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This Sunday at 3 p.m. at Central Park’s Summerstage, Hip-Hop’s 2nd oldest annual institution the Rock Steady Anniversary returns to New York. Not only does this mark the breaker/MC/DJ/etc. collective’s 36th year together, but 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the annual free outdoor jam that’s attracted old and young hip-hop heads alike. This year’s event will also be historic for hosting the long-awaited reunion of Pete Rock and CL Smooth. We spoke to Pete Rock, breakdancing living legend and Rock Steady nucleus Crazy Legs, and turntablism icon and co-organizer DJ Eclipse about putting this year’s Rock Steady Anniversary together.
This is the first Rock Steady Anniversary in New York in almost a decade. What’s bringing about this triumphant return?
It’s been in Newark, in Lincoln Park. The reason it’s been there is because they’ve been such gracious hosts. They’ve really helped us out with putting the event and putting everything together to make it happen. In New York, it’s always more of a struggle to deal with the Parks Department to get things going. That’s why we’re fortunate this year to connect with Summerstage at Central Park. They’ve been wonderful, so hopefully we’ll be able to maintain something there every year.
Do you recall the first Rock Steady Anniversary you attended?
The one in ’93. I remember seeing Sadat X, and there was no stage. It was just in the park in a concrete setting and everyone was in a circle surrounding the DJ set-up and who was performing. You had to get in close to see who was actually on.
Probably the biggest story surrounding the Rock Steady Anniversary this year is going to be the reunion performance of Pete Rock and CL Smooth. How did you get them to reunite?
It wasn’t really that hard, actually. They seem to have their ups and downs like more groups have their ups and downs and they have done some stuff together since they’ve broken up and then gone their separate ways again. It’s just really about timing. We were able to tell them what we wanted to do and they were with it. The stars aligned and we can’t wait to see an incredible show. I think artists and fans recognize with the Rock Steady brand that we’ve always brought people together for our concerts. The Artifacts uniting on a Rock Steady stage. We’re not a business, it’s a cultural thing. When we have money, people come. They know what to expect from our Anniversaries. When we don’t have money, people come. It’s us saying “this is what we feel hip-hop culture is.” We always try to combine new acts as well as legendary acts to teach those coming for CL Smooth that Homeboy Sandman is dope, Rasheed Chappell is dope, Torae is dope, we want you guys to know that there is a continuation of these kinds of acts brewing.
Along with Pete Rock and CL Smooth, what are you most looking forward to?
Special Ed. I’ve only seen him perform once before. Brand Nubian because it’s also the 20th anniversary of their In God We Trust album so I do believe they’ll be doing some of the joints off that. I really just enjoy the atmosphere.
Rock Steady celebrates its 36th Anniversary this year, making it second only to Zulu Nation in terms of longest running anniversaries in all of hip-hop. What lead to the Rock Steady Anniversary celebrations as we know them?
In 1991, myself and [two] women by the name of Shonna Hoods and Christina Veran who use to write for Vibe Magazine put together an event called Straight From the Heart which was basically us putting together a park jam for people coming into town for the New Music Seminar. We weren’t a part of New Music Seminar but wanted to just do it then. The following year I didn’t do anything, but in 1993 I decided to start doing the Rock Steady Anniversaries.
This year the Rock Steady Anniversary returns to New York at the Central Park Summerstage. How come it was absent for so long?
The fact that we’re doing it at Summerstage is pretty amazing, that has a lot of people buzzing about it. We’ve basically been kicked out of New York for ten years. We were blacklisted. It’ll be interesting to see what the turn out is going to be because when we left New York, we were pulling about 15,000 people. I think Summerstage holds about 7,000, so it should be a full house.
What have been some of your favorite Rock Steady Anniversary memories?
Last year will probably go down as my favorite memory because I had prepared for my final battles. I hadn’t retired from dancing, but I wanted to get my final battles out there. Dancing is like any kind of sport where you have to maintain a certain athleticism. So that was the first time I could attend the Anniversary as just one of the people in the crowd, it was nice to go to my own jam as one of the people to battle.
Why do you think Rock Steady has maintained such interest for so long?
The thing about it is you have to continuously reinvent yourself. In order to stay relevant, you have to stay on point and deal with the revolving door of potential members and always having a nice body in place. I’d like to think Rock Steady is the people’s champ. I don’t think there’s any other group out there that’s thrown consistent park jams for free. I started throwing Rock Steady Anniversaries to keep alive the free jam. Hip-hop was started, before that was called what we do, with free jams. Summertime always brought about the free park jams and we keep that tradition alive.
Do you recall your first time at a Rock Steady event?
I’ve been to a couple. Shout out to my man Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew. Just seeing them perform on stage, or Nice and Smooth, it was pretty dope.
This year sees your long-awaited reunion performance with CL Smooth. What made right now seem like the right time for a reunion?
It’s not even about that, it’s about being grown and having come to a certain point in your life when you’re just a grown man. It is what it is and it’s about giving the fans what they want. Be it now or later, it all starts from being men first.
Have the rehearsals with CL felt like old times?
We’re also at just about the 20th anniversary of you and CL starring in that Sprite commercial. What was shooting that like?
We were in Chicago and we had a good time backstage. It was funny, we were laughing and carrying on. It was about being happy on the set and getting through something. We most definitely put some hours it, but it was all for the better. As long as you’re having fun doing it, nothing else matters.
You’re also promoting your new mixtape with Camp Lo, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s Part II. Given that you’re two entities with such distinct styles, what is the writing process like when you collaborate?
Aw man, it’s just fun because they don’t really write. Gucci Suede doesn’t write and I’ve seen Sonny Chiba jot down a few words, but they work really fast and quick together. They come up with concepts really quick, so if you’re a producer, you would enjoy that because things get done. When it comes to the rhymes, they do all of that. Sometimes I have a little bit of input, but I let them run with their ideas.
This is also the first project you’ve ever released entirely for free. What drove that decision?
I guess it was time to try something new. I feel this is very sample heavy and we wouldn’t be able to clear all that stuff. We’re rapping over music we loved growing up as kids. It’s about being free and doing what you want.