Murs is a Juggalo. Juggalos are weird. But one cant help but admire the mans utter commitment to the game. Back in 2006, Murs put together the first of what would be the annual Paid Dues Independent Hip Hop Festival. And while it has changed venues, sponsors, and even cities, the idea behind the event remains entirely intact: underground.
Paid Dues is not a place for the big time radio darlings. Its not for the rappers who have chosen to reside in The Hamptons. And its certainly not for the rappers pushing almost 500,000 copies of their album in the first week of its release (sorry, Yeezy). Paid Dues is a place reserved for the pioneers of underground and the promising up and comers of the genre; the artists that have stayed true to the spirit of hip hop since the very beginning. Its for those artists who have hustled their entire lives to be heard, never once forgetting their ideals amidst the hubbub of stardom. They arent so worried about the fame and fortune. Theyre a little more concerned about one thing in particular: the message.
So it should come as no surprise that this years installment of Paid Dues was a pure blend of sermon and skill. Whether it was Lil Bs (cocaine induced?) rant on why there should be no such thing as the word race, or Immortal Techniques potent rally for opening the Mexican border, there was no shortage of politically-charged messages. The hearts of these rappers are closer to the streets, which isnt a knock on all the established artists putting out great music, but theres a certain energy underground artists carry that those living the good life cant quite convey as authentically. For the artists at Paid Dues, its not about the amount Yves Saint Laurent they own, its about life. Real life.
And so, its with that in mind that CoS entered the realm of San Bernardino, CA’s Paid Dues.
Tabi Bonney – Paid Dues Stage – 4:20 p.m.
As the Togo born, D.C.-based young gun Tabi Bonney set up on the stage that would eventually play host to legends such as Dead Prez, Bun B, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, it was clear that he was in no way intimidated. Paid Dues is a place to prove yourself as an artist and Bonney was obviously up to the challenge. The small crowd that gathered to see the youngster was blown away by his charisma and lyricism, especially on the track Rich Kids. Oh, and the lively chant he started that went Fuck the rich! Fuck the rich! didnt hurt, either.
Dead Prez – Paid Dues Stage – 5:00 p.m.
Dead Prez attracted what was by far the biggest crowd for a non-headliner at the Paid Dues stage. The crowd quadrupled from what it had been for Tabi Bonney, and it was abundantly clear that the poetic, free-spoken words of Dead Prez had reached the ears of many. As stic.man and M-1 took the stage, the crowd knew what a legendary presence they were in. Dead Prezs sound ethical beliefs have been conveyed time and time again via flawless verses, something that was even more powerful live. As they closed their set with a vigorous version of Bigger Than Hip-Hop there wasnt a dis-affectionate heart in attendance.
DJ Exile v. Blu & Fashawn – Grindtime Now Stage – 5:45 p.m.
Underground producer Exile did all the production on Blus 2007 album, Below the Heavens, and also on Fashawns 2009 effort, Boy Meets World. So its only natural that the DJ would spin for this double set of MCs. A more accurate name for the event might have been DJ Exile v. Blu/Fashawn, however, as the two rappers only shared the stage for two songs, but they both played impressive solo sets separately on the MMA cage-fighting style stage. Fashawn peaked with his track Sunny CA for which he employed the rapping styles of Alchemist, who happens to be Eminems current live DJ. Blu peaked during ballad-esque No Better Love. It was tough to decide who was the most impressive between the two MCs and the established producer. Itd be easier to withhold judgment, and enjoy them all for what they were: underground hip-hop up and comers.
P.O.S. - Paid Dues Stage – 6:25 p.m.
Minnesota underground champion P.O.S. is a lot of things, but closed-minded he is not. The creator of the Doomtree collective doesnt limit himself to just rap. Influenced by years of punk and hardcore, P.O.S. entered hip-hop cautiously as a means of expressing himself more fully (he was also more recently a part of the soft rock supergroup Gayngs). Little did he know, not only was he an incredibly gifted rapper, but his influence in punk would help him create a very unique production style, borrowing samples from live punk drums and guitars. As he brought his act to Paid Dues 2011, the sun set over the sizable crowd in San Bernardino. And maybe it was the size of the crowd, or maybe it was because the night was upon us that P.O.S. decided to go all out, but it’s arguable that this Midwestern legend has never thrown down on-stage with this much energy or spoken with this much charisma. Before announcing that he had a new album on the way, the Minneapolis native played P.O.S. Is Ruining My Life, Let It Rattle, and Purexed.
