Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G, Jay Z, Busta Rhymes and seemingly countless more; radio DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia were instrumental in launching the careers of hip-hop’s most luminary figures. Their show on Columbia University’s WKCR was quite possibly the most genre-defining broadcast series in hip-hop history.
Arguably, no other radio show has imparted so much influence on a single genre of music than theirs. To hear your tape played out between Stretch & Bob’s goofy radio chatter was widely-considered the highest honor in hip-hop, reserved only for the genre’s finest and fastest rising MCs. During the 8 years their show was on air, over 300 unsigned artists were invited onto their show; to date, these artists have sold over 300 million records between them. It is perhaps this legacy, even 19 years after the show aired its final episode, that DJ Stretch Armstrong is still able to curate such a distinguished line-up as was seen this weekend at the Liverpool International Music Festival. With a bill that included some of hip-hop’s founding fathers, Kool DJ Red Alert and DJ Clark Kent playing alongside the legendary Jungle Brothers and the enigmatic, Slick Rick, such a line-up can arguably be considered Liverpool’s finest offering of hip-hop in recent years.
Greasing the wheels before the main event got underway, Stretch Armstrong sat down with DJ 2Kind to discuss his latest book and poster-curation project, No Sleep. Capturing the halcyon days of New York City’s then-burgeoning club scene, the book offers a visual history of the city’s iconic nightlife, as told through the posters that were created to promote the definitive parties of the era. Resurrecting his historic partnership with Bobbito on their new NPR radio show, “What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito,” there was much to discuss as the radio legend sat down under the towering trees of Sefton Park’s Palm House.
A masterclass in scratch mixing and straight-up Serato wizardry, it was the performance of Kool DJ Red Alert that stole the show later on in the night. Chopping up hip-hop classics with old soul, funk, p-funk and rare grooves, Red Alert had jaws on the floor for the duration in a set that wouldn’t have felt out of place at a New York City block party, let alone a Victorian Palm House. The legendary DJ’s polished and stylistically-abrupt mixing had songs lasting an average of only 40 seconds, with the audience left high and dry without so much as a chorus on most occasions…The perfect warm-up set.
Still as fiery as they were nearly 30 years ago, the Jungle Brothers also took to the stage to perform classics like “Doin’ Our Own Dang,” and “Jimbrowski,” much to the crowd’s appreciation. Without missing a bar, the pair threw the over 40s in the crowd back to their childhood whilst giving younger audience members a flavour of what it felt like to live through an era of Zulu Nation, Native Tongues and Afrocentric hip-hop. Happy to jump back into the audience after their set, Mike Gee and Baby Bam’s willingness to mingle with fans showed an admirable level of humility, even after all these years.
Born in the UK, but remaining out of the country for many years due to legal reasons, Slick Rick only experienced his first sights of UK shores in over three decades last year, performing at a string of sold-out shows across the country. In celebration of his long-awaited dual US-UK citizenship, Rick has now begun touring globally once again, with an invitation to the Palm House bringing him to Liverpool for the first time. Rocking countless chains and his signature eye patch, it felt as if Slick Rick had never departed from his early 1990s persona. A little older, maybe so, but the The Ruler was certainly still happy to channel the vibes of his past. Although short, painfully short, performing a total of five songs, Slick Rick’s performance was a landmark opportunity for Liverpool’s music scene. ‘Children’s Story’ and ‘Auditorium,’ were big crowd pleasers despite the poor sound quality coming through his diamond-encrusted microphone. Whilst the venue did not reach sell-out capacity, the event felt like a who’s who of the North West hip-hop scene; MCs, DJs, record dealers, journalists and promoters all showed up in force.
As with many forward-thinking gigs in Liverpool, this unique programme felt as if another opportunity had been missed in some ways. With the venue only half full, as many have been so for a number of other quaisi-underground line-ups, the question must be raised: “When will Liverpool step out of its musical comfort zone?” Of course, the answers to this question cannot be found within this article; they have to come from within Liverpool’s gig-going community, our network of promoters and cultural policy makers. Perhaps the blame simply lies within the city’s small population? Or within the city’s strong relationship with other, more accessible, genres of music? Whatever the issue, it is thankfully a conversation that is starting to build traction. There has long since been a call, especially from within Liverpool’s hip-hop community, for our city to become a more regular stop on the touring circuit of international artists. For too long, artists have ventured down the M62 to Manchester to perform to guaranteed busier venues, bars and concert halls. If Liverpool is to become a major player and curate line-ups the likes of what was witnessed over the weekend, the gig-going community must embrace and acknowledge the bookings that can help shape and promote us as a music city.
Praise, as with every year, is undoubtedly due to those working behind the scenes at Liverpool International Music Festival. In particular, full credit goes out to the incredible vision of Yaw Owusu for championing this unprecedented line-up. Year-in-year-out, LIMF manage to make their festival almost entirely free for the general public. Breaking down the financial barriers that can often exclude those without the disposable income for a Glastonbury-esque experience, LIMF have once again shone through as a leading light, from which more musical and cultural experiences must take note. Along with the likes of Africa Oye, their grassroots and accessible approach is intrinsic to developing interest from within the city in an ever-broadening number of genres and musical styles. Projects such as LIMF Academy, offering young musicians a platform for their creativity, are key in advancing this ongoing conversation surrounding Liverpool’s somewhat tentative live music and clubbing scene.