For anyone in New York City over the weekend, the influx of Adidas tracksuits, bucket hats, Run-DMC shirts, and gold chains proved difficult to miss. Hip-hop celebrated its official 50th anniversary this past Friday, commemorating the same day in 1973 when DJ Kool Herc and his sister, Cindy Campbell, threw their legendary “back to school jam” at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx. Needless to say, the culture’s birthplace marked the designated day with myriad special events, ranging from good ol’ fashioned block parties and park jams to carefully curated concert series. Among the biggest was the “Hip-Hop 50 Live” concert, at Yankee Stadium. The festival boasted a cross-generational lineup, capped off by Run-DMC’s final performance as a duo.
Upon walking into Yankee Stadium for the first time, the colossal size of the venue didn’t immediately hit me; it subtly sank in with each passing minute. After all, I grew up seeing rap shows in smaller clubs and dingy basement venues, and at house parties. The setting itself was a testament to hip-hop’s growth, but slightly intimidating. Fortunately, the camaraderie among the thousands upon thousands of hip-hop enthusiasts made it feel much smaller. A Black Canadian couple who drove eight hours from their home in Winnipeg were hardcore fans of Lil’ Kim and Slick Rick. Two white 30-something Brits made the cross-Atlantic trip from London’s Hackney neighborhood (the Big Smoke’s answer to Williamsburg) to see Ice Cube and Nas. A mother and young son sat side-by-side soaking up newer acts, like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Wiz Khalifa, while a bi-racial couple from Arizona flew in with their 1-year-old daughter to immerse themselves in the ’80s hip-hop that raised them.
While temperatures were unbearable at times, especially when the stadium’s security staff was so discombobulated they had media running back and forth in an attempt to secure the “proper” credentials (by the way, there weren’t any), the sweltering heat temporarily took a backseat to the joy each performance brought to the crowd. Coupled with some historic moments — as when DJ Kool Herc was presented with a Cultural Impact Award by Recording Industry Association of America CEO-Chair Mitch Glazier, Roxanne Shanté rocked the mic with Biz Markie’s longtime DJ Cutmaster Cool V, and Wonder Mike joined his Sugarhill Gang brethren with the aid of a cane to perform “Rapper’s Delight” — the event traced hip-hop’s evolution from its origins up to today, providing a little something for everyone.
The East Coast was represented by the likes of Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, and Cappadonna, as well as an exuberant Fat Joe (who apparently couldn’t wait to take off his shirt), EPMD, Cam’ron, Doug E. Fresh, newcomer Lola Brooke, and the inimitable Slick Rick. The South showed up in the form of a spirited T.I. and lackluster Lil Wayne, while the Midwest was repped by Lupe Fiasco and a somewhat flat, formulaic Common (although the Chicago-bred MC/actor did perform “The Light,” and that sample of Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes” still hits). The West Coast, meanwhile, was represented by Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Too $hort, and Wiz Khalifa. Wiz and Snoop’s onstage chemistry was evident; they’ve been on the road together as part of the High School Reunion Tour for weeks. Engulfed in their own weed smoke, they sailed through each song with the precision of two snipers. Women weren’t left behind either — Lil’ Kim, Trina, and Remy Ma each had their slot (albeit not much of one), and Flo Milli joined Too $hort for “Flo The Whistle.” DJ Drama ensured that those who’ve passed got a mention too. In between scratches, he shouted out A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, DMX, DJ Kay Slay, UGK’s Pimp C, Biz Markie, Nipsey Hussle, The Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac, among others.
The respect was palpable between the artists, which was beautiful to witness, but when it came to the show’s execution, the organizers fell short. Merely getting into the venue (which organizers reported was sold out) was a nightmare for thousands of people, including the press. Attendees were clearly befuddled by the entire ticketing process and kept getting redirected to different lines as sweat poured from their faces. Frustrated managers were unable to accommodate their teams (some were forced to wait at the adjacent Hard Rock Cafe as their clients rehearsed), and most press wasn’t given the required access to properly cover the event. In fact, most were allocated to regular stadium seating, where even the most sophisticated smartphones couldn’t zoom in enough to capture a single decent photo. There were also so many acts on the bill that most of them didn’t get the time they deserved, not to mention that the order of performers should have been flipped. If this was about the birth of hip-hop, why weren’t the pioneers and architects — you know, the ones who actually built the culture — given top billing? It felt inappropriate to have Kurtis Blow and members of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five performing so early, to a skeleton crowd. Then there was the runtime. The ambitious event was scheduled to end at 10 p.m. but was still in full swing as the clock struck midnight. Hundreds of fans plotted their exodus as Friday turned into Saturday, which felt like a major disservice to Run-DMC. Some of the attendees were too young to understand the indelible impact Run-DMC had on the culture and didn’t care to stand around waiting for their “parents’ favorite group” (as I heard a kid behind me say).
All those who continued to burn the midnight oil were ultimately treated to several surprises that were well worth it. During Nas’s set, the proud Queensbridge native notably brought out Ms. Lauryn Hill for an unexpected performance of their 1996 collaboration, “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That).” Hill — wearing a Yankees cap, puffy pink blazer, and platform high heels — then seamlessly transitioned into a mini-set of her own, belting out multiple Fugees classics, including “Killing Me Softly,” “Fugee-La,” and “Ready or Not.” Hill and Nas shared a hug as she left the stage, a nod to their nearly 30-year friendship.
By the time Run-DMC put the exclamation point on their final performance as a duo — appropriately billed as “Bottom of the Ninth … The Walk-Off” — it was 2 a.m. and the buzz was waning. More and more people headed for the exit, depleted by the hot sun and exhaustive seven-hour “rapapalooza.” Despite the dwindling population inside the stadium, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Joseph “Run” Simmons gripped the mics like the seasoned vets they are and proceeded to deliver electric renditions of some of their most popular singles — from “It’s Like That” and “It’s Tricky” to “King of Rock” and “My Adidas.” But the melancholic undertones were impossible to ignore. Although their logo was emblazoned all over the stage, Run-DMC has been incomplete since the 2002 murder of Jam Master Jay, their beloved DJ, and it was written all over DMC and Run’s faces. They know it’s over. It’s been over. Now, their fans know it’s over too. But if “Hip Hop 50 Live” taught us anything, it’s that rap music will once again evolve into another iteration, a melting pot of fans will fully embrace it, and hip-hop will live to see another 50 years — let’s just hope they don’t forget the originators in the process. ❖
Kyle Eustice is a veteran music journalist with a focus on hip-hop. After a stint at The Source, she spent six years at HipHopDX. She is now a senior editor at Hits magazine and simultaneously maintains freelance gigs at Thrasher, Chuck D’s RAPstation, and High Times. Other bylines include Rolling Stone, Spin, Variety, Rock the Bells, and Wax Poetics, among others.