Lil B – Dues Paid Stage – 7:05 p.m.
The two names everyones been following this year in hip hop: Odd Future and Lil B. The former is an LA-based, borderline psychotic collective, the latter is an overachiever from the bay. Both have been hyped all of 2011 as the two acts that will emerge to do great things. After seeing them both in the same weekend, Im sure that this hype is 50 percent right not in Lil Bs favor. Compared to the surreal showstopping that goes on with Odd Future, Lil B is kid stuff. Not only is he not as talented a lyricist or rapper, the kid cant work a crowd. The leader of the Bay Areas The Pack, Lil B has been releasing throngs of mixtapes to the masses, and much of it has been eaten right up. Some may have hope for the budding star yet, but it’s doubtful festivalgoers here did, as he may have been the worst performer at the festival.
The slow spitting 21-year-old filled up half of his already short half hour time slot with nearly 20 minutes of barely audible mumblings about a wide variety of topics, from proclaiming himself the most proven artist ever for producing the beat to a song that nobody had ever heard, to the Tunami in Japan (were pretty sure he meant tsunami, unless, of course, he was belatedly referring to Cartoon Networks anime-oriented programming, Toonami that stopped airing in 2008. In which case, our mistake..). Lil Bs flow was so slow it almost became spoken word over massive bass beats. And when the speaker is a complete moron, spoken word can be a very bad thing. Not even the annunciation of a forthcoming EP with Jay Electronica or closing track Base 4 Ya Face alongside 9th Wonder could save this train wreck of a set. Hopefully, he was just a little wasted. Charlie Sheen wasted, though. That would explain a lot.
Bun B – Paid Dues Stage – 7:50 p.m.
Arguably the most commercially successful rapper on the bill, Bun B was right at home up there on the independent hip hop stage. After giving the obligatory shout out to his fallen collaborator Pimp C (the two combined recorded as UGK for over a decade), Bun B got things started right quick. Producing one of the steadiest flows of the night, Bun played hit after hit, dazzling the surprisingly small crowd that had gathered to see him. It was unfortunate that Bay Area legend Andre Nickatina and Bun B were slated to play at the exact same time, but B took it in stride and put on the most OG show of the night with rousing renditions of Let Me See You, Im A G, and Git It.
Slaughterhouse – Grindtime Now Stage – 8:25 p.m.
Arguably one of the hottest acts to appear at Paid Dues (what, after hitting the cover of XXL and joining Eminems revamped Shady Records alongside Yelawolf), Slaughterhouse came to play. Hosted on the Grindtime Now stage, there couldnt have been a better pulpit for the supergroup to play. With raw, pile-driving beats over brutally good raps, a cage-fighting arena was ideal to suit the mood. Emerging one by one, Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz, Crooked I, and Royce Da 59 all took turns spitting on the standout track from their debut, Sound Off. They came out big, and only got bigger as the show progressed.
Taking turns to introduce one another to the audience (though introductions were hardly necessary), they all received massive cheers from the rowdiest audience Paid Dues saw all night. Joe Budden only fueled the flames when he emerged from the cage and egged the crowd on during the pinnacle track of the night, Microphone. Who knows if the addition of Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf will help to re-vitalize Shady Records, but after seeing Slaughterhouse in action, one cant help but think Slim knows exactly what hes doing.
Murs – Dues Paid Stage – 8:45 p.m.
As mentioned, this festival was created by Murs and is still run by the man, and for that he should be given eternal props. Before his set sub-headlining the Dues Paid Stage, he could be seen scurrying about behind the scenes, clipboard in hand, making sure all was going according to plan. Truly, the guys a stud.
His offstage toils were matched only by his onstage presence. Bolstered by the spirit of the day and the spirit of his own creation, he went into an impressive set. And I tell you this as a non-fan of Murs music. He went on early due to a scheduling change, and played almost twice as long as he was slated to play, having to compete for an audience with Immortal Technique but it didnt phase the veteran. When he and comrade 9th Wonder came on with L.A., he was met with raucous applause by his adoring fans.
Immortal Technique – Paid Dues Stage – 9:25 p.m.
