These days, the ever-changing landscape of the Triangle's music festival scene is like a game of whack-a-mole—when one festival sinks, or when one of its directors steps down, newer and uncertain forces crop up instantly. But when this weekend's Beats & Bars hip-hop festival surfaces in Durham for the first time, don't approach it with too much surprise.
Over the last four years, Crystal Taylor, the festival's codirector and the founder of the hip-hop advocacy organization Underground Collective, has had her share of practice. She's promoted a trifecta of Durham hip-hop showcases that includes Yo! NC Raps, UGC beat battles, and free-form open mic nights. Now, Taylor and her business partner, Donald Salmon Jr., have assembled an uncompromising two-day lineup of underdog Carolina rhymers, beat junkies, and culture crusaders. But unlike last year's DURM Hip Hop Summit, which was sullied into inactivity by its fruitless collaboration with the local urban mainstream radio station K97.5-FM, Beats & Bars' only brand fidelity is to itself.
As Taylor and Salmon sit in matching rocking chairs underneath the American Tobacco Campus Lucky Strike tower, they're restless but hopeful as they discuss their latest effort and what it might hold for Durham.
INDY: The Underground Collective has built up a reliable and respected Durham hip-hop movement over the past four years, but when did the two of you begin to entertain the idea of a full-blown hip-hop festival?
CRYSTAL TAYLOR: In February. It was as simple as me calling him one morning and asking him to meet me at Cocoa Cinnamon so that we could rap about something. It was a bunch of, "What if this and what if that?" I started doing the beat battles four years ago, then, two years later, I segued into the Yo! NC Raps showcase. I realized that I had two different audiences: people who wanted to hear a beat battle and people who wanted to see performances. I just looked up one day and realized that I know a lot of people who deserve some sort of platform to feel appreciated and celebrated, like a festival would do. Nothing else was happening this year, so why not?
Were you worried about the comparisons to the DURM Hip Hop Summit?
CT: No, because Beats & Bars isn't just shows. It's a conference that makes sure that people are educated. I wanted there to be a distinct difference.
DONALD SALMON JR.: Also, nothing has to be done in spite of someone else's work.
Were you ever interested in chasing an influential banner sponsor like American Underground, or a big urban media sponsor like K97.5?
CT: It's my first year. From a festival perspective, I'm a baby. We went after everything we needed. But I graciously let go of some of those bigger things. There were more than enough solicitations. I want it to be where I do enough work—with my marrow—to say that we did this and it was a good thing. Right now, what's best for the festival is to cultivate relationships that are actually good for underground hip-hop music. That means [Beats & Bars sponsor] WXDU 88.7-FM and college radio. When you think about WXDU, you think about all of the beautiful things that have happened in that station.
Was there an attempt to book a festival headliner with broader name recognition, from outside of North Carolina?
CT: It's expected. I don't ever think I want to jump to the point where I'm booking the most convenient person. I'm looking further down the street from that. J.K. The Reaper and Well$ look nice in their seats.
DS: We're making a bet. We're betting on someone like Joshua Gunn. The question "Why aren't there any huge hip-hop artists coming out of Durham?" kind of supposes that there is no one huge in Durham. But we're telling you that there is.
CT: I'm making a bet by listening to their music. Beats & Bars needs to be the place where you can say that you saw these people.
Other Triangle music festivals seem a bit apprehensive to make hip-hop their focal point. Do you think there's a stigma attached to having a majority hip-hop festival in the Triangle?
CT: You have to think about the shift that occurred in hip-hop. The music changed from what we know and appreciate as hip-hop. Sometimes people in the music community label any and everything as hip and just go along with it. We're able to pick out authentic hip-hop. So, in some cases there's a shadow casted over what hip-hop might sound like. When I invite people out to shows, a lot of times the first question they ask is, "Does it sound like that stuff on the radio?" They don't want that. So then, you have to reassure people, "Nah, it's heavy lyrics and good beats. It's what you know hip-hop to be, not what someone programmed you to believe what it is." They want to know what they're getting themselves into.
How does a hip-hop festival mesh with the new cultural fabric of Durham?
CT: Durham will always be Black Wall Street to me. It will always be a hub of art and culture for African-American people. Also, I really stand by this idea that the sound of hip-hop has changed so much that people don't really understand what hip-hop is supposed to sound like. I can't really attribute anything to gentrification, because we have a diverse lineup as well. For some, the programming of a hip-hop festival in Durham makes them think about what hip-hop really is. But no matter what, hip-hop will always live here just based on what this city was built on. I love to say that Durham is black, but it's hard, especially for a person like me who has a residency [at The Pinhook] on Main Street. If you look around, Main Street struggles to look black anymore.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Underground Rumbles"