The city of Chicago has been in a state of turmoil for quite some time now. On a national scale, the only headlines you generally see involve our failing education systems, staggering unemployment rates, price increases for damn near everything, and all of the crime going on in all parts of the city. Almost expectedly, what you don’t get to see often are all of the positive things that are going on in the city. Resident Chicagoan and prominent rapper Common has decided to change all of that by doing what he does best: put on the show of a lifetime. When it was announced that he would be organizing his own music festival (one dedicated primarily to hip hop music,) there was a feeling of elation for all of the fans. It went down on September 21st, and it will be a day that will go down in infamy. This was AAHH! Fest Live from Chicago.
Our day at Union Park started at around 4pm, sadly as Chicago resident G Herbo (aka Lil’ Herb) was just ending his set. It’s unfortunate that his time to shine was missed by us because he is definitely a rising star that is poised to make a breakthrough in the near future. Once we got situated as close to the front as possible without prompting an altercation, we received our first surprise of the day. TDE’s leading lady SZA appeared seemingly out of nowhere to run through a couple of hits from her excellent debut project Z. The focus and intensity from the crown was high throughout her whole set, but when Babylon came on, it got an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd. People started swaying from side to side in unison, and SZA herself did an excellent job of belting out one of her more somber songs. She then told us that she’s actually a Midwestern girl (originally from St. Louis, but later moved to New Jersey,) so being there was an honor for her.
In between sets, Damon Williams, Chicago’s resident comedian, brought the laughs as the various DJ’s played hits of old and new in the background. One thing he definitely pointed out is that the crowd at that time was predominately of the older generation, as evident by reactions to the older hip hop and house classics being played. He went so far as to tell the youth in attendance to do their homework because “y’all were probably conceived to this,” which was a very accurate assumption. After his time wrapped up, we were presented with Jay Electronica. For an emcee that apparently thrives on the illusion of mystery, it was awesome to see him actually there, and full of energy. I have seen him live at the House of Blues about four years ago, and I must say that even though he hasn’t really put out a lot of new music between now and then (roughly six tracks,) his popularity has risen significantly since then. I look at is as a testament to the strength of the songs he has actually released has been, and the overall hip hop loving nature of the crowd that AAHH! Fest had drawn.
After going through a couple songs on stage, Jay ElecYarmulke decided to transfer his energy to the crowd by performing in it. Once he was there, he hopped onto a fans’ shoulders and began spitting ferocious bars (mostly a cappella to place an extra emphasis on the verses,) until it came time to deliver his magnum opus, Exhibit C. At that point, you knew this night was going to be something really special. Heads bobbed, fans recited lyrics, and Jay was giving the fans everything they came for. Now if we could just get his debut album…
After another short intermission, the highly decorated hip hop veteran MC Lyte blessed the stage with her presence. The 26 years she has had in the game is both impressive and reflective of her stage presence. You could easily tell that she knew how to rock the mic, and how to rock the mic right. Fans young and old were fully immersed in her stage presence, and she emitted the aura of a true master of her craft. After running through a couple of her classic cuts, she praised all of the established and up and coming female emcees in the game, knowing full well that she was a key reason for their existence. She then gave a quick and vague introduction for a special guest, and moments later we were presented with our second surprise guest of the evening, Lil Mama. The fellow New York femcee proceeded to spit some bars a capella to a crowd that was eager to hear more. When she was done, MC Lyte returned to the stage to warm the crowd up for yet another historic hip hop group: De La Soul.
As a disclaimer, I was very excited (maybe too excited) to see the trio at AAHH! Fest De La Soul is one of the greatest hip hop groups to ever bless the mic, and it was awesome to see them do their thing live in concert for the first time (personally.) They spent their stage time moving the crowd as they should have been, but they also urged the audience to put their phones away and just enjoy the moment. The majority of the masses obliged, and the trio continued to do what they do best. Seeing them go through Me, Myself and I, Oooh, and Stakes Is High (among other classics) made me miss the debatable “golden era” of hip hop, and long for another De La project. One can only hope.
