Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk Festival — co-founded by James Spooner after his 2003 documentary of the same name, and held this past weekend in Commodore Barry Park — aims to explore the nexus between hip-hop, punk, and urban black culture. It’s the kind of place where folks of all shapes, sizes, and colors can be spotted with Metallica, Joy Division, and Green Day T-shirts. Bands like Living Colour and Fishbone are the festival’s touchstones, and of course Bad Brains, D.C.’s legendary hardcore band, who, along with Mos Def, headlined the event’s sixth annual installment.
The festival’s 19 bands — some well known, some less so — represented nearly every color in the afro-punk spectrum. There was thrash (Activator, Cipher), rap-rock (The Game Rebellion), and indie hip-hop (P.O.S.), not to mention pop (J Davey), alternative rock (The 54), and heavy-metal funk, or what 24-7 Spyz called “hump.” And despite the relentless summer heat, the technical difficulties that plagued nearly every other performance, and the competition from the BMXers and skateboarders pulling tricks in the festival’s skate park, Afro-Punk 2010 succeeded in showing just how uniquely satisfying that sound can be. Here are our favorite moments.
BEST EDDIE MURPHY IMPRESSION: MOS DEF
As Sunday’s headliner, Mos Def provided the festival’s final chapter, which happened to be its best. The Brooklyn native simply had more charisma, more charm, and more energy than any other performer all weekend. The MC showed up looking dapper in slacks, suspenders, and a skullcap to greet the biggest crowd of the festival. Though with the day’s brutal humidity still in the air, Mos Def quickly doffed the cap to focus on the work at hand: ripping through tracks from his latest record, 2009’s return to form, The Ecstatic, and a smattering of older hits from his 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides. With the cable from his cherry red vintage microphone wrapped around his fist like a boxing glove, Mos Def and his tag-team DJs made “Life in Marvelous Times” and “Auditorium” into high hip-hop drama, full of rousing choruses and spontaneous sing-alongs.
Mos saved the real drama for last. After a soulful “Umi Said” from Both Sides, which looked to be the set’s last song, Mos Def suddenly dropped his mic and started acting out the hilarious scene from the ’80s film Coming to America in which Eddie Murphy, playing Jheri-curled frontman Randy Watson, butchers the Whitney Houston classic “Greatest Love of All” with his band, Sexual Chocolate. It was a trick only an MC-turned-actor could pull off, a great comic foil that helped make all those hot, sweaty hours in the Brooklyn sun worthwhile.
BEST FOREFATHERS: BAD BRAINS
A crowd littered with punks, metalheads, hip-hoppers, skaters, and BMXers swelled to capacity for punk veterans Bad Brains. And even in their old age — each member is over 50 — the quartet did not disappoint. The opening one-two punch of “Attitude” and “Right Brigade” — pulled, like most of Bad Brains’ set, from their seminal self-titled debut — had the mosh pit kids in a frenzy and parents hoisting toddlers on their shoulders. Even when the quartet delved into their less-appreciated reggae material, they never strayed long enough to lose the crowd’s attention. By the end of the night, the Brains had Anaiah Lei, the 12-year-old drummer from awesome newcomers the Bots (see review below) crowd-surfing to his heart’s content (unbeknownst, of course, to his mother) — as sure a sign as any that the band’s influence will remain long after they’ve quit the festival circuit.
MOST AFRO-PUNK: P.O.S.
The Minneapolis MC represented the most organic marriage of the festival’s aesthetic allegiances: hip-hop, punk, and indie rock. P.O.S. performed with a live band, made up of guys from his hardcore side-project, Building Better Bombs — each of whom could pass for one of the dudes from Passion Pit. With two live percussionists, clever synths, and vocal effects, “Purexed” and “Terrorish” (both from 2009’s solid Never Better) had the momentum and experimental energy of the best indie rock. But with P.O.S.’s expert flow, they also had hip-hop’s discipline and wit — yet it never felt like one genre mashed on top of another. The only problems: P.O.S.’s set was too short (blame the disjointed festival schedule) and the audience was too timid (blame the heat). “The most polite experience I’ve had in Brooklyn yet,” the rapper quipped.
