The biggest moment of the first Hopscotch Music Festival in 2010 came from one of hip-hop's most enduring legends.
With storms threatening Raleigh's City Plaza, the powerfully thumping, infamously insightful Public Enemy took the stage—after the city's own Helping Hand Mission Marching Band had blasted through the crowd for an invigorating intro. Rapper Chuck D delivered gritty philosophies as famed hype man Flavor Flav partied with cartoonish energy. It was both fun and formidable, and it enthralled about 5,000 spectators who endured a deluge.
Hopscotch hasn't been shy about throwing rap on its biggest stages. Last year, The Roots, the world's most recognizable live hip-hop crew, played the main stage in City Plaza, again fighting past rain to entertain throngs of eager fans. This year, Big Boi—once half of Outkast, now a bright and bruising MC on his own—was booked for the same stage. He had to reschedule for a Sept. 21 date in Raleigh, but the point seems clear that Hopscotch strives to keep a hip-hop act at the head of its lineup.
But this festival is more than one big stage. Starting Thursday, nearly 175 bands will pack venues across downtown Raleigh, and though there will be a handful of hip-hop acts among them, those club shows are filled mostly with folk singers and rock bands, metal outfits and famed experimentalists. The genre's inclusion continues to be a bit tentative, which begs the question: Should Hopscotch book more hip-hop?
Durham MC Shirlette Ammons thinks the festival would benefit from "more black music" and having "more black women represented. We're doing some really interesting shit right now in hip-hop—I think that women are," Ammons said. "Queer hip-hop has become its own genre to a certain degree, and I'd like to see more of that. I'd like to see a wider representation of people of color in general, because we make beautiful music."
As an outspoken lesbian, Ammons has long struggled against hip-hop's hetero-normative status quo. She leverages that perspective on Twilight for Gladys Bentley, a colorful, electro-lush outing that challenges sexual norms at every turn. Hopscotch's hip-hop selections haven't ventured in this direction often. Ammons is the only female rapper in this year's lineup, and she's also the only one who's so overtly socially minded.
That's not to say Hopscotch isn't aware of these voices. In 2012, both The Roots and Atlanta's blunt and bracing Killer Mike delivered sets that dealt deftly with issues of racism and economic inequality. But for the most part, the festival's selections don't so much break with conventions as they find new ways to exist within them.
Yet while one can quibble with the number of hip-hop acts at Hopscotch and the facets they represent, it's hard not to marvel at the quality of this year's inclusions. Cesar Comanche—who helped establish the Justus League, a North Carolina rap alliance that has nurtured more than a few exciting local talents—will unleash his tenacious, tactile flow. South Carolina's Alpoko Don delivers simple but evocative beats born from drumming on front porch rails; they gird verses that unite modern rap with the immediacy of the blues. Earl Sweatshirt, the most sincere ambassador of West Coast hip-hop collective Odd Future, and Action Bronson, a Queens MC whose suave delivery rivals that of Ghostface Killah, have never been hotter—evidence that Hopscotch has a feel for hip-hop trends.
"The quality of it has been really dope," assesses Toon, a Durham rapper otherwise known as Kurrell Rice. He and his similarly energetic cohort The Real Laww played Hopscotch last year. This weekend, they will play at a festival-sponsored day party. "I haven't seen any sucky rappers or anything like that. I wouldn't say that rap's getting the short end of the stick. It's about the organizers. It's about what they want to see, and maybe they're not like uber hip-hop fans. It's all about choice."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beats per block."
Jordan Lawrence lives in Carrboro, where he pens and edits stories about music. He has written about music for INDY Week since 2010.