Immortal Technique shows are scary. His lyricism is scary (in more ways that one). Multiply his potent politically, ethically charged rhymes by an entourage 20+ big, all wearing Immortal Technique garb, and youve got yourself a bona fide nightmare. The Peruvian born rapper was an obvious fan favorite at the festival, attracting the biggest crowd of the night in spite of not being a headliner. Between playing masterful hits such as Point of No Return and Peruvian Cocaine, he got on his soapbox, as he is likely to do. He preached to the congregation about California more specifically how we werent really in Southern California, but Northern Mexico and how we were on stolen land. His call to open the border was met to uproarious cheers. His advice on the topic was, Revolution is not just about guns and violence. It begins in the mind. He finished his set with an unexpected performance of his notorious track Dance With The Devil in its entirety, to which the adoring crowd responded enormously.
E-40 – Dues Paid Stage – 10:15 p.m.
Due to a minor shift in the schedule (and a prolonged period of backstage bro high-fiving from various members of entourages), Bay Area legend E-40 showed up 15 minutes late to his set. But when youve got the following that someone like 40 has, 15 minutes is chump change. E-40 was the perfect nightcap for the Dues Paid stage, which was primarily devoted to Bay Area acts. Theres no question, hes the king of hyphy.
And to make the short headlining set even more Bay-heavy, Oakland legend Too $hort joined 40 on-stage for the majority of his set. For the hundreds of fans who had driven from San Francisco, this was the sugar-charged icing on an already mind-numbingly delicious cake. Starting things off nicely with a shout out to the Bay Area, followed by his verse from Snoop Doggs Candy (Drippin Like Water). Things reached their hyphy climax as E-40 dropped his verses from Snap Yo Fingers as Too $hort sang the Lil Jon chorus. Without a doubt, E-40 has paid his dues to the game, and he proved it by putting on a 45-minute hyphy heat wave.
Black Star – Paid Dues Stage – 10:30 p.m.
Black Star were penciled in to play a 60 minute set. But for anyone who knows just how influential Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star is, multiplied by how incendiary each subsequent solo release by each artist have been, 60 minutes couldnt possibly do it justice. Quick fix: push the set to 90 minutes, and then throw in a legitimately impromptu three-song encore.
Without many (or any) theatrics, two of the greatest rappers alive took the stage with DJ Hi Tek in a humble manner to be reunited for their incendiary 1998 album. While both artists have been equally successful in their own solo endeavors, completely evenly keeled in record sales/critical praise, it became abundantly clear from the get go which MC was going to take control of the night. Mos Def, looking Andre 3000 chic in his neatly pressed slim slacks, two-toned penny loafers, suspenders, and denim jacket, was the dominant entertainer at this show. Talib Kweli was there to spit tit for tat alongside him, but the mighty Mos Def took off from the starting gates working the crowd like only a seasoned pro would know how.
The set began with Black Star track Astronomy (8th Light), and they ran through Black Star tracks throughout the night with solo work peppered throughout. Kwelis Move Something was the solo high for him, but true to his role in the night, Mos Def took over a half hour into the set. Playing solo material that spanned his career, he threw down especially hard (with help from Kweli, of course) on Auditorium, Mathematics, History, and two unbelievable freestyles. Its easy to forget what a gifted rapper Mos Def is amidst his many other talents, but Mos Def is first and foremost an underground MC. The latter of the freestyles was one of a pair of new songs that Mos Def debuted (one of which was produced by Madlib), presumably for his forthcoming solo album. The set ended with Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides heavy hitter, Umi Says.
After the lights went on and the background music began to play over the P.A., many headed for the exits, but just as many lingered behind and began cheering for an encore where there obviously wasnt meant to be one. The reunion of this untouchable duo was important enough to some fans to make them crazy for more – the performers understood this, too. Absolutely spur of the moment, Kweli re-emerged with Hi Tek, followed by Mos Def, to put on a three-song encore that included: Twilite Speedball, Im On One, and Quiet Dog Bite Hard. The unexpected encore was a testament to two things. First, what a force Mos Def and Talib Kweli are together and just what a massive impact theyve had on the hip hop world and their fans; and second, what talented performers they both are. Black Star re-uniting to headline this event is something that is going to be hard to top in future Paid Dues events, but thats as much a good thing as it is bad – that is, if you were one of those lucky enough to be in attendance.
Photography by Winston Robbins.