Up until last Thursday I was on the fence about going to the inaugural AAHH! Fest in Chicago. The hip hop festival, which was hosted by Chicago legend Common, had a stellar line-up and was relatively inexpensive. But after attending Riot Fest, one week earlier, I was considering skipping Sunday’s festivities. The main reason I was thinking about passing was because I had seen Wu-Tang Clan at Riot Fest, and it put a very sour taste in my mouth. The show was extremely lack luster, similar to other outdoor hip hop shows that I’ve seen (which include Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Pusha T, among others), and I began to question whether or not hip hop should be played live on a large stage.
Hip Hop festivals including Rock the Bells and Paid Dues have cancelled tour stops or the entire festival in recent years due to low turnout. I have a feeling this is caused by hip hop rarely translating to outdoor, stadium-sized venues. Sure, some artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z churn out amazing stadium tours with great sound and spectacle, but the average hip hop performer likely cannot pull off this feat. Fortunately, last Thursday, I decided to give outdoor hip hop one final opportunity to woo me. And sure enough, Common delivered a phenomenal hip hop festival to Chicago, not only giving the city amazing music but also spreading a message of peace in a city that has seen a lot of turmoil.
I arrived to Union Park, located in the Near West Side neighborhood in Chicago, around 3:30. Upon entering the festival grounds, my excitement grew tremendously. After the nightmare of Riot Fest – poorly mapped out, extremely crowded, too many stages – it was nice to see such a well-put together event. There were several tents set up promoting organizations like Common’s Common Ground, the Lupe Fiasco Foundation, and Kanye West’s Donda organization (all of which sponsored the festival). There were several food booths (including Chicago’s famous Harold’s Chicken) and beer stands. But what really stood out to me was the single stage.
Having a single stage was both a blessing and a curse. The one stage meant that I would not have to make the soul crushing decision of picking one artist I’m dying to see over another (another major pitfall of my Riot Fest experience). But it also meant in order for all of the artists to get their full scheduled time, every performer must arrive on time (as most of you know, hip hop artists are notoriously late – ie: Pusha T at Pitchfork Fest).
The show kicked off with a little banter from local radio DJs who introduced the festival. Then Lil Herb kicked things off with a short 15-minute set. Herb, an 18-year old rapper from Chicago, is most known for his song “Chi-raq” with Nicki Minaj and his show stealing performance on Common’s “The Neighborhood.” Herb reminds me of Ludacris mixed with some Meek Mill, but has a nice balance of aggressive and introspection and raps with the intensity and fury of a Freddie Gibbs. He is an excellent rapper, but his 15-minute set showed he has a lot to work on when it comes to his live show. He is a prime example of a rapper who would sound better in a small dive bar than an outdoor setting, but he made the most of his time and brief set gave him some great exposure.
The first surprise of Aahh Fest was SZA, who was not on the original line-up, but was a last second addition. She did a short set, but was excellent as she sang two of my favorite songs from her “Z” album (“Child’s Play” and “Babylon”). There were a few DJ sets throughout the festival, all of which were pretty excellent (one complaint would be the DJs went to the Wu-Tang well a few too many times, and I understand that they wanted to keep an old school vibe, but they could’ve mixed in a few current artists as well). There were a couple of DJs who played House music, which I am very new to. This was probably the third or fourth time I’ve heard House music played at a festival, and the reaction it gets out of people is phenomenal. The crowd, which seemed to run a bit older earlier in the festival and younger towards the later sets, absolutely loved the House DJ and there was great energy setting up rapper’s performances.
A big pull for me to go to the Aahh! Fest was Jay Electronica. I wouldn’t consider myself a die hard fan, but he is such a fascinating person that any time his name is listed, I pay attention to it. I do think he is a vastly talented emcee and the fact he hasn’t released three classic albums by now is a hip hop tragedy on par with Biggie and Pac’s deaths and D.O.C. losing his voice. And his very short set pulled no punches. He played classics like “Exhibit A,” “Abracadabra” (which is over Dilla’s “Gobstopper”), and closed with “Exhibit C.” He got out in the crowd, he frequently rapped a capella, he declined a blunt from a member of the audience, he was awesome.
