The fifth annual Paid Dues Festival, an independent gathering made by and for the true lovers of deep-roots Hip-Hop, descended on the NOS events center in San Bernardino on Saturday to celebrate the craft with a few thousand true fans.
The day featured less star power than in previous years, but West Coast gangsta rap pioneer Ice Cube, his cousin Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Wu chef Raekwon, festival mastermind & rap guru Murs and producer 9th Wonder, Jay Electronica and Tha Dogg Pound all brought significant fire, as well as Freestyle Fellowship, Dilated Peoples, Sean Price and more.
MC Prototype opened the day’s events before most attendees had even arrived. His audience was small, but the Pomona MC tore up his 15-minute set with arena enthusiasm.
On the main Paid Dues stage, Tha Dogg Pound turned out a solid performance, with Rasco making a guest appearance. Kurupt had a particularly animated presence, likely due to the upcoming April 20 release of his new album, Street Lights.
Tech N9ne arrived with proverbial guns blazing, tearing through a bombastic career-spanning set and reminding the crowd more than a few times that he’s the most successful independent rap artist in the game.
Stage partner Kris Kalico’s rich, soulful R&B singing voice is more than a secret weapon to Tech – it’s the balancing impression for his machine-gun vocal assault and out-there antics in face paint. Kutt Calhoun, by contrast, filled the color spots and rounded out the trio.The crowd caught fire as the chemistry was on full display for show-highlight "Ghetto Love".
Rising star Jay Electronica made his presence known with a no-frills set heavy on lyrical prowess and the confident promise that he’s bound to carry the torch of today’s greats and move up the headliner ranks in the years to come.
Raekwon delivered hard & heavy to a packed house, a thick mass of weed smoke hovering in the air.
Hands were raised in giant "W"s as the Chef ran through a catalogue-spanning set of Wu tracks and solo highlights. (Read our interview with Raekwon on Shaolin vs Wu-Tang, Wu-Massacre and much more)
Festival godfather Murs, whose new album with 9th Wonder will be sold at the festival ahead of its April 13 release date, brought the feel-good set that came and went in the blink of an eye.
Sick Jacken stepped up to trade verses with the pioneering MC, giving a little Psycho Realm encore to festivalgoers.
Ice Cube hit the stage around 10:30 and unleashed a venomous torrent of energy throughout a finely-crafted set that his crowd favorites, deep cuts and brand new tracks. He debuted the first single, "I Rep The West", for the first time anywhere, making point to address the controversy regarding his recent inflammatory comments over Los Angeles newcomers.
“There’s been a gang of motherf*ckers talking sh*t about your boy Ice Cube,” he told fans from the stage. “I love love for all the young emcees in the house right now. But…….you can’t diss Dr. Dre. You can’t diss Eazy-E. You can’t diss Ice-T. You can’t diss King Tee. No, you cannot diss Ice Cube. No, I ain’t going for it. And any of you young motherf*ckers that do want to diss, I got one thing to say before you do it. You better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
WATCH: Ice Cube debuts new song "I Rep The West"
Cube’s cousin Del Tha Funky Homosapien took a wildly different approach on the Dues Paid stage, dancing through a buoyant list of hits with positive spirit and nothing but smiles.
Freestyle Fellowship shared the positive-vibe energy that returned and fueled the outdoor stage once Necro finished trying to scare people with his meth-lab badass act and the sun went down.
The Los Angeles Hip-Hop collective had a casual approach to the stage, but were received like gods among the crowd.
Respect is due by default for both Murs and Guerilla Union. Their contributions to hip-hop and relentless work to preserve the culture that appreciates and cultivates it, enables voices to get heard and gives kids some badly-needed exposure to elements outside the mainstream commercial machine. All the same, it seems the festival badly needs a better venue and more even-handed promotional approach to succeed. With an oddly-chosen 40,000 capacity venue, the few thousand in attendance gave an air of sparsity to the occasion.
Nevertheless, the Paid Dues festival remains one of the greatest showcases of Hip-Hop in its truest form, representing both the indie, the underground and the heavyweights in the game. Here’s to another five years.