Durham, NC –
Urban music festivals have a tendency to descend upon their host cities and act
like a really bad flu bug. Every ounce of unused space is grabbed up by
corporate sponsors, and the flashy events, while cool for the foreign agents
that come in for the show, are a bane on the existence of the locals. Ask the
people of Austin, Texas what they think when SXSW starts. However, Durham,
North Carolina seems to have found the vaccination to the urban music festival
bug with Art of Cool Fest.
The event was hosted by the Art of
Cool Project, a local non-profit that aims to “present, promote, and preserve
jazz-influenced music,” and was held this past weekend from May 6-8. Some would scoff at a jazz-centric music festival as an
event reserved for people of a certain age, or just plain boring. AOC was quite
the opposite, with an assorted lineup ranging from big brass jazz to hip hop.
Not only was the artist lineup
artistically diverse, it was appealing to people of all ages, and had
formidable star power. Traditionalists could go see the Jim Ferris Trio, Hip-Hop Heads could go see Pete Rock at The
Art of Turntables showcase, the younger crowd was treated to the likes of Anderson
.Paak and The Internet, and everyone was graced with an
electric performance by Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy winning “secret weapon,” Thundercat.
AOC did a perfect job at
creating a lineup that brought people of different tastes together. It wasn’t
scary to try something new, which is a big problem at other urban festivals.
Sometimes as a badge or wristband holder, you’re faced with checking out an
obscure artist or missing out on one of your favorites. It’s profoundly
irresponsible to force these kinds of decisions on music nerds, but AOC made everything accessible. Lines weren’t that long at venues, and the impact
on Durham as a city was relatively non-invasive.
Another refreshing change of pace
about AOC was the absence of big industry presence. No “Universal Music
Presents…” or a “McDonald’s House of Jazz and Rap” type venue could be found in
Durham. When festivals do stuff like that it can be fun, but it takes away from
the event’s personality. AOC was all about chillin’ and enjoying really good
music, so multimillion dollar stages reserved for only the most famous of
artists would certainly have been out of place.
parties were a major factor in keeping AOC’s vibe going throughout the weekend,
and put a deserved spotlight on local hip hop artists. One of the Friday day
parties was hosted by 97.5’s (and WKNC’s!) Mir.I.Am, and showcased local heat makers Will
Wildfire, Lil Bob Doe, and Defacto Thezpian. The most exciting day party of all
was JRowdy & The Night Shift’s Cypher University showcase on Saturday
afternoon. This party wasn’t just cool because JRowdy is an amazing lyricist,
but because the essence of the Cypher University movement is based on organic
collaboration and involvement. Anyone in attendance was welcome to join in on
the music and they did. There were contributions
from some of the most talented local MCs like Tuscon and Konvo the Mutant,
singing from Will Wildfire, and even an unplanned contribution from Masego
wailing on his sax. To say it was epic, would be a gross understatement.
Art of Cool Fest was just cool in
general, and if you were in attendance you were pretty damn cool yourself. It
says a lot about the vibe of a festival when you can nonchalantly rub shoulders
with a Grammy Award winning producer like 9th Wonder, and just
exchange a casual, “wussup fam?” After this year’s immense success, it will be
interesting to see what comes of AOC Fest in the years to come. Will it remain
an unflappable collection of artists, enthusiasts, and media professionals? Or
will it succumb to big corporate temptations? Hopefully it will remain the
– DJ Iron Mic