As I previously mentioned the crowd at Aahh! Fest was as diverse (in regards to both age and race), as any I can remember. A big part of that was probably due to performances from MC Lyte and De La Soul. MC Lyte was great, and while I’ve never heard an album from her front-to-back, I recognized most of her songs from her setlist. The women next to me in the crowd, who were probably in their 40s or so, were having the time of their lives singing along to “Ruffneck.” De La Soul was another big reason why I went to the festival. And they did not disappoint in the least bit. They were master performers – emcees and DJs in the purest form. Their banter with the crowd was great, and they looked like they were having so much fun on stage that it couldn’t help but radiate out into the crowd. They started off their set with more recent classics like “Grind Date” and “Oooh” and closed with their older classics like “Stakes is High,” “Potholes in My Lawn” and “Me Myself and I.”
By the end of De La’s set, I had to go to the bathroom. As I turned around, before Jennifer Hudson’s set, I saw a sea of people, and knew that if I left now, I would be nowhere close to the stage for the remainder of the sets. So I decided to bite my lip and stick it out. Jennifer Hudson, who hails from Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood on the South Side, was the lone R&B/Soul act on the setlist, but she still had a very large draw in the audience. Before her show, I only vaguely knew of her, but after her first song, where she threatened to hit me with her pocketbook, I was hooked. She put on a great performance, and booming vocals tested the limitations of the sound system (which held up nicely throughout her set).
After Hudson’s set, the legendary Dave Chappelle took over hosting duties. He did about five minutes of stand-up – nothing extraordinary, but seeing him smoke a cigarette on stage was all I needed. Chappelle, while being one of the best comics of the 2000s, also had a very big role in influencing my musical taste as an early teen. He hipped me to the likes of The Roots, Talib Kweli, and others. So seeing him introduce Common “The Food,” just like he did ten years ago on his show, was truly one of the more special moments from the night. Before Common came on though, Lupe Fiasco performed. I’ve had very mixed feelings about Lupe over the past four or so years, but he is still one of hip hop’s elite writers. Even though he’s hardly recognizable from his early days; he now sports long dreads and a dashiki t-shirt, but he can still perform very well. His set was a bit strange – he left off a lot of classics from his first LPs but did a freestyle over Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like.” But seeing him do “Kick Push” and his verse from the “Everybody N.O.S.E.” remix was awesome, and the crowd’s reaction to “Go-Go-Gadget Flow” was ecstatic. While Lupe has sort of alienated me and several other fans over the past few records, he still has a lot of support from his hometown, which is why the crowd booed so loud when his mic got off because he went over his time.
Common deserves the utmost props and love for setting up an amazing festival and a hell of a night. He clearly used his status and called in some favors to get such an incredible line-up. But his set was also one of the best of the night. He is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen – he has great energy and flawless breath support. He started his set with some of his best cuts from the mid-aughts. Then he brought out fellow Chicago legend Twista for a short set including “Overnight Celebrity.” Common closed out his set classics like “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and “The Light.” Before the end of the night, Common called in one last favor for the special guest – Kanye West.
By the day of the festival, Kanye being the special guest at Aahh! Fest was the worst kept secret in the city. During his set, which he basically usurped from Common (though I doubt there were any complaints), he said Com only asked him to do three songs. Yeezus performed somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 classics, including “Jesus Walks,” “All Falls Down,” “Gold Digger,” etc. As the festival started to wind down, Common performed the remix to his excellent single “Kingdom” with Vince Staples and Jay Electronica. And before they shut the whole festival down, Common and Kanye did “Get ‘Em High,” in what seemed to be impromptu, as Staples, Jay Electronica and Rhymefest (who hosted the morning portion of the festival) sat on stage. Common was radiating with pride for his city, and Kanye was smiling throughout his entire set – a stark difference from his Yeezus tour, where he almost seemed tormented.
Since moving to the north side of Chicago a little over a year ago, I have gotten to do and see a lot of cool things that I wouldn’t have in Ohio. It’s without question Common’s Aahh! Fest was one of the best things I’ve experienced since moving here. Sure there were a few technical difficulties with the sound, and set times were off here and there. But compared to other festivals and hip hop shows I’ve been to, Aahh! Fest ran pretty well, especially for a first-time event. There was so much talent and pride on stage, it made really wish I lived here longer and makes me want to spend a lot of my life in Chicago. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Aahh Fest.