After Posdnous, Trugoy and Maseo thanked Chicago for being a wonderful audience (which we were,) we experienced our first bit of down time. At this point, DJ equipment was removed and a more elaborate stage was put in place. This was not a hindrance to the day however, as DJ Timbuck2 brought the heat during an extended set. He had a nice mix of old and new and kept the people happy. After the set up was complete, it was time for another prominent Chicagoan to bless us with her presence. Enter Jennifer Hudson.
At this point in her career, everybody should know who J Hud is. In case you don’t, she is a Grammy award winning artist, who has also been in a few major motion pictures you may have heard of (read: Dreamgirls.) Admittedly I have never seen her live before, or listened to too much of her music, but she kept my attention the entire time. Her remarkable stage presence and heavenly voice have got to be the reason why she is one of the more prominent figures in Hollywood today. One thing that was certain is that she can sing extremely well live. This is more of an accomplishment than it may seem because a lot of R&B artists sound phenomenal on their albums but can’t hit a note to save their lives in front of an actual crowd. It was great to see, and I would definitely be interested in seeing her again in the future.
The next break in the action brought us DJ Vince Adams, who appeased the older generations by playing a ton of Chicago House music. The vintage heads were going crazy to it, but the younger kids didn’t really know how to react to what they were hearing. As Damon Williams said earlier in the day, they really need to do their homework. As I was writing a few notes into my phone during the break, I heard a sudden roar from the crowd. My curiosity peaked and when I looked up, standing there was the highly celebrated comedian Dave Chappelle. He came out, interacted with the crowd, told a few jokes ranging from weed cookies in Denver to his desire to move to China and live in a house made entirely out of Lego’s. It was pretty random, but still extremely welcome and an excellent way to kill some time before continuing on with the show. Afterwards, the next artist to grace the stage was another west side representative who goes by the name of Lupe Fiasco.
I’ve seen Lupe quite a few times during his career, and he really went all out this time and gave the fans everything they wanted and needed. The Cool, Go Go Gadget Flow, Next To It (sans Ty Dolla $ign) and Mission all received heavy fan fare. Everything was going smoothly, until something a bit strange happened. As Wasalu was preparing to close out his set, he began building up his final song by stating it was written by a Chicagoan, produced by a Chicagoan, mixed and mastered by a Chicagoan, and recorded in Chicago. Just as it was time for the beat to drop, they pulled the plug on his microphone. Lupe then proceeded to bring out the show director to give us a reason for the abrupt ending, and all he said was “This is AAHH! Fest” and walked away. Then, Westside Lu simply took a bow and exited stage left. It was such a bizarre conclusion that it brought about many boos (to no fault of his own) and a sudden break in the action. Other than that, his set was excellent.
During the 45 minute intermission, you could feel the crowd intensity building. Smoke filled the air and even more beers were consumed. We all knew that the conclusion was near, and that meant the arrival of their “special guest.” After a long delay, Dave Chappelle reemerged so you knew it was almost time to be rewarded with the festival grand finale. Once the jokes were let off, Dave brought out the man of the hour, Chicago’s very own, Common.
It was a good choice to start off with The Food, given the fact that Common & Kanye premiered the song on the historic Chappelle Show. Before we knew it, Com Sense was running through the hits that everybody wanted to hear. Many came from his classic album Be, as we were treated with The People, followed by The Corners. Each track yielded a huge response because that album is widely regarded as one of Common’s best. From there, he slipped in some new material from his recently released Nobody’s Smiling album, giving us Blak Majik before going back to Be with Go!. It was a great bit of nostalgia, and the flashback feelings only rose as Twista took the stage immediately after.
