Nas Performs His Classic Illmatic at Lovebox.
Photos Courtesy Victor Frankowski.
As music festivals go, Lovebox isn't really about hard-core music and fans - it's a party, where music is just one of the main players, alongside try-hard arty visuals, semi-naked stunts and top class food merriment.
The festival is deep in the heart of east London and a long walk from the station. At the entrance of Victoria Park huge queues, with a very well behaved crowd are fast moving, and flanked by blatant dudes selling most kinds of drugs like market traders. Balloon sellers yelling ''laughing gas- three for a fiver!'' (That you can pay for via cred card- a real WTF? moment!). The grounds inside are testament to their hustling abilities as balloon canisters looking like giant silver bullet pellets are left discarded everywhere.
Everywhere you look there are great visuals like multi-coloured tutus high up sitting in tree trunks, fluorescent cushions and sofas to lounge on, and harem-like set ups across the main grounds as well as the VIP. Look one way you'll see semi naked, fetish wearing men, fighting in boxing rings. On another side are, deck chairs, spray-painted cars, magicians doing card tricks and sequin painted ladies doing impressive stunts with huge hoola hoops.
The food stalls are impressive. From gourmet hotdogs, Nando's, cupcakes, burgers, paella, salad shacks, bagels and BBQ - alcohol and fresh juices, a totally thought out 360 degree culinary experience! Special shout out to the jerk chicken stall which had queues 50 deep, all weekend long, awaiting their generous plates of curry goat and rice and peas - there was even a Rasta plate option for vegetarians. Also, not sure how they managed to organize schedules for everyone's bladders, but it's the only festival where I've been with no lengthy queuing for toilets.
Lovebox fashion is young and fast forward moving. The girls are cute in their predictable festival fashion garms of wellies, fake flower garlands, shorts so short they may well have just worn g strings and lots of quirky takes on Rock&roll chic and hip-hop street fabulosity. The fresh to death looks are accompanied by lots of sunburnt skin. Slightly unfairly, the weather on Saturday had been widely predicted to be stormy and wet, so many were rocking sensible footwear, which made for amusing viewing in the relentless dry heat. Whilst there may have been numerous sunburnt sunstroke victims, their Twitter feeds the next day would tell you they had a brilliant party and that's all that really matters.
To give you a sense of how young the Lovebox demographic is, at some point in the past few years, its become de rigour for men at London based music festivals, to be totally topless showing off their baby smooth torso skin, (either men have stopped growing hair on their chests or they're all waxing and shaving!), the waistband of their designer underpants must be showing under their baggy knee length shorts as they flex and posture their way around the festival chatting up anyone that catches their eye.
Not comfortable catching their eye of or ogling men young enough to be my sons, I ran for refuge into the VIP. Like most festivals, the VIP isn't really the best area in the place to be at. There are always more maze-like internal VVIP and VVVIP areas inside this area, akin to the Russian dolls where as you get closer to the epicentre you actually stand shoulder to shoulder with the main performing acts and their management teams.
M.I.A Performs At Lovebox.
It was this area that I was lucky enough to chill out in alongside my music industry peers (and Where M.I.A's manager later stormed out of at end of her acts set muttering something about never coming to Lovebox again after there was a mishap with her technical staging, which looked to me like it was M.I.A's fault but was later blamed on the crew- •shrug-shoulders* what do I know!)
Most festivals have a type of music or genre they stick to. You tend to know what you're getting with Glastonbury -mostly rock and indie, Wireless caters to the urban crowd, but Lovebox is a true reflection of the current all-inclusive, multi-genre-loving youth. It's the new generation music festivals cooler London younger sibling. With a really mixed up line-up of music acts of all ages, genres and success levels that's very brave in booking a huge cross section of music acts.
Much of the hip-hop community were ecstatic when it was announced that Nas was set to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his seminal 1994 album 'Illmatic' by reissuing the record as 'Illmatic XX', but when we heard he would also perform the classic material at Lovebox, it was a no brainer, I'd have to venture out of my west London comfort zone and make the pilgrimage to Lovebox for Nasir Jones - known to the 25 million people who have bought his albums worldwide to date as simply Nas. I've seen him numerous times, the time at Kentish Towns Forum, when fans were standing on seats screaming alongside his every lyric from the rafters to the stalls, the time at Brixton where a fan actually popped off a real gunshot on his classic ''made to look'' lol.
A film about the making of the album was also released this year, called Time Is Illmatic, but watching Nas perform and talk through his work was as good as a movie being played out live in front of our eyes. I wont lie, so many older acts have performed such poor renditions in recent years and been ridiculed back to their homelands - shout out Jodeci!- that I did have misgivings, but I needn't have worried, the show was incredible!
Illmatic- (meaning "beyond ill" or "the ultimate"), when it was released in 1994 was given a 5 mic rating by The Source- hip-hops then print press bible. It was their highest rating and very controversial at the time.
During my time at MTV I don't think we ever had a best albums list that Illmatic didn't feature on. It was one of the quintessential hip hop recordings of the 1990s and I recall during my numerous interviews with many hip-hop stars of the time, many from Common to Jay Z cited Illmatic as an early inspiration for them.
This album uses samples galore in the best example of hip hoppers honoring banging beats. Nas wrote it in a small room, in his small apartment in Queensbridge and it went on to achieve pantheon status for its poetic and cinematic depiction of inner-city blight. On the album, Nas used intricate lyrical patterns to describe his unsafe surroundings, an environment that proved risky for the young rapper, although it provided a great canvas for his narrative skills. With producers DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip, Nas created a singularly evocative album. You didn't have to be from New York to see the dilapidated buildings, cracked sidewalks and rusty basketball rims. Back then and even now it could be a parallel borough of inner city England. Queensbridge. Queens Park. One and the same. This Lovebox set was clearly a proud moment for him and fans like us who recall, reflect and acknowledged their loyalty from the start of his career.
During Nas Lovebox set a stage design depicting the urban landscape of Queensbridge, with graffiti-lined streets, a subway entrance. Nas rocked a three-piece suit and performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center when he did the same gig earlier this year. For Lovebox a simple ''world is yours'' t-shirt, long shorts and trainers.
DJ Green Lantern was on the decks as Nas hit the stage, and from his first bars on the first track I was able to exhale as I took in that his vocals sounded as strong and crisp as they were decades ago. The lyrics sound just as relevant today and it was incredulous to think that he wrote them as a teenager. Spoken word genius about racial segregation, educational inequality, public housing, and the prison system, he was just 20 when the album was released.
Back then I remember growing up in Harlesden and Southall and he seemed to speak of similar stories that happened around me but that the mainstream media seemed oblivious to. Being a street soldier, selling drugs to make ends meet, having to deal with the dangers that come along with that lifestyle. No wonder he was compared to the God-Rakim.
Nas has written some of the most quotable lyrics in the history of rap....
"Life's a bitch and then you die/ That's why we get high/ 'Cause you never know when you're gonna go".....''you can hate me now/ but I won't stop now''...''all I need is one mic''
...and the Lovebox crowd in the first few rows flowed with him word for word, although a lot of the kids much further back clearly hadn't even heard of Nas let alone his songs. They were carried by the hype of us hard-core aging B Girls and Boys though and joined in choruses with their drunken joy. However, the irony is not lost on the fact that our communities haven't become safer over two decades and that the UK's youth can relate now more than ever to many of his lyrics.
In a 1994 interview Nas spoke about Illmatic, saying that "this feels like a big project that's gonna affect the world'' but who would've thought he'd be performing it to a passionate crowd at Lovebox twenty years later. Hip-hop critics and journos are often dismissed when they speak on content and thoughts about music but so many of us said this was a classic album back then and it's proved the test of time.
Could Nas have imagined that Hollywood legend Robert de Niro would be singing its praises at the Tribeca film festival earlier this year? Or those British kids who weren't even born in 1994 and that equate great hip-hop with Drake and Jay Z would acknowledge his masterpiece in 2014?
Nas explained at the time.
''When my rap generation started, it was about bringing you inside my apartment. It wasn't about being a rap star; it was about anything other than. I want you to know who I am: what the streets taste like, feel like, and smell like. What the cops talk like, walk like, and think like. What crackheads do -- I wanted you to smell it, feel it. It was important to me that I told the story that way because I thought that it wouldn't be told if I didn't tell it. I thought this was a great point in time in the 1990s in [New York City] that needed to be documented and my life needed to be told. "While it's sad that there's so much frontin' in the rap world today, this should only make us sit up and pay attention when a rapper comes along who's not about milking the latest trend and running off with the loot''
Nas has said he was trying to make a flawless album when he made llmatic- and he did. With his lyrics that depicted a lifestyle that drew in fans globally, in his raspy deep voice for one still young had us hooked at London's clubs like Subterainia and Hanover Grand week in-week out. Whole thesis and university courses could be set-and have been- on Illmatic. Nas made the type of music that helped hip-hop become a respected and dissected art form where critics could discuss lyrical content, album artwork, iconic production values and helped birth a whole back pack wearing hip hop geek.
I won't say I wasn't surprised that young Lovebox fans were able to join in with Nas call and responses to his hit songs, I was. Its always hard to admit you're an aging B-girl but there is pride looking back and knowing this man made some of the soundtrack to an important part of my life and was now influencing those that come after us.
Nas' set was smooth and flowed, as he's been performing this tour all across the USA this year. Earlier this year at the New York show he said '' Twenty years ago, "I felt like my words had to be harsh, but I'm a little more refined now, don't get it twisted. I'm still hood, though."
At Victoria Park he recognised that not everyone in attendance was a Nas fan and many weren't even born when the album was released. Here he said ''I'm Nas for those that done know me, I'm the one that said hip-hop was dead! ''Half of you weren't even born when I made this album!" the 40-year-old rapper shouted to the crowd, but last year he was named the best rapper of all time in a poll voted for by NME.COM readers, so clearly young music fans do research for great music.
Lovebox At Night.
Nas' prowled around the Lovebox stage with the confidence and regal stance of a lion king. He ran through his classics like a marathon runner. Firstly One love, then Streetdreams. When he introduced '' I can'' he urged the crowd ''you guys are the new world leaders!'' When he performed his classic hit Got yourself a gun I couldn't help laugh and recall THAT Brixton show a few years ago at the same moment a Brixton man had popped a real shot off into the crowd!
This set was good but lower energy than when I've seen him in the past- he knew the crowd wasn't all die-hard, ride or die legacy fans. This album represents me, us our youth. Unlike people who pass and hope their legacies will remain someplace, Illmatic will be played when my generation are octogenarians. To be able to perform your album after 20 years and it still sound fresh is dope beyond belief.
To see a hip-hop legend perform a classic album front to back live is a true fans dream and I think Nas has set a new blueprint and all music acts should celebrate seminal milestones in this way. At Lovebox he reminded us that he's still one of the best, a hip-hop icon that has always kept it 100% real and for this set alone for me, Lovebox really is a music festival in a league of its own!