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Ground Control's coverage of the Paid Dues Festival is in three parts. This is Part III. Click here to jump back to Part I or Part II.
Back in the VIP area, the DJ spun stacks of records for the tired few who ponied up $100 bucks for the privelege, enough for eleven-hours of non stop music without falling back on some massive hard drive. A marathon achievement in itself (not to mention the sheer weight of 11 hours worth of vinyl), the effort meant that by the time that Dilated Peoples was preparing to take the stage, we were getting treated to Fred Durst and co., a juxtaposition that was a bit weird under the circumstances.
With DJ Babu hoisted about 25 feet in the air behind the giant purple Paid Dues riser, Rakaa and Evidence had to hold down the stage. This ended up being the only disappointment of their set, since Babu was one of the few DJs who truly made his presence known during his time on stage. About midway through the set, he dropped an impressive scratch breakdown that left the crowd breathless, and it would have been nice to see him sharing the spotlight (literally) with the rest of his crew.
That's not to say that the rest of the group wasn't impressive in their own right. Giving their fans a taste of most of their back catalog, Dilated hit all the high notes—“Kindness for Weakness” (sans Talib Kweli, sadly), “Live on Stage,” “You Can't Hide, You Can't Run”—in style. This was definitely the case for Evidence, who rocked a pair of old school Jordans (the ones with the baby blue toe cap) and pulled off a wardrobe change at some point during the set, swapping out his white 'diLAted' shirt for a black one, giving the fans an opportunity to see the stuff on the merch table on a live model. Following “No Retreat,” Evidence brought out one of the guys from Tha Liks to help the threesome perform “Heavy Rotation,” and then he, Rakka and Babu busted out “Worst Comes to Worst” before stepping off stage.
Then came Little Brother, who offered up—in my opinion—the best set of the night. Of course, that may have been the second-smoke talking (the smell of weed, which came in hints and drafts during the rest of the evening, was totally palpable), but Big Pooh, Phonte and vocalist Darien Brockington were nothing but solid all the way through. There were no stage histronics, no hype men riling up the crowd, no blatant shilling of upcoming solo projects. Just three men anchoring the stage, dropping rhymes that stuck in heads, eliciting one notation in my reporters notebook: “Really Fucking Rad.” The group—who said it was their first time on the West Coast in a while—ran through a set that included Getback's “Dreams” (with Darien busting out in song towards the end, the first real sung vocals of the evening) “Still Lives Through” and “Watch Me” off The Minstrel Show, a callout to Coming to America and The Listening's “The Way You Do It.” In addition, the boys showed that they could entertain, when, towards the end of their set, Big Pooh and Phonte dropped an acapella joint, with Pooh on vocals and Phonte killing the beatbox. To those who left early, you definitely missed out.
And so the evening began to draw to a close. The press room was shuttered, the bars in VIP made last call, the meet-and-greet table was broken down and stored, and the San Bernadino Police Department trotted up on their horses (seriously, horses?) making living barricades to keep out those who tried to get one last crack at meeting their favorite performers. The crowd had shrunk to about a quarter of the size that it had been during the Living Legends set, with a huge chunk of remaining fans peeling off after Little Brother packed up their mics and left. It seemed that only the diehards stuck around for Sage Francis, a little huddle (and by little, I still mean at least 750-1000 people) of fans who had been there since the doors opened at 2pm, saving up their energy and water so they could go crazy when Sage hit the stage.
They weren't disappointed. I had read complaints on message boards questioning Sage's presence on the bill, especially in the top spot. It seemed that many of the attendees didn't think much of the man, but those who stuck around were treated to a sparkling set. Whether you like him or not (I'm in the liking him camp), it can't be denied that Sage is an accomplished performer, someone who knows how to put on a show. His was easily the most theatrical set of the night, thanks in large part to the die-hards who screamed along to each song. Apart from a few isolated incidents earlier in the evening—BCC's crowd battle comes to mind—the crowd as a whole was never louder than the remainders who stuck around for Sage.
The only performer to hit the stage by himself, Sage had a lot to do to match the energy of an eight-member crew like Living Legends. So he started off with “Sea Lion,” running through the track twice—once accompanied by DJ Skratch Bastid and once sans accompaniment. Then he freestyled to Lou Reed's “Walk On the Wild Side” before performing “Civil Obedience” from Human The Death Dance over a sample of “Pump Up the Volume.” He kept challenging Skratch Bastid to play something that would throw him off, showing off some seriously entertaining and seriously twisted dance moves, and basically running around stage, drawing the already rapt crowd in tighter and tighter. “Broken Wings” seemed almost like spoken word, and he topped it by paraphrasing Douglas Adams: “We don't need wings to fly, we just throw ourselves at the ground and miss.”
“I'm getting paid double what I was supposed to for this show,” he boasted, after saying he would have performed for free. “I just won a heads up poker game with the promoter.” After an evening of performers calling for peace, Sage continued with a more pronounced political agenda. As Skratch Bastid played both the fast and slow versions of Team America's “America, Fuck Yeah” (did you know the slow version is called the “Bummer Remix”?!), Sage began urging fans to take an interest in the upcoming election, just barely refraining from promoting Barack Obama by name. He then wrapped himself in an American Flag with the stars replaced by corporate symbols and launched into a particularly vitriolic rendition of “Makeshift Patriot” before throwing the flag into the crowd. Following “Damage,” he brought out fellow Paid Dues performer B. Dolan and Prolyphic, both of whom are on Sage's Strange Famous Records, to help him perform. They ran through a few tracks from Prolyphic's forthcoming album, including "Survived Another Winter," before Sage got downright silly. He'd been there since 9:30 AM, and all that walking around had caused chafing. “Guerilla Union turned me on to Gold Bond Medicated Powder. I tell my girlfriend, 'Baby, I'm fat. I can't walk around for eight hours without consequences.'”
Neither could we. By the time Sage wrapped up, there had been ten straight hours of kickass hip-hop. What was left of the crowd dragged themselves to their cars as the cops on horseback kept an eye out for the mischief that no one had any energy to make. The sheer number of top tier rappers was enough to blow any mind, and if the rest of the crowd was anything like me, their dreams that night were full of samples and beats and crowds with arms extended, fingers spread shouting “Peace!”
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