The Chicago legend went through two classics in the form of Do or Die’s Po Pimp (Do You Wanna Ride?) and standout Overnight Celebrity. At this point, the crowd was in a frenzy. It appears that pretty much everyone from Chicago in attendance were avid fans of the two, so it was awesome to see all of these songs performed in one evening. Twista then went into one of his newer songs Gucci, Louie, Prada which yielded a surprising amount of fanfare. Once that was over, he thanked the city that raised him and exited the stage.
At this point, Common was ready to go right back into the hits, as he started off right away with Love of my Life. Sadly, Erykah Badu was not there, but everything was so hype that it didn’t deter from the overall experience. He followed that up with I Used To Love H.E.R., which was extremely fitting given the overall theme of the evening. Like Water For Chocolate got some recognition as well when he went into crowd favorite The Light. Com Sense followed that up with a quick freestyle, before going back into a little Nobody’s Smiling promo with Speak My Piece, Diamonds and Kingdom. The game was changed a bit for the latter track, as Long Beach’s Vince Staples came out to rip his verse. As if that wasn’t enough, Jay Electronica came back out to give the crowd his (at the time, unreleased) verse for the remix. He gave the crowd with his blessings and then left the stage. It was at that moment that you could tell that it was time for the nights’ special guest. We sure as hell weren’t disappointed.
Rumors had been swirling around the entire day about who this guest could be. Throughout the crowd, I heard rumblings of the extremely popular Kendrick Lamar, fellow Def Jam emcee JAY Z, Chicago prodigy Chance The Rapper, and many more. However awesome any of those artists would have been, I don’t think any of them would have made the same impact as the artist we actually received. After a long silent pause, Common was ready to announce the artist that we had all been waiting for. Enter, Kanye West.
Love him or hate him, Kanye West has been consistently putting out some of the best hip hop music (and music in general) for the past decade plus. His influence is truly remarkable, but underneath it all, he is just a man who hails from Chicago. In a way, his attendance was pretty much mandatory given the fact that he is easily the biggest artist to emerge from our south side streets. With that being said, it was only right that he started his performance with Jesus Walks from the widely heralded classic album, The College Dropout. From there, the hits kept coming. We were gifted with Touch The Sky (mysteriously sans Lupe,) All Falls Down, Can’t Tell Me Nothing, and Power. It only got better from there.
As Yeezus dominated the stage and gave the fest attendees 110% energy, you could tell that this night was special. He seemed genuinely thrilled to be there, and the people responded well to his aura. Next up on his rapid fire set list was I Don’t Like, another classic Chicago track. Sadly, (assuming due to the ridiculous performance ban he has in the city,) Chief Keef was not in attendance, but the impact was still felt. As he gave us Mercy, All of the Lights, Good Life and Gold Digger, you could feel something special in the air. Everyone in attendance didn’t have a care in the world, and all eyes were focused directly to the stage. As if those songs weren’t enough, he closed out the night with Homecoming, Blood on the Leaves, Bound 2,and Clique.
His final song was a complete surprise and will probably go down as a moment in hip hop history given its rarity. When The College Dropout was released in 2004, Common was featured on a unanimous fan favorite entitled Get Em High. In 2014, the two performed the song together in front of the city that helped them both rise to superstardom. It’s been so long since they performed this that Common fumbled the opening words. The two laughed off the moment, and after a quick second to recollect, they went right back at it. After the moment was over, the two brought out the majority of the days’ performers back to the stage, and everybody screamed at the top of their lungs. And just like that, the night was over.
Overall, the night was just what the city needed. There were no reported incidents following the occasion that housed close to 12,000 people, so in the end the result was exactly what was intended: a peaceful demonstration of hip hop music. Aside from the audience having a great time, it truly felt that the artists who participated weren’t “on the clock” and dialing in their performances. They were as animated and energetic about the event as the spectators were, and that made all the difference. It truly was a breath of fresh air that made everyone present say “AAHH!” One thing I can tell you for sure is that I cannot wait for the second annual AAHH! Fest.
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