BEST NEWCOMERS: THE BOTS
Coming on after P.O.S. and before Bad Brains is not an easy slot to fill. Still, the Bots, a duo of brothers from L.A., held their own — and they’re not even old enough to buy a pack of smokes. Drummer Anaiah, 12, and singer/guitarist Mikaiah, 16, played an out-sized blend of scuzz punk and garage rock to a thrilled, slightly stunned crowd Saturday night — the largest of the day so far. Whether insisting his audience “go crazy on this one” while rolling around on the ground with his sky-blue Danelectro guitar, or jumping out into the audience to sing a verse, Mikaiah played confidently, like he’d been doing this professionally since preschool. And his little brother was no slouch behind the kit either, his massive red knit cap nearly popping off his head with each pound on the snare. It was the Bots’ first time in New York — but they’ll definitely be back before Mikaiah graduates high school.
BEST MOTTO: NINJASONIK
“We hang in bars, bars / We don’t do clubs, clubs / drink PBRs / and do drugs, drugs.” That’s the hook from Ninjasonik’s underground summer hit “Bars,” and it might as well be the motto for a new breed of hipster hip-hop, where MCs brag about their tattoos and tight jeans instead of their gold chains and sneakers. Unfortunately, the trio’s Saturday set was marred by technical difficulties that kept cutting off their backing tracks mid-song — a total bummer considering their last outdoor NYC performance was the ill-fated Drake show at South Street Seaport. Still, MCs Bathroom Sex and the very-mellow Reverend McFly managed to redeem their set by spending most of it down in the crowd doing what they call their “PR shit”: handing out T-shirts, moshing, wrapping their arms around total strangers, and generally having a good time. And of course, covering “Waiting Room” by D.C. hardcore icons Fugazi — even if all they did was sing over the track, karaoke-style — was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser at Afro-Punk.
BEST WAY TO RILE UP A CROWD: K-OS
“All the ugly people be quiet!” That’s how k-os addressed live hip-hop’s timeless quandary: How to get a crowd of complete strangers to make some noise. And though the Toronto MC said it only once during his half-hour Sunday set, his genius technique worked. A couple hundred sweaty fans screamed back. And they had every reason to shout too. “I come from Canada so I’m not afraid of rock’n’roll music,” k-os assured the crowd. Clearly not. Working with a guitarist, a percussionist, and an expert DJ, k-os (whom you may know as the guest rapper on Broken Social Scene’s “Windsurfing Nation”) threw in some subtle, and some not so subtle nods to a host of big rock names, including Rush, Radiohead (“Reckoner”) and U2 (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”). Of course, he also found time for his own stuff, tracks like the deep-house groove “Zambony” and “The Aviator,” both from this year’s Yes!
BEST STRAIGHT-UP HIP-HOP: THE COOL KIDS
The Cool Kids — two excellent, unpretentious MCs from Chicago — were the most straightforwardly hip-hop act at Afro-Punk — they rapped and they rapped well, period. Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks (the former appropriately sporting Patrick Ewing’s vintage New York Knicks jersey) traded effortless verses about gold and pagers, boutique sneaks and Alpine sound systems, and brand-new bicycles (an appropriate ode to the massive tricks pulled by the festival’s BMX stunt team just before the duo’s Sunday evening set). And of course, Chuck and Mikey made damn sure you knew they were the coolest kids in school: “Nigga, you still playin Sega? / I’m cooler than that guy … Does that belt say Star Wars? / I’m cooler than that guy.”
BEST USE OF PROPS: THE GAME REBELLION
The Game Rebellion may be little known outside New York, but the quintet surely made a name for itself on Saturday. While every other festival act rocked the main stage opposite the skate park, the Brooklyn act set up shop directly in front of a giant orange truck sponsored by the anti-smoking organization the Truth, and turned their set — a brutal mix of metal, hip-hop, and house music — into an impromptu bloc party. After commanding his fans to “Mosh! Move! Push!” and grinding with the ladies out in the audience on the strip club fantasy track “Dance Girl,” frontman Netic climbed on top of the truck wearing little more than a pair of oversized hot pink and black socks. Unfortunately, the Truth cut the power to Netic’s mic (as a “matter of safety,” they said — apparently having an MC fall off the back of their truck isn’t covered by their insurance), and his band had to finish out the last song without his feverish rhymes.