like it sounds on the record, at stadium decibels. It killed.
And then the stage was Kendrick's. With his own DJ, Ali, behind the decks, he was no longer rapping over his recorded track, and a verse into his first song he got a new mic. "Backseat Freestyle" is clenched teeth. He made "Money Trees" even more swooning than it already is. And halfway through the hook he locked into a heavy groove. The building slowed down and by the middle of his second verse, he was sending his bars up and over like parabolas, getting close to singing, right after orating, savoring the song. "Money Trees" is about not having money and deciding what you're willing to do to get it. Lyrics point back to a lineage of musicians who critique in the club. Lamar's guest on the song, his affiliate Jay Rock, raps gruffly, speaking more realistically than anybody had all night.
Section 333 and I may have separated around then. They looked mesmerized, but I couldn't tell if they were truly feeling it, or pensive, or impatient. Still, 30,000 people sang the opening of "B---- Don't Kill My Vibe," which goes "I am a sinner, who's probably gonna sin again. Lord forgive me. Lord forgive me, for things I don't understand. Sometimes I need to be alone." I felt like something hung in the balance. Something important. I'm pretty sure at least a quarter of the crowd was just waiting for Jay-Z to show up, since he has a verse on the remix of "B---- Don't Kill My Vibe," and people had begun talking about Jay and Bey backstage sightings. And I'm certain half the crowd expected Drake to finally show his face after "Poetic Justice" began. But he didn't. Instead Kendrick brought out the rest of his group, first Ab-Soul and then Schoolboy Q. There was more at stake when Top Dawg was on stage, anyway.
Kendrick closed by bringing all of his company to the front, as well as all of A$AP Rocky's, where the two crews — young men — reveled and exulted through "m.A.A.d. city." The moment brought to an end a storyline that began with 2 Chainz — a veteran musician who'd been written off by the industry and was later imitated to great financial benefit — wound through Nicki Minaj — who began in the mixtape era and hasn't stopped creating even now that she sells pop hits by the millions — touched on A$AP Rocky — a rapper who might be where he is because of his pretty face, but is redeemed by his taste — and landed at the feet of Kendrick Lamar, the current Messiah of hip-hop.
That mantle is a burden. And unpredictable, equivocal musicians like those around Kendrick at Summer Jam did not win Summer Jam. French Montana, DJ Khaled, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne were the clear crowd favorites, the latter receiving by far the loudest response of the whole night as he closed the show. French Montana's "Pop That" tore the stadium down — it's prehistorically, epically jubilant and it will live forever. Atlanta rapper/singer Future, another one of Summer Jam's no-shows on Sunday, appears on so many current hits that he haunted the stage like the ghost of Christmas present. (Hot 97's program director Ebro Darden says, on Twitter, that Future turned down an invitation, then changed his mind too late.) Every act that played is in some way dependent on corporate record labels and entities like Hot 97, which has good people but does not grapple with corruption as mindfully as, say, Lamar does.
Summer Jam is useful because, between the talent and the audience, it's a snapshot of hip-hop right now. Who's the king? Weezy, still. What are we talking about? Cash (it's stressful out here). How do we put on rap shows? Karaoke style (same as it ever was). What's the future? Personality. And where is our history? It's hanging on by a thread